The 2009 Combine unfolding in Indianapolis this week is reality TV, a football job-interviewing spectacle, a player-friendly event that has come a long way from crude origins.
"My first combine was in 1995," said Giants general manager Jerry Reese, who has scouted in the last 15 combines. "Back then, you had to grab players for their interview wherever and whenever you could, coming off the elevators, in the lobby. You used to see guys from teams get into near fist-fights arguing over who got the player first."
Vince Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens' director of pro personnel, has scouted in the last 17 combines. Newsome as a player left the University of Washington in 1983 for combine testing.
"Then you had three combine sites -- Tampa, Seattle and Detroit," said Newsome, who played 10 NFL seasons as a defensive back, eight of them with the Los Angeles Rams. "Players were typically sent on a regional basis, but you might get invited to all three. I attended two, in Seattle and Tampa. Then, the 40-yard dash was done with you in a three-point stance on a touch pad. Once you took your hand off the pad, the clock would start. It became a big deal with guys trying to devise ways to beat the pad. We've come a long way in revolutionizing the combine now, specializing it and creating specific schedules. With the spacing in the drills, the players feel more fresh. They don't consider it a pure cattle call like it used to be. The drills are more football specific."
The teams are more prepared.
The players are, too.
Most of them have trained for several weeks at warm-weather sites, not only for combine drills but also for their interviews with NFL teams.
"I know people who do not miss a minute or a day of watching the combine now on TV, and this has brought great exposure to a league that already has great exposure," Jets running backs coach Anthony Lynn said. Lynn has scouted at every combine since 2000.
"You can be somebody no one knows and by the time this is over the whole nation knows who you are," Lynn said. "You can become even more valuable before you play a down in the NFL. You can make more money for yourself before you play that first down. And more college players realize that. More are participating because of that. They study tape of the combine drills. Sometimes, from the interview perspective, the players are too coached. They are coached so heavily on what to say and how to say it in their interviews. Some NFL people can see right through that. Sometimes the player is better served being more real, being themselves."
The Giants will arrive with 20 coaches, 10 scouts, four personnel executives, co-owner John Mara and Reese. Most teams arrive with 30-plus representatives. The best ones use their foot soldiers -- their scouts who have dissected these players for the past year -- to serve as the franchise's baseline and blueprint.
Lynn said he looks for separation at the combine -- for the players who on several fronts distance themselves from others. He wants to see in person if the athlete -- in agility, speed and work ethic -- matches what he has seen on tape. Lynn added: "When a coach explains something on the field, can you get it? That tells you something about the player and how he might handle things in camp and during the season. How do you handle yourself around other people? How do you compete with your peers?"
Reese said that keeping an open mind is part of the Giants' plan. If a player chooses to run the 40, great, he said. If not, flags go up -- does he have something to hide? Fast guys run fast, he said. And the track at Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the combine, is a fast one, he added.
"You can run fast and not play fast," Reese said. "You can play fast and not run fast. You try not to over-analyze. Guys go to the Senior Bowl, are relatively coming in cold, have two practices, play a game and get killed. The combine is a chance to clean that up, but it is not the only or the final word. All of the information you gather is intertwined. Every team gains its own perspective of what a player is. And in building your team, you have different circumstances every year. We are not pigeon-holed. We do not have an unchangeable template. If you do that, you get left behind. You have to do your best at this combine and what is best is something that changes every year."
Nearly every NFL personnel eye is there. Nearly every ear.
Newsome finds the interview sessions essential.
"You want to see how the player competes, see how he focuses," Newsome said. "And one of the most important things is to understand how important this opportunity is to him and how seriously does he take it. You can see that in the interview process. You are about to make a guy a very wealthy man and he has to be someone you can put your arms around and say 'we are going to be together for at least the next four years and hopefully more.' You want to be able to fully embrace that. A lot of players don't understand that. This is not the only step to getting there, but it is one piece of the puzzle. One big piece of the process."
Doug Whaley has been a Steelers scout since 1996, has attended every combine since and now serves as Pittsburgh's pro scouting coordinator. He ranks the importance of combine results this way: 1. Medical; 2. Interviews; 3. Numbers.
"You know what you've heard about the players, now you get to see some of it," Whaley said. "You have to do your homework before the combine and after it, because guys may slide and you want to be ready if they do. We have a collaborative effort at our place. It's not me, not the coaches, not the personnel department, it is the Pittsburgh Steelers combine that helps lead to the Pittsburgh Steelers draft. It is all of us trying to get it right."
NFL personnel experts say this batch of combine players is solid. Very strong at wide receiver and running back. Weak at quarterback and defensive tackle. Enough tight ends, a handful of offensive tackles, defensive ends down a bit, a top cornerback or two and no safeties of stellar quality.
At this combine look for:
» Will Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree change his mind and run? There are already suspicions he is not a blazer.
» Just how strong is 6-foot-7 Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson, intriguing by all other measures?
» Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins appears to be, clearly, the top cornerback. Will he show it?
» And Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew is an amazing prospect, a "monster." He may be the lone player in this combine who regardless of his workouts is considered a "player" because of his eye-popping showing on tape during games last season.
"The combine is a phenomenon just like the draft is," Reese said. "This is not science. You never get them all right. You try to get more right than you get wrong. That's the beauty of it."