The NFL doesn’t have a swimsuit competition but it comes pretty close this time of year when the annual Scouting Combine convenes this week in Indianapolis, the next phase in football player evaluations (after in-season scouting and bowl games) on the way to the draft in Chicago during the last weekend in April.
For the next week, teams’ extended staffs (coaches, scouts, general managers, player personnel execs, medical evaluators) will subject the more than 300 invited college players to a football beauty pageant, complete with drills and exams measuring those players on times in the 40-yard dash, cone drills, shuttle drills, some position-specific work and more, in addition to private interviews with teams back in the team’s hotel rooms.
(Beauty pageants don’t give a definitive read on how each contestant will work out as a life fit for someone, but it’s one element, right? No? Hopefully for their sakes, the players all have their prepared remarks ready for individual-team interviews, when the question of personal goals may come up and the right answer, of course, is, “World peace.”)
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An athletic-wear company will have players shrink-wrapped in logo’d shorts and shirts, which put that logo front and center every televised stride of every 40. By informal consensus, Cam Newton won the equivalent of his year’s swimsuit competition, looking just terrific in his Under Armour ensemble as he charmed the mass interview on his way to becoming the No. 1-overall pick in the 2011 draft. (Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers probably didn’t base their Newton pick on the shrink-wrap competition, but Newton DID look the part, for those who are into that sort of thing.)
“That sort of thing” has been the way less and less, however, ever since Mike Mamula stunned the Combine with his ’95 performance in the various competitions, prompting the Philadelphia Eagles to invest the No. 7 pick overall, apparently figuring that anybody who looks that good in the NFL’s equivalent of a decathlon had to be at least pretty good at pro football, which Mamula really wasn’t.
Rondel Melendez showed up in Indy in ’99 out of Eastern Kentucky and ran a 40 in 4.24 seconds, still tied for the fastest official time ever at the Combine. But all that speed didn’t impress the way Mamula’s results did several years earlier, earning Melendez just a seventh-round call that draft from the Atlanta Falcons. A knee injury that preseason didn’t do Melendez, already a marginal player, any favors, and he wound up the subject of a Deadspin “where are they now?” piece last February.
Of course, legend has it that Bo Jackson ran an unofficial, i.e. hand-timed, 4.12 in ’86 and Deion Sanders a hand-timed 4.19, and they weren’t bad.
The evaluation process typically includes players taking the Wonderlic test, the NFL’s attempt at some sort of intelligence testing, although ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio makes an excellent case for players declining that test for reasons of confidentiality. And frankly, if teams have a problem with a test not taken, then teams and the NFL need to do a better job of keeping the results in-house, particularly given that correlations between the Wonderlic and NFL success are questionable at best.
Increasing numbers of players have taken to attending special training operations designed to improve something as specific as time in the “40” or vertical jump, about the way high school students queue up for short-term courses to improve SAT or ACT scores.
Watching players settle into sprinter’s stances and blocks at the start line for the 40, you do almost wonder why the teams don’t ask players to run their 40’s out of three- or four-point stances, but again, at least it’s apples-to-apples if everybody does it.
The NFL doesn’t refer to the 40 track as the “runway.” But it could.