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Combine provides plenty of action, on and off the field

Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Julio Jones wowed scouts with a 4.39 40-yard dash at last year's combine (on a fractured foot, to boot).

This week the NFL will converge once again on Indianapolis, but instead of hosting a huge game, the city resumes its normal role as home of the NFL Scouting Combine. I love the combine -- have loved every one since the first one I attended back in 1985 on the practice fields of Arizona State. Forget the track and field event that is held on the field, I go instead to observe. As Yogi Berra once said, "You can see a lot by just observing," and the combine is a place for many observations.

Naturally, the observations on the field will be the main focus of the week. The combine often gets a bad rap because some player might perform great in workouts, but not actually play football as well -- yet a team will still draft him in the early rounds, causing many to blame the combine. Yet in reality, observations made at the combine -- good or bad -- are just one piece of the puzzle. The scouting process involves a series of evaluations, and if one area is overvalued it can throw the entire operation out of whack. The combine never makes picks or grades the players -- the teams do. Therefore, if the teams do not adjust the value of the combine, they frequently will make mistakes.

Mistakes can be attributed to many different factors, including a player's lack of participation. Some players opt out of combine drills, choosing instead to work out during a pro day on their own campus in the most comfortable setting for them to do well. This brings us to one of my biggest pet peeves: For years I've wished the NFL would require every player who does not take part in the workout portion of the combine to come back and resubmit to another drug test. Some of the biggest mistakes made in the draft can be traced back to a player being on a performance-enhancement program without a team being aware.

The basic chain of events begins when a player comes to Indy and does not work out, but he is required to take a complete drug test. After his drug test, he can begin a highly intense performance-enhancement program for 4-6 weeks that will allow him to perform at a high level. Sure, he passed the mandatory test at the combine, but 4-6 weeks later at his pro day, there is no way of knowing if the player is clean. Not only would a second test help eliminate the potential for this to occur with non-workout players, but it might stop some of the non-workouts at Indy in the first place. So, this spring when reading that a player had an awesome on-campus workout, be sure his tape backs up his athletic testing skills.

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When I worked for Bill Walsh, we were fooled by a player in the draft process. Consequently, Walsh made me perform a complete study to find the critical symptoms for determining a player on a performance-enhancing program. What made Walsh so great was that he was never going to make the same mistake twice -- like all good leaders, he wanted to learn from his miscues.

At my first combine in 1985, players hadn't really prepared for the entire process, so it was a more natural evaluation setting. Nowadays, players prepare for every detail of the event -- from their standard answers to questions to the way they start the 40-yard dash. Observing players in this controlled setting might generate bad information, instead of good. Therefore, teams must counterbalance the preparation element from the subject, digging deeper to find the real player. The best way to learn about a player is to observe him when he does not think he is being observed. The setting at the combine forces everyone to be on their best behavior, but once the player heads back to his own dwelling, the real person will come to the forefront, for better or worse. The best evaluation work should have been done on the player's college campus last spring or in the fall, by a scout who does not announce his arrival, or wear team colors. The team that comes to the combine with the ability to know every true answer to every question asked will be the team that is most prepared, and most likely to be successful -- in spite of the player's preparation.

Any time I interviewed a player, I opened with this simple statement: "From this point forward, every question I ask you, I already know the answer. Therefore, this is not a question-and-answer session, but a test to see if you will tell me the complete truth." You'd be surprised how quickly the player changed from his standard answers to the real answers.

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However, the week of the combine is much more than just players working out, taking physicals and meeting with teams. It is an NFL business convention, which makes the observations even better. Players, agents and team representatives are all in one place for an extended period of time, allowing much of the business side of the game to get done. The offseason basically starts Wednesday, when all 32 teams are in one place. Planning that began the last month of the year will now begin to take shape.

Therefore, every meeting (or informal gathering) that I observe -- whether it be a team with an agent, or a team meeting with another team -- might offer clues to a team's plans this offseason. Some people suspect tampering runs rampant at the combine between teams and agents in regard to the upcoming free-agency period -- and to a degree, there is some -- but if a team shows its hand too quickly, it runs the risk of being exposed and might be left empty-handed. Being coy is the best policy when in Indy. Teams should be interested, not desperate.

It will be a fun week of discussion, ranging from players' 40 times to the ongoing Peyton Manning saga to which quarterback-deprived teams are really going to make a move for St. Louis' second overall pick and the rights to Robert Griffin III. At every hotel bar and restaurant, there will be meetings to observe, and as Yogi said, we can see a lot.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi

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