If you want a clear idea of how far the NFL Scouting Combine has come, you really don't need to look back much more than a decade or delve much deeper than the player interview process.
The stage was a large atrium area at the Crowne Plaza, in the shadow of the old RCA Dome. Surrounding the open ground were interview rooms for the 32 teams, and crowding it were runners for each of the clubs, charged with literally grabbing prospects and pulling them in to sit down with coaches and general managers. As you might imagine, it wasn't pretty.
"In the old days, it was a physical and mental challenge to be a runner, a massive challenge," explained Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "The rules were loose, and intimidation and muscle were used in getting players to the respective interview rooms."
Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert added, "You're literally grabbing kids, fighting over kids; you're back-dooring some people. It was embarrassing. I'm sure the kids were probably thinking, 'This is the NFL?' "
It was the NFL.
Since that time, the league's popularity has exploded, and -- as interest has intensified -- so has the combine, becoming an integral part of the calendar not just for those in the business but for fans, as well. Once an event covered by a handful of reporters, the week-long extravaganza will attract nearly 800 members of the media this week. While many skeptics doubted that the combine would ever work as a TV show, 6.51 million people tuned in to coverage last year, up from 5.2 million in 2010 and 3.7 million in 2007.
In an era where everything the league touches seems to turn to gold, the desire of the public to see 22-year-olds running around in Under Armour shorts and shirts might be the brightest of many shining examples.
"Fans have tremendous interest in the combine and what it represents," said Eric Grubman, NFL executive vice president of business ventures. "The combine is an important step in the conversion of a college athlete becoming a pro athlete. He has to work out and perform in different ways, and the fan loves that transformation. There are other steps, but the combine is a visible one."
That chaotic Crowne Plaza scene, once commonplace, wouldn't come close to happening today. Players, who have their interview appointments printed on the back of their stadium credentials, are on a tight schedule as they move from place to place.
That mirrors the way the whole event has changed, becoming increasingly dressed up, buttoned down and ready for prime time. Last year, 300 sponsors and fans were brought in to watch one day of the event live. This year, there'll be two such days. The idea of opening it up to the public has been floated.
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The combine has come a long way since the early years -- Colbert recalls the first he attended, back in 1985, being held on outdoor practice fields at Arizona State -- and clearly, there's no going back now.
"There was initially resistance from the old-school purists," said Ray Anderson, NFL executive vice president of football operations. "But as time moved on, they could see real balance between what they needed football-wise and the entertainment side. Those guys matured in their thinking. And we essentially have advised them having that balance -- the revenue, fan access, fan engagement -- is just as important to the owners and the league as getting the football stuff the coaches and GMs have always gotten.
"The business component is way beyond the coaches and GMs wanting their sanctuary. And this wasn't a request."
Competitive drills on the horizon?
National Football Scouting president Jeff Foster is running his eighth combine this year, his tenure encompassing the period of most growth. Before the first combine under his watch, Foster polled all 32 teams to see what they valued most coming out of Indy every year.
All 32 clubs put the medicals first. All 32 teams put the interviews second. Beyond that, teams varied in what they ranked third, fourth and fifth, underscoring the importance of the first two elements and making it clear what shouldn't be touched as the event continues to evolve.
"The balance for me, in my role, in working for the teams and the player personnel departments, is finding a way to create an opportunity for athletes to perform at their peak and allow the teams to evaluate without distraction," said Foster. "It's been more challenging since the league has made it a more valuable property, and that's been a great part of my role the last five years, working with Eric Grubman and Ray Anderson to incorporate the business side in a manner that doesn't conflict."
The league is looking at ways to make the combine more fan-friendly. And if the medical check-ups and interviews are off-limits, the rest of the event, it seems, is not.
The most well-documented consideration is the concept of competitive drills. Prospects could race one another in the 40-yard dash or be pitted against each other on the bench press; receivers and defensive backs or linemen could face off in one-on-ones. Grubman said Deion Sanders told him he'd run a faster 40 if he were going against someone else. But not everyone is for adding this made-for-TV element.
Foster said he's open to it, but asked, "What do you gain? You already have more than 20 games of film of these guys going against each other competitively." And he raised the prospect of an increased injury risk, something that those on the players' side are acutely concerned with.
"I hate the idea," said agent David Canter -- who's attending his 17th combine -- before emphasizing that he's always encouraged clients to participate in all the drills. "You're not competing in the NFL by running a 40, and you're not gonna be lining up next to a guy on the bench. What you will have is players overexerting themselves and injuring themselves. ... It just creates too high of a risk without reason."
The other reason there's been resistance to change in these areas relates to a core appeal of the combine for evaluators: It gives them a chance to compare prospects on a level playing field and put their numbers up against results from past years. Because of this, even progressive tweaks, like using an electronic start in the 40-yard dash, have proven difficult to implement.
In fact, as Foster noted, even when new elements have been introduced to the combine, it usually hasn't come at the cost of something else. A couple of years ago, when the argument that wingspan was a better measurement than arm length gained traction, the former element was added without eliminating the latter. This year, a second aptitude test, developed by a university professor and several NFL executives, will be added as a counterpart to -- but not a replacement for -- the Wonderlic.
"You'll have naysayers, and they'll be arguing on that standardization," said Dimitroff, who helped develop the new aptitude test. "And yes, we have years of data to compare things against, so when we change, you risk throwing out that data -- that's the issue. By taking time to use new drills, you might be jettisoning others, and that can be a problem for some people."
An 'American Idol' element
Two years ago, the NFL bought Elite Football Combines with the intention of creating a circuit of regional combines. As it stands now, there are 10 of those, run from January to March, with prospects competing to qualify for the super-regional held April 7-8 at Cowboys Stadium. It's at these events that the league plans to test many of the changes and additions that have been proposed for the Indianapolis combine.
The regional combines are also part of a larger vision of expanding the combine brand. The league has envisioned moving the regionals up on the calendar and perhaps moving Indianapolis back, so that the regionals and super-regional lead into the big show, with at-large spots in Indianapolis or invitations to the draft in New York possibly up for grabs. While Foster said he's not in favor of having at-large bids, he could see re-arranging the regionals, to give kids a shot to change the minds of those on the Indy selection committee.
The idea, as Grubman explained it, is to create a "continuum" in the NFL calendar, so that after the season ends, fans can start following the journey of college athletes in their quest to make the pros.
"The combine won't be maximized until we find a way to link it with the rest of the journey of these guys," said Grubman, who sees an "American Idol" element in some of this. "From a football operations standpoint, it's very well-developed. But it's an immature property, from a fan-access and fan-appeal standpoint."
And that's where the next point of contention could come.
For Foster, a former Chiefs personnel man, finding a way to "protect the working environment" for talent evaluators is a big consideration. Foster said that while he can see the limited fan access currently being provided expanding to include all four days, he worries that going further could be problematic.
The league is, indeed, thinking bigger, considering the idea of opening the upper deck up to fans, though there is an acknowledgement that interest isn't at the point yet where selling tens of thousands of seats on a weekday would represent any sort of certainty.
Then there's the idea -- which has come up with regard to the draft, as well -- of moving the combine around, allowing different cities to bid on it. This would help the league market it, since they'd be dealing with a new fan base each year. Foster doesn't mince words on that one, however: "It'd be disastrous. And I say that for one reason: the medical testing."
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Foster explained that last year, 350 MRIs were conducted on 330 players in a four-day period, with IU Health -- a combine partner for 28 years -- working from 7 a.m. until midnight daily to cram in all those tests. Additionally, Lucas Oil Stadium was built with combine elements designed into its frame, so that the city could hold on to this very valuable property.
The bottom line is that Indy has all of this down to a science.
"It's centrally located, they have tons of experience, and the dome and the hospitals, they all work in sync," Anderson said. "The logistics are so compact and so convenient. They have the business model as close to perfect for the combine as you can get. So anyone competing for it would have to be very, very solid."
The truth is, the growth of this event doesn't always work in concert with the needs of evaluators.
'Figure how to push the envelope'
That said, the results of all of the changes have surprised even the most ardent football purists.
"To be honest, I was on the other side of all of this, scared of the exposure and what it would do to the event, even if it did bring tremendous entertainment value to the fans," said Colbert. "But the main functions here -- the medical, psychological and workout info -- have been maintained, and it's grown opportunities for these kids. They enjoy the exposure and opportunity to compete in a televised arena, and it's brought more structure to the event."
Both agents and execs agreed that the publicity the combine attracts -- with NFL Network heading into its ninth year televising it from inside the dome -- has motivated more athletes to participate and compete in all aspects of the event.
Still, the fear remains that the line that hasn't been crossed -- the one football folks are very protective of -- is now being approached.
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"I'm not sure we've crossed that threshold yet, but it feels like we will soon, where it's too much of an event," McCartney said. "Indy's the perfect city; you can get anywhere quick, meet with a lot of people. And this TV thing is interesting, and you know the NFL is always looking to make money. But you still hear the grumbling from team guys, who want to go there to watch football and evaluate guys."
The league, of course, isn't so myopic. Those at 345 Park view these events, as Grubman explained, through three lenses: As football propositions, as fan propositions and as business propositions. Grubman said the Super Bowl is "the pinnacle" in those terms, exceptional in all three areas.
For now, the combine's football value far exceeds its fan value, and its fan value far exceeds its business value. The goal is to balance the scales and realize the combine's potential in all facets.
"We cannot jeopardize the football preparation or scouting value," said Grubman. "We can't trade that off. Now, it's easy to say that, but you have to actually work at it to figure how to push the envelope. The instinctive response of people is 'Don't change anything.' That's where we have to push and say, 'Let's figure out what we have to do while making sure it doesn't change it for the negative.' "
Somewhere, some GM likely will cringe at those words.
But if he really thinks about it, he might recall the old days in that Crowne Plaza atrium. And he'd remember that it wasn't so perfect then, either.