Good for the agents and the prospective players who have already caused the NFL and the combine to blink. Earlier this week, more than a dozen contract advisors representing 155 players stated their refusal to attend the league’s annual meat market due to bubble restrictions that would prevent them from interacting with anyone else.
While we’re all for safety, the absurdity of forcing players to fly across the country, meet in cramped rooms full of coaches who may or may not have been following safety protocol and risk their own health and safety in a largely meaningless slate of made-for-television workouts without the ability to access their personal support system is ridiculous even by the league’s standards.
According to multiple reports, the combine has since walked this back, or is about to. (Editor's note: Shortly after the publication of this article, the combine announced it would ease its COVID-19 protocols, allowing players to do as they please during their free time.) The NFL blamed the combine. The combine shivered in its boots.
It shines a light on just how unfair and outdated the scouting combine has become, and why players should reject the idea of attending in the first place unless they are a completely off-the-radar prospect who would have no chance of getting face time with an NFL franchise otherwise. Teams have more technological firepower at their hands than at any time in human history. They have gargantuan scouting staffs spread throughout the country. There is a less than zero percent chance that the players couldn’t do their medical evaluations remotely. If a team desperately wanted to get their hands on a person, they should undertake the expenditure personally and meet the player at their own training location instead of requiring they be prodded by an assembly line of doctors. Do we really think an NFL team, the likes of which are still probably considering re-signing Antonio Brown, would not draft a player based on his refusal to fly to the midwest to get his knee tapped by a rubber poker?
While there are one or two combine risers every year, players who run a fast 40-yard dash or bench press a whole bunch of weight and improve their draft stock, that pales in comparison to the anonymous firing squad of scouts and team personnel these players subject themselves to for the sole purpose of filling the league’s programming schedule. If you are good enough to be invited to the scouting combine, chances are you’re good enough to be drafted. Most seasoned general managers and personnel executives will say that only the medical check really matters to them. An ancillary benefit is the chance to sit down with a player maybe one more time after initial meetings during the Senior Bowl. Other than that, players have so much more to lose. What if a prospect slips up doing board work and Dolphins executive B jokes about it with Chargers personnel man A, who then, over drinks, relays the tale to reporter C, who tweets about it for all 32 teams to see? What if his personality completely mismatches with a coach he’s spending time with and the coach anonymously brands him “difficult to work with”? Do we think this hasn’t happened before? Do we think this doesn’t happen every year?
Players can get hurt before they’re drafted doing short yardage shuttle drills. Jeff Okudah was injured in 2020. Patrick Queen and Kenneth Murray, too. Billy Price suffered a partial tear of his pectoral muscle during the bench press. After the rigors of a college football season, they put an immense amount of time and pressure on themselves to be prepared for these silly pageant workouts, which could lead to overtraining and other workout related injuries independent of the combine.
They put themselves through this televised workout, which increases the pressure and, with it, the likelihood they’ll overstrain and potentially injure themselves.
The question they should all be asking is: who really benefits? The NFL is, essentially, an ongoing reality show; a Real World spinoff on a 100-yard patch of grass that cycles through new characters each and every season. There is no concern about their ability to handle life away from the bright lights. The combine is like a precursor to it all; that part in American Idol where producers lie to horrible sounding contestants, coaxing them to sing in front of Simon and Randy so we can all sit on our couch and laugh at them.
Quarterbacks are throwing to receivers they’ve never played with … so a scouting analyst on television can criticize his footwork on a pass that may have had nothing to do with the quarterback making a mistake. Offensive linemen run the 40-yard dash so we can tweet about how (relatively) slow they look compared to the skill position players.
A few years back, Orlando Brown Jr. ran a slow 40-yard dash and put up surprisingly low bench press numbers, which dropped his draft stock two rounds. He will soon be one of the richest players in professional football when the Chiefs sign him to a long-term contract extension. Brown was the star of the reality show that week.
Here’s what Mike Mayock, soon to be the guy who drafted Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram and Damon Arnette in the first round, said about Brown during the event:
"It's appropriate to have the conversation that that's going to hurt him, in addition to the 14 reps on the bench. If you look at him, he's really kind of underdeveloped in his upper body."
Brown took the high road, eventually. He explained that blocking is like art and that anyone who watches his tape can understand the how and why without needing to work him out like a 1950s gym teacher. Fortunately, he made it out of the meat market eventually, living proof of how silly the whole thing is.
Players who are still considering going after restrictions are eased should read every word Brown has said about his experience. If general managers are going to go by the tape they watch anyway, if they are going to stand up and tell reporters that it’s all about how you function on the field and within an offense, what on earth does it matter how you shuffle or bench press or play catch in spandex?
If the only person you’re actually hurting by staying home is some television executive fixing to pad the owners with more advertising revenue, then is there really a decision to make?
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