Published January 08, 2015
The best thing about Indianapolis is that every hotel bar and restaurant downtown is within walking distance. So, too, is Lucas Oil Stadium, where the meat market -- better known today as the NFL Combine -- is based. The only drawback for someone from California is the snow and slush on the sidewalks and freezing wind blowing around every corner.
But this has become a mandatory football stop every February, because this is where the future stars are clocked, weighed, X-rayed and probed about potential character flaws. The NFL now issues credentials to this event and monitors it like a mini-Super Bowl. This can be aggravating to someone like me, who used to sneak into this event thanks to coaches slipping me their badges. Weigh-ins were a daily ritual, with 30 to 40 men actually checking every profile turn. The grunts and groans of players lifting 225 pounds, hoping to do reps of 30 or more, was a more compelling event than watching a 40-yard dash.
Yes, there was a time when less than five reporters, not 750, showed up for the Combine, and security wasn't really necessary. It was at least 20 years before you could watch linebackers run a shuttle drill on the NFL Network.
Although the draft has mushroomed in interest, now becoming a three-day event with this year's first-round selections actually starting in prime-time, mistakes are still being made at the NFL Combine despite the constant scrutiny of the players.
A lot of the best scouts, general managers like Bill Polian, Ted Thompson, Jerry Reese, Ozzie Newsome, A.J. Smith and Kevin Colbert, already have their draft boards in some order based on the past college football season and the all-star games. I know that former general managers like Ron Wolf, Bobby Beathard and the late Dick Steinberg and George Young would have loved to have had the draft this month. They believed they had an edge because they had scouted all year and already knew who the good players were. They polished up their insights at the combine and were ready to make their picks.
"All this extra time simply allows most of the other teams to catch up and read what everyone else is saying," Wolf said. "I always believed I would have an advantage if the draft was earlier."
But the league never really cared about moving the draft closer to the Super Bowl because they love the hype generated by this week and the months to follow. Besides, most of the top quarterback prospects come to Indy simply to take the Wonderlic test and be interviewed. They save their throwing drills for their college's Pro Days in March and early April. The entire process has become an extreme makeover.
Regardless, running fast in Indy is always a sure-fire barometer of going high in the draft. The Tennessee Titans are a great example. In 2007, University of Arizona's Chris Henry wowed the scouts with his 4.40 time and 36" vertical jump, out-of-sight numbers for a seldom-used, 230-pound college running back. Henry went 50th overall in the draft. The very next year Chris Johnson ran a 4.24 and the Titans drafted him in the first round -- he's now maybe the game's best runner. Johnson's emergence prompted the Titans to cut Henry, who was last seen in Houston.
One of the big reasons why the Jaguars have struggled in recent years is their penchant for falling in love with players who excel in Indy. Matt Jones, the former Arkansas quarterback turner wide receiver, is the perfect example of a Combine bust. Jones ran a 4.34 40-yard dash and the Jaguars thought he would make a great receiver. Well, after a couple drug busts and way too many drops on the field, the Jaguars cut him and now he's trying to catch on with the Bengals.
In 2003, Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan wowed all the scouts at the combine and the Saints selected him with the sixth overall pick in the first round. Sullivan never played as well as he looked in gym shorts and is out of the game. Kevin Williams, who was taken three picks behind Sullivan, is now one of the very best at the position for the Minnesota Vikings.
In the late 1980s, Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer had a team so close to a Super Bowl, but he made two horrible consecutive blunders in the first round with linebackers Mike Junkin in 1987 and Clifford Charlton in 1988. Junkin was smart (Duke) but he was injury-prone and was a total bust as the fifth overall pick. The Browns traded Chip Banks away for him. Charlton was a standout at Florida, but knee injuries derailed his career. Neither of those failures, however, can compare to the one of the ultimate Combine workout wonders, Mike Mamula of Boston College in 1995.
Mamula was a 6-foot-4, 248-pound pass rushing defensive end who might have had the best combine ever for a player of his size. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash, benched-pressed 225 pounds 26 times and had a 38 ½" vertical jump. He finished near the top in all the categories, even finishing with a 49 out of 50 in the Wonderlic intelligence test. The Philadelphia Eagles traded away two second-round picks in order to move up five spots in the first round to in order to draft Mamula seventh overall. He had an injury-filled career that lasted five seasons. But he wasn't a total washout: Mamula had 31 ½ sacks in 77 games, and even returned a Kurt Warner interception for a touchdown!
And, so this weekend, other hopefuls will work on their dreams. You may have watched South Florida defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul do a dozen back flips on YouTube, a feat comparable to last year's physical phenom, Jarron Gilbert of San Jose State, jumping out of a swimming pool. The Bears drafted Gilbert at the top of the third round in 2009.
Question: How many tackles did he make last season on the field after leaping so impressively out of that pool?