It was Tuesday, February 16th, 2010, a day I'll never forget. It was the day I got the call that every elite college football player in the world hopes to get. It's the call that informs you that you have been invited to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine. The Combine represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase your talents for the entirety of the NFL front office, coaching and scouting community.
I knew, if invited, I would have no problem standing out from all the rest of the world class athletes invited to participate. You might ask, how could I be so confident? Well, I'm not an elite college football prospect. I'm an avid NFL and league operations fan who is closer to 40 years old than I am to the last time I ran the 40-yard dash. For the first time someone other than a prospect or a NFL insider was going to the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine, and this was my experience.
It's About Matriculation
Not much more than a week after my initial phone call, I've arrived in Indianapolis and am seated across the table from Jeff Fisher, head coach of the Tennessee Titans. Over the course of dinner Coach Fisher provides insight on how he and his staff use the Combine to make the best possible draft decisions they can for their franchise and fans. We also spoke about how their decision making process may be affected by the unique circumstances created by the current state of the collective bargaining agreement and the potential next season for an uncapped year.
You probably know Fisher is the longest-tenured active coach and the only coach the Titans franchise has had since relocating from Houston. In addition to his coaching responsibilities, Jeff Fisher also serves as co-chair of the NFL's competition committee, along with Rich McKay (current Atlanta Falcons President & former GM of Tampa Bay during their Super Bowl season). We also discussed some of the items on the docket for the up coming competition committee meeting later this month, including the potential changes to the overtime format in postseason games. For those wondering why this type of change would even be considered, the rational is much greater than simply last year's NFC title game in which Minnesota never possessed the ball in overtime. It's a greater reflection of the ever increasing talent of field goal kickers in the NFL and a desire to have games of this magnitude be determined in as decisive a fashion as possible. With today's elite kickers a team may only have to matriculate the ball 20 or 25 yards from an average kick return to win the game. Arguments can, and will, be made on both sides of this issue and it will be very interesting to see how it plays out.
The backdrop and context that Coach Fisher was able to provide could not have better prepared me for the adventure that would begin the next day when we went on site to Lucas Oil Stadium to see the Scouting Combine in action. There's a lot going on, so much like a kick return, you better keep your head on a swivel.
The "Path to the Draft" Begins… in an Old Train Station
The next morning I find myself outside of the downtown Indianapolis Crown Plaza. It's there that I meet Jeff Foster, President of National Football Scouting. Jeff's organization coordinates the NFL Combine operations and logistics and he was going to provide me a behind the scenes look at what happens here in Indianapolis. As we enter the Crown Plaza one of the first things you become aware of is the fact that the hotel is built around and is part of a functional train station, the nation's original "Union Station". This is where the invited prospects arrive and check in with NFL staff. On the left is the Grand Hall, this is where players take the famed Wonderlic test, meet with individual teams and are able to record segments for use on the NFL Network or nfl.com. It's within this Romanesque arrivals hall that every NFL prospect departs on their own personal journey. While each one of these journeys is unique, they all hope to reach the same destination, playing in the NFL.
From the Grand Hall we move upstairs where Under Armour has created a players' lounge and where prospects can relax, grab a snack and select the gear they will need for the days ahead. An impressive operation, Under Armour maintains an on site print shop to screen print and personalize all the players' jerseys, sweats and even shoes.
Leaving the UA players' lounge we begin to make our way towards the stadium. As we traverse the Crown Plaza we walk past the players' sleeping quarters and team meeting rooms. If players needed a reminder that they are indeed on a journey they need look no further than the authentic Pullman train cars that comprise some of their actual sleeping rooms at this unique hotel.
Once at Lucas Oil Stadium, the first meaningful thing players have to do is clear medical examinations. Throughout the field level corridors of the stadium a bevy of rooms contain every type of medical equipment imaginable, including body composition measurement pods and four tractor trailer size mobile MRI units brought in especially for the Combine. These tests are necessary to ensure that every player is healthy enough to not only fully participate in all of the activities but also ensures they have every opportunity to deliver their best performance.
As we round the corner to witness the draft prospects in action for the first time, it quickly becomes apparent why medical clearance is the first priority. Laid out in front of me are three sets of grandstands all directed at a stage containing a single weight lifting bench beneath a 225 pound bar bell. From behind the stage emerges the Arizona Cardinals strength & conditioning coach, John Lott. If you have ever watched coverage of the Combine on NFL Films or the NFL Network I guarantee you know Coach Lott. You may not know him by name but you definitely know him and his unique style of motivational tactics and catch phrases, most notably "Get Your Mind Right". That's sage advice as the bench press is a true and simple test of strength and endurance and I had the good fortune of witnessing the big offensive linemen perform. While it's clear that the athletes performing at the Combine are in competition with one another for roster spots, within the scope of the bench press room they are genuinely rooting for one another. The players' voices are the only ones heard, other than Coach Lott's distinctive gravely pitch, spurring one another on to lift that 225 up again. "Up, up, up", "lock it", "bring it to me" and other chants can be heard as the players strain until eventually the weight can no longer be lifted. Coach Lott then announces the official number of reps to the crowd and you could see that amongst the big boys it's the over 30 mark that distinguishes you from everyone else in the room.
Once the first group is done lifting we head out to watch some of the players go through their on field drills. Across the field and in various spots aligning the perimeter are various drill stations. Imagine the most through Punt, Pass & Kick contest you've ever seen and that's a good idea of the hive of activity that is taking place. You get a different perspective watching the on field drills and a greater appreciation of what the potential future impact some of these players may have in the NFL. If you're someone who enjoys finding a new independent band before they break into the big time or say you're a fantasy football player looking for a sleeper pick in your upcoming draft, you would do well to pay close attention to what goes on here. It certainly caught my eye because as I watched them I was simultaneously preparing for my own trip down onto the field to test my skills. I slip on my #4 Under Armour jersey and head out to the field doing my best to channel my energy and excitement.
Field of Dreams
The Indianapolis Colts have only been playing in Lucas Oil Stadium for two full seasons but the moment you step out on to the field, there is a palpable energy as if you are connecting to the entirety of NFL history. The simple fact that you are on the actual playing field of a venue of this size and caliber propels you to perform at your personal best. You are in a moment hyped up. On Sunday mornings when you see players preparing for a game, huddling up and barking out their battle cry they're channeling that energy and you can't help but appreciate it.
I'm then introduced to Pittsburgh Steelers college scout Mark Gorcsak and Steve Hoffman, current special teams coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Between the two of them they have 4 Super Bowl championship rings so I'm in real good hands. If you watched the Combine on the NFL Network you would recognize Coach Gorcsak. He works the start of the 40 yard dash and has thousands, if not tens of thousands, of prospects. Unbeknownst to most prospects if Coach Gorcsak blows the whistle as you start your run, he is doing you a favor. It's because he sees something in your mechanics that will negatively impact their time and through extension your potential draft position.
Within moments cones have set up and I'm going through line backer and corner back drills. Coach Gorcsak leads me through three changes in direction as I back pedal and then, as Coach Hoffman throws a ball, I break back towards the ball, intercept it and take it to the house. Executing the first drill I'm surprised, as I break back towards the ball, at how little give there is in the ball and how quickly it's on top of you. The first ball hits my hands hard and I tip it up in the air. I am entirely focused on that ball and it's as if time has slowed down. There is no way I'm going to drop this ball. After tipping it two more times I dive to the turf, remain in bounds and finally secure the ball. By the second time though the drill I'm able to execute it more gracefully but I may not be as quick to shout at the television when a defensive back on my favorite team drops what looks like a sure interception. Ok, well maybe not.
Both these drills are designed to see how well you function in pass coverage. They look for how quick you can drop back, rotate your hips and move in space. For linebackers this reveals the difference between a two down player and a three down player. Next up was the infamous 40 yard draft.
The 40 is one of the premier drills at the Combine, aided not only by the blazing speed of today's top prospects but also by the recent tradition of having Rich Eisen run it each year as part of the NFL Network's coverage of the event. His time was also the best basis of comparison for me since I'm closer to Rich's age than that of the college propects. Together, along with my friend, we comprise the hereto unspoken secret "Group 12" of prospects. You won't find it listed anywhere because who wants to be known as part of the 40 year old 40 group.
It has been a long time since I had run a measured 40 much less started one from a 3 point stance. My biggest concern is getting out of my stance and up to speed as quickly as possible and I know I only have one chance at it. At "go" I'm up and off and sprinting down the line as quickly as possible. The next thing I know Coach Hoffman is calling out 5.7. Not as good as I had hoped but enough to make me the #1 overall pick of the Group 12 crew with everyone else coming in at about 6.1 (reference link). While I'm sure Rich Eisen's Prada blazer creates a little extra drag I'd be happy to help train him to break the six second barrier in 2011. If it's not too late for Favre, maybe it's not too late for us.
From there, it was time to check my lateral quickness and acceleration. The drill for that is called the "Short Shuttle". It consists of 3 cones laid out 5 yards apart. You start at the center cone, run five yards to one side, touch the line, run the full ten yards back, touch the line and run back 5 yards to the center position. If you ever played basketball there is a lot of similarity between the short shuttle drill and a suicide drill in basketball. I cross the line and hear Coach Hoffman call out 5.1 seconds. That's not bad, but it's no first round draft pick. Another similar drill in the same area is called the 3 cone drill. This drill is designed to demonstrate how well you can change direction without a loss of speed or acceleration. Similar to the short shuttle drill you begin by running (forward in this case) 5 yards, touch the line and return 5 yards back to where you started. At that point you run back to the 5 yard line but instead of touching the line you break to the right to the third cone, where you make a weave turn and run back around the 5 yard cone to the start line. It sounds like a lot to manage but in my case it's over in about 7.5 seconds.
After the speed and cone drills, we move back between the hash marks to run some tight end and wide receiver pass routes. There is an undeniable pleasure in running routes and catching passes on a NFL field and these drills do not disappoint. Over the next few minutes I run inside routes, slant routes, out and ups and button hooks. Most surprising again is in running a buttonhook route how quickly the ball is on top of you as you break back towards the quarterback. It's the first pass I've dropped all day and I am somewhat comforted by hearing Coach Hoffman state that, "these are hard ones to catch". Thankfully, it would also be the only pass I would drop.
Finally we turn our attention towards special teams play. We start by kicking field goals, which with a soccer style approach is much harder than I imagine. I emerge from this drill with a new appreciation of the difficulty of the kick game and how painful the words "wide left" can be. We also go "old school" and do a few drop kicks as well. This takes good timing and a certain amount of what I'm sure is luck to convert. I'm proud to report that I get one to clear the uprights. Somewhere I'm sure Doug Flutie is proud of me. We conclude the on-field drills by launching a few punts towards the retractable dome. Let's just say that had we been in Dallas the high definition screen would have emerged from my drill unblemished.
Later that night as I'm getting ready for dinner, I wash the small turf burn on my leg that I suffered during the first drill. I've had similar scraps from other fields so this was nothing new. However, I caught myself thinking that while turf burns are something of a nuisance injury that this one came from the turf of Lucas Oil Stadium. All of a sudden I found myself for the first time in my life hoping that a turf burn doesn't recover as quickly as usual.
The Joy Is In The Journey
My Combine day concludes with a visit to one of the premier steak houses in Indianapolis. You definitely need a solid protein fix after a workout like the one I had today. At dinner I'm briefly introduced to Ray Anderson, Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the NFL. Ray knows a lot about football. You may wonder how that could be so apparent from such a short meeting. Well, Ray predicted all the places I would be sore the next day and he was right.
The following morning I depart Indianapolis and return home to reality. I wish my fellow members of the potential draft class of 2010 the best of luck on their continuing journeys towards the NFL. For me the journey may end in Indianapolis but numerous dreams have already been fulfilled. That is, unless some team is looking for the standout from the secret "Group 12". If so, you know how to reach me.