Jeff Foster has been the president of National Football Scouting since 2005, when he joined after working for teams throughout the NFL. As part of his role, he also serves as the president of a separate entity that manages the NFL Scouting Combine.
The NFL Scouting Combine evolved into its current form in 1985, when it became a combined event for all scouting services that evaluate NFL draft prospects. More than 300 prospects meet annually in Indianapolis, where they are tested for physical and mental health, athletic skills and their ability to interview with teams.
Foster talked last week with NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley about what it takes to present the combine, the most important aspects of the event and the moment each year that he breathes easier.
In general terms, what does the president of National Football Scouting do for the combine?
Essentially, by title, I am also the president and sole board of director of the National Invitational Camp, which is the combine. Ultimately I have oversight over all facets of the company and the event. We're a very small company. There's only five total full-time employees and that's for both (National Football Scouting and NFL Scouting Combine). It's one of the reasons that we continue to operate it as opposed to the league office.
The NFL has an extensive event department and they could operate any event -- they run some of the smallest meetings to the Super Bowl. The combine would fit somewhere in the middle there, but because of the unique nature of the event and because of the database we operate on for (the NFS) side, because of our relationship with the teams and our understanding of the integrity of the football event that it is ... we're able to operate the combine much more efficiently and cost-effectively.
How long does it take to bring together so many athletes to Indianapolis every February?
We start our general operations in mid-October. We start selecting players in mid-December. We function through not only the combine but through our second event, combine rechecks, which is a medical-only event that is held in April every year. It is to bring back X-number of players -- generally 50 -- to collect more medical information on them.
From an operations standpoint, things drop off pretty significantly after that. We have had scouts on the road for about a month now. They will shut it down soon to help us run the combine and then they will hit the road running (Feb. 26), the day the combine ends. Our office internally will compile all of the medical data that gets delivered to the teams. Then we'll close the books on the combine and start paying the bills.
When did you sense that the combine became a major sporting event?
To the NFL clubs, the event always has been incredibly important. From priority standpoint, medical (exams) are No. 1. Interviews are No. 2. Then, depending on which team you ask, psychological testing and the on-field workouts are probably third and fourth -- a distant third or fourth probably in terms of value to evaluating players. ... The on-the-field stuff, which is the sexy component of the combine and what gets the interest for media and the broadcast, that's a very small part of the evaluation for the clubs. I would say 90 percent of the evaluation of a person as a football player is done before he arrives here. ...
Certainly there's some validation points in terms of performance on the field, but the teams are going to draft and pay these players to play football, so the best way to evaluate that skill is to watch them play football, not necessarily the drills we conduct here at the combine. They're important. They're just not as important as the other components.
Has a lot of the teams' legwork been done before they get to the combine?
For the performance side, yes. These teams have been tracking these players for two years essentially, so they know them as well as they can know them in terms of a football player on the field. Again, there are some unique situations where players make positions changes or there's small-school players you haven't seen play against a better level competition, so you want to see how they respond in an environment like the combine. You may want to see player that you have film on that you don't have a (40-yard dash) time on. There's certainly some value on that side. There is great value in terms of the medical evaluations and the interviews. The on-the-field performances are certainly lower. From that perspective, the combine has had great importance among NFL teams since its inception.
I think the value externally -- and certainly the value to the NFL as marketing asset -- started somewhere around 2006, which is when NFL Network was launched. They became involved in the event itself by broadcasting the combine. I think we've all grown together in that respect. We've implemented some technological changes to the event, primarily on the medical side. That has helped us do more testing and work in concert with the NFL on some studies and deliver more accurate medical data more efficiently. ... When I arrived here in 2005, we didn't have signage because we weren't on television. Our signage consisted of telling the players where to go.
What we do for the décor standpoint now is obviously for the marketing asset and having sponsors. All of those pieces have helped the event evolve to what it is today, which is still great value to the teams. One of our major tasks in the current world is to protect the integrity of the football event and the medical event and to allow the NFL and their group of people to manage the exterior components -- the sponsorships, the broadcast, getting fans involved. I think there's always been great value to the teams. I think really somewhere about 2007 or 2008 is we really saw the interest from the league office through the broadcast and sponsors grow in 2009, '10, '11 to where we are today.
It appears that the combine has grown so much that one of your sponsors, Under Armour, last year started selling the same apparel that the participants wear.
That's a great example of a great partner coming in through the NFL and helping us from a football standpoint. We all know that they provide outstanding performance apparel, so providing that apparel to the players compared to what we used to provide to the players, we think has actually helped increase participation in the events. When I arrived here participation was very low. What we see in participation levels now is much greater. That is a combination of things.
There's no question. Remember the old adage that if you look good and you feel good, then you play good. I think that's something that Under Armour has brought to the table. It's one of the pieces that have helped the evolution.
How do you put together a team of doctors and trainers to treat more than 300 athletes?
For the medical team, we have an outstanding partner in Indianapolis with IU Health, which is our healthcare provider. They handle all of the testing, imaging and reporting of the standard and special battery of tests that we do on each athlete. That's what then gets delivered to us and we deliver it to NFL medical staffs. That's really the No. 1 priority of the event. The training side is very different. Most of these players have been working with their individual trainers either at their universities or at training facilities for the past five or six weeks preparing for the combine. When they arrive here, they don't require much attention from us. One thing we did about seven or eight years ago is we went to an NFL team's nutritionist and tried to improve all the meals for the players here.
We tried to improve the schedule of the players so they're getting the rest they need. It's more of a comfort level for them. We improved the nutrition levels for them, so the guidelines that they were following for the past five or six weeks they will continue to follow for the three or four days they are with us. ... Athletes have a tendency to be superstitious, so they want to continue with their eating habits and their sleeping habits. Understanding there's going to be some changes because of the nature of the event, but we try to keep them as comfortable as possible so they can perform at their peak at the end of the event.
With regard to the actual trainers, we have three of them that come in to spend the week with us and their purpose is to take care of the players. They stay in the players' hotel and they are available 24/7. Every player has the cell phone numbers of those three athletic trainers printed on the back of their credential, so if they need anything at night they're available to the players. And they make sure to take care of them during the actual workouts on the field.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in hosting the combine each year?
I think there's just so many moving parts. The scheduling is incredibly challenging based on the number of players and the number of medical tests we have and the number interviews we are conducting. We have to schedule everything from A to Z with the players and the teams. We have implemented a lot of technology that has really helped us manage that, but at the end of the day any change can have a domino effect in terms of how it impacts all of the events.
Our biggest fear in operating the event is Mother Nature. And it's not how it impacts (Indianapolis). It's the impact in Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Boston. All those are places with connecting flights. Our timeline is so tight that if players don't arrive on time or if they missed an entire day, the challenge is catching them up could be catastrophic if it's a high number of players. Every year we'll have some players that are impacted, but if some reason we were to have one of these Polar Vortexes come through and an airport were to be shutdown, it could create some serious problems for us. We have some plans in place, but there's really only so much you can do. Last year we did 365 MRIs on 333 players in four days. An MRI takes an hour. If you do the math on that, it just is extremely challenging to just schedule that and executive it.
Last year the combine added a Player Health and Safety event for the media. This year there will be a Heads Up Football event tied to it via USA Football. How big can the combine grow?
Our goal is to keep growing. It's just a positive for the NFL. It's certainly a good reflection on the NFL. It's something we've discussed with the league within the last couple of years. The USA Football project is really exciting their initiatives are so important, not only to the NFL, but also to the youth who are interested in playing football. It's exciting for us to work with USA Football, which is based here. ... We really appreciate what they do, so it's exciting to help them with that project. We continue to discuss the possibilities with the NFL in all departments.
When I arrived, there was discussion with Football Operations and Player Personnel, but that was really the extent of it. We're now working with so many different groups at the NFL office, everybody from their events department to their entertainment, marketing, sponsorship groups, community relations and media. All of those departments are able to provide input to help us grow.