Every February the NFL holds it’s annual dog and pony show otherwise known as the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
More than 300 NFL hopefuls will be poked, prodded and tested perhaps more than any other job applicant.
One result can make all the difference.
But should it?
A slower-than-expected time in the 40-yard dash can see a prospect tumble in the draft (happened to Tom Brady, that turned out pretty well to say the least for the New England Patriots). An impressive all-around performance can help a player (Mike Mamula) rocket up the board, by the way ask any die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan about Mamula and be prepared to absorb a prophanity-laced tirade!
How much emphasis do NFL organizations put on a player’s combine results? It varies, depending on a team’s draft philosophy and needs.
“We use it is as a deal-breaker,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “If you have a running back that runs a 4.9 in the 40 and our research says no fullback in history that ran a 4.9 has ever started, now you’re playing against the odds. Maybe that’s the one guy that can do it but you are really fighting the odds. We’re not building a team of exceptions.” (1)
Veteran players consider the combine a measuring stick, not a defining end-all.
“The combine should just be used as a tool for teams to evaluate players,” Eagles All-Pro guard Evan Mathis said. “There have been plenty of players that have performed terribly at the combine yet had great NFL careers and vice versa. Football ability and potential is best seen on game film.” (1)
I looked back at the top combine performers from the years 2006-2009 to figure out how many of them were truly elite NFL players. I used 2006-2009 because I felt it would allow sufficient time for an athlete to establish himself in the league. For the most part the top performers in most categories were either complimentary players or not in the league at all. There were very few standout players, with the exception of Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions All-Pro) in 2007 and Chris Johnson in 2008 (Among the top NFL running backs for 6 seasons). (2)
It should be noted that once a player makes it in the NFL you never hear about their combine numbers. No one knows nor do they care what Peyton Manning ran the 40-yard dash in. All we need to know is that he is an elite quarterback who just gets the job done irrespective of his gross athletic qualities.
The reason behind this seemingly low success rate? The combine only measures gross athleticism in largely predictable situations. The athletes know what the test is ahead of time so they can train specifically for the test. The problem is that these predictable tests don’t reflect the true nature of sport. Sport, especially football is very chaotic and unpredictable. Very rarely do you run straight ahead or run between two designated points with known start and stop points. In the game you are usually carrying a ball while getting harassed, to put it lightly by very mean and angry dudes that want to smack you into the ground. Track runners have elite speed but they hardly ever make it in the NFL because they generally like to avoid contact. One quality that is very difficult to measure is mental toughness (dealing with adversity) and I would say a slight bend toward recklessness to be a successful football player.
Displaying your athleticism in track shorts and shoes is one thing but when you throw on some pads in front of 75,000 screaming fans it changes everything. At this stage of development you want football players first over athletes. Developing gross athleticism should be the goal during the 10-15 years of age stage but after that if you have aspirations to play at higher levels of sport you need to start to learn how to apply that gross athleticism to sport specific situations. However in this country we neglect the very early stages of athletic development (due to early specialization and lack of free play) and it throws the whole process out of whack. Gross athleticism and sport specific skills built on top of a poor fundamental foundation will never allow athletes to reach their full long-term potential.
Another nugget I gleaned from the NFL Combine is risk aversion and this is an issue I definitely see in the adolescent stages of athletic development. At the combine some prospects refuse to take part in some of the activities out of fear or on advice from an agent. The idea is that if you don’t run a test well it could negatively affect your “stock” and hurt your chances of being chosen in the NFL Draft. This risk may be warranted from a financial perspective because falling even a few slots could cost the athlete millions of dollars. But the message it sends is not a good one. “I am afraid of looking bad or failing so I’ll just pass (or punt for football fans).”
If I were evaluating players and a prospect pulled out of testing that would be a red flag for me. Athletes should look forward to and embrace challenges! Even if you fail or the result isn’t what you expected you can use that outcome to fuel better preparation. The best professionals in their field always push the boundaries and yes they make some mistakes but they don’t allow it to deter them in fact they use the bad results to improve and refine their approach so they do better the next time.
I see this mentality starting to trickle down into youth sport. A good example is in high school tennis. Generally speaking you can challenge athletes ahead of you to win their position on the team. For instance, if you are #3 singles you can challenge the #2 singles player for his spot. If #3 wins he takes the #2 position. What will often happen is #2 will come down with a mysterious illness or the court will jump up and bite his ankle leaving him unable to accept the challenge. Delay and stall is a tactic best left out of youth sports.
Part of youth athletic development is coaching kids how to accept and embrace challenges. That is the only way to fulfill your ultimate potential! The road to long-term success on the field of play and in the game of life is filled with potholes, barricades and massive U-turns. As coaches and parents we need to do a better job of teaching kids the importance of the process and developing good work habits. Kids can become so paralyzed by the fear of not getting certain results they would rather sit on the sidelines and hope for the best while avoiding the pain of failure. They need to realize that within that pain lays their true potential!