INDIANAPOLIS -- Back before there were signs at an airport that is no longer used, before it was broadcast live and before it was one of the most publicly dissected parts of an NFL offseason, the scouting combine was simply a no-frills piece of the draft puzzle, conducted in the peace and quiet of relative anonymity.
“The first one I was at was the second one at Arizona State -- obviously held outdoors," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick recalled this week. “One of the days ended, not in total darkness, but certainly past dusk. I still have the image of Refrigerator [William] Perry doing the vertical jump out there ... in the middle of the Arizona State field, in almost total darkness."
And now that the combine has exploded into a live broadcast where runs and jumps are on-the-scroll news in a 24/7 cycle, the combine is still a piece of the draft puzzle for those who make the decisions around the league. Just a piece of the puzzle, likely no bigger than it used to be, even though so much of the results are now a big part of the public discourse on the draft.
“It is a tool," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. “It’s useful to have all of these players in one place to see them, meet them, talk to them. But overall, it’s just part of the big picture. Decisions are made by the work the scouts have done all year getting to know these guys, on the road and by what they've done on the field. ... The combine is one of the things you consider."
So, as Jadeveon Clowney, Michael Sam and Johnny Manziel had their workouts beamed coast to coast, there is a perception that a prospect’s draft status can undergo a substantial improvement or decline after what happens in Lucas Oil Stadium. Especially as combine ratings soar and apparel companies such as Under Armour work to outfit the prospects and Adidas drops $100,000 on Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks for his 40-yard dash time posted in its shoes.
But the swing after the combine is far less drastic inside most NFL teams’ draft meetings.
“It’s up to us to rely on all of the information that we’ve gotten over the last 12, 13, 14 months,’’ Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “If you trust your system and if you trust your scouting staff and you trust basically your budget and everything that you've put into your scouting process, then you shouldn't be swayed by all of the other noise out there or the projections or the prognostications."
The irony in all of the interest in the combine? For the teams, the most important parts of the annual event are still the ones that remain unseen to the outside world: the medical exam and the face-to-face interviews prospects have with team officials.
Of all the things that happen at the combine, the medical exam is likely the most important. Medical staffs from every team get the opportunity to examine all of the prospects invited to the combine, and every prospect is put through a full battery of X-rays.
Any players with previous injuries or injuries/issues discovered during their medical exam at the combine are sent to a local hospital for more tests, including MRIs. Several scouts at the combine over the last week said Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio may have had his draft status affected the most of any prospect at this year’s combine, for example, when knee troubles were revealed.
Kouandjio acknowledged being sent for additional tests this past weekend, but said he had "no issues" with his knee.
“But the medical, that’s probably where you get the most information you don’t have about a guy," Broncos coach John Fox said. “You check their backgrounds and you can see what they've done on the field, that’s on the film, but the medical is something you haven’t seen until that point."
The face-to-face interviews, both in the form of formal, scheduled 15-minute blocks each night of the combine, or informal as coaches and prospects pass in the stadium concourses before and after the workouts, are also a chance for personnel executives, as well as coaches, to zero in on a few specific topics. They are able to ask prospects, face to face, about everything from an off-the-field arrest to explain specific plays from their seasons.
Some teams ask prospects, especially quarterbacks, to break down a play or explain what should happen in various situations. Teams record the interviews, as well, and review them later with some teams going as far as to have behavioral experts evaluate the video.
In the end, however, no matter how often 40-yard dash times are thrown into the public domain or vertical jumps mulled over, the games still mean the most. What happened on the field and the rest becomes added on to formally set the player’s draft value. And even though their quiet, little gathering is anything but, the combine remains what it once was to those who will make the picks in May's draft.
“You have to take the best player," Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “And you have to build your team for the long term and look at the draft as long-term decisions for your football team. That’s how we want to build. Have a core group of players going forward that are together and in this together. That the names on the back of the jerseys will mean something, because obviously the name on the front of the jersey means something to all of us.’’