Things are so slow these days, I’ve consented to allow myself to watch portions of the NFL scouting combine on the NFL network.
It’s hard for me to listen to these talking heads opine about college players who they clearly haven’t seen play. For instance, how can anyone say–as some did–that they need to see Percy Harvin run a sub 4.4 40-yard dash to verify his speed? Besides just knowing his history and observing how fast he is, all you really need to know about Harvin is that he has an electronically-timed, wind-legal 10.43 in the 100m. And you can’t run that fast in the 100m and not be a sub 4.4 guy. In essence, he did not even need to run.
But this kind of silliness has been echoed all week during the various telecasts and by online columnists. For some reason, the media finds it necessary to act as if there is a real science around this event, one that only can be deciphered by the brilliant minds of the NFL. Do I need to remind you that a good portion of coaches and scouts in the league are guys who probably weren’t smart enough to get real jobs and who got their start mainly due to nepotism, or the good ‘ol boy system? Okay, I won’t.
And anyway, the combine is mostly about suspending disbelief. Sometime after his last college game is over, a draft-eligible player embarks upon a training regimen to prepare himself for the league workouts. For about eight weeks, he gets the right amount of sleep, drinks the perfect amount of water (you can see the dedicated ones carrying water jugs to night clubs in January and February), hones his body in the weight room, eats a perfect diet, trains with various experts in the fast-twitch arts, learns from sprint coaches how to run a 40 and breaks it all down to the exact number of strides.
Then, the player runs the 40 in front of the scouts and, suprise!, he runs a 4.34 and everyone is shocked! Who knew he was that fast?
But the circumstances in which the player ran that 40 will never again be duplicated, meaning that as soon as the combine is over, he will likely go back to a more normal routine–less sleep, a standard diet (or much, much worse), a weight routine intended for bulk over speed (to absorb the hits of the league), a reversion to bad form when running and, maybe above all, a lifestyle buffeted by millions of dollars with which he can indulge his worst tendencies.
Of course, the NFL knows this. But they pretend that when a guy runs that fast at the combine, it means something. For some guys, the 40 just verifies what we already know–for instance, that Harvin is fast. But don’t tell me that Ian Johnson runs a sub 4.5. He doesn’t. Great college player, but he’s not a speed guy. He doesn’t play like a sub 4.5 guy. He just did what he had to do for this one moment in time.
All you have to know about the unseriousness of the 40 at the combine is in the way it is covered by the media and the scouts. We see a guy run and then an ‘unofficial’ time is flashed. Well, isn’t this supposed to be an electronically measured sprint? If so, why the ‘unofficial’ mark? And why do scouts still time players with their stopwatches if the combine provides an electronic time? You will not get any more accurate than an electronic timing device. I read something by Todd McShay recently where he wrote that “several scouts timed Harvin under 4.3 even though his official time was 4.41″. Well, it would help if McShay pointed out that hand times are always faster than electronic times and are generally inaccurate due to the inexact nature of the human thumb. Maybe McShay doesn’t know this, or maybe like other reporters he once again deferred to the all-powerful ‘unnamed scout’s’ opinion.
I won’t even get into the fact that the 40 at the combine is run in shorts on turf indoors and takes place under much different conditions than the upcoming ‘Pro Days’ at various campuses, where some will be on grass, turf, rubber indoor tracks or outdoor tracks, with the wind, against the wind, across the wind, with cleats, with sneakers and so on. The variations and conditions in which these races are run are rarely, if ever, reported. But we are led to believe that they are all uniform.
In the end, what the 40 does is gives the NFL plausible deniability about a prospect. If he ends up as a bust because of, say, lack of speed, a GM can say “Well, he ran a 4.4 at the combine, so it’s not my fault.”
If the younger generation of media, as well as scouts, had more of a background in track and field, they would understand some of these concepts. And maybe they wouldn’t be so shocked when a player turns out to be too slow in the NFL.