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Super Bowl 50

Sun, Feb 7, 2016

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by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider

Combine history? Explosive growth since medical tests turned into skills


Receiver prospect Frank Bruno (University of Montreal) preps for the combine. (AP)  
Receiver prospect Frank Bruno (University of Montreal) preps for the combine. (AP)  

I get asked every year about this time, what goes on at the combine? Why is it so secret? What are the player interviews all about? And, most importantly, how much stock do teams really put in the combine when getting ready for the draft?

The NFL Network is now in the stadium broadcasting all of the measurable events for fans to watch and that does provide a clue as to the things taking place in Lucas Oil Stadium.

The original purpose of the combine was for clubs to save time and money to gather the medical information needed to make an intelligent draft decision. Players who had a red flag during the physical exam process were recalled to Indianapolis later in the spring for a recheck. As the late Dr. James Nicholas, a combine pioneer and former Jets team physician, told me when I interviewed him about the history of the event: "Players were sitting around waiting to take some phase of their comprehensive physical and a coach decided to put them through a few drills to see what kind of movement the player had, and the combine testing was born."

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It got to the point 10 years ago that the skill testing and measurements overshadowed the original intent of getting medical information, but in recent years the pendulum started to swing back to medical evaluation. The reason for the shift was that most players were spending months preparing for the testing and the results were skewed. For example, coaches and general managers are challenged to watch a short shuttle test anymore and conclude if the athlete has great quickness and change of direction or if he prepped so well for the test that he manufactured a superb test score. The same could be said for the interview process unless a club has developed a creative approach to knock the canned answers out of the equation.

Two of my favorite interview techniques were by Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden. I spent one combine with Belichick and he would bring a candidate into a hotel room, barely say hello to the kid, turn the lights off and start rolling his college tape at a spot in a game where the player was playing poorly. He would ask the candidate to start explaining what was going on and make the guy squirm just enough to either explain or blame someone else for the situation. I recall one player just started ripping his coach for the situation on the tape and when he did Belichick turned on the lights, thanked him for coming and rejected him.

I was sitting alone with Gruden one year in his interview room when a quarterback candidate walked through the door and stuck his hand out to say hello to Jon. Gruden pushed a chair over to the kid and told him to make believe the chair was a center. He asked him to set up like he was under center, call out the most difficult play he had in his college playbook including the formation, then he wanted to hear his cadence, then change the play and hear his hard count. The QB was on his heels and struggled, plus his voice was weak and almost cracked. Jon told him to come back the next night and try again and proceeded to continue our conversation as the young man dropped his head and started to walk out of the room. When he got to the door, Jon said, "I have a team full of veterans and future Hall of Fame players. I can't send you into our huddle to run the offense if you can't convince them you are a leader." The aspiring QB did a better job the next night but Gruden never drafted him and the kid never became a starter in the NFL.

The combine is a piece of information that goes into the evaluation process but is not a substitute for game tapes. I have walked the field of Lucas Oil Stadium during the drills as a commentator for NFL Network and it is interesting to see the candidates for each position side by side doing the same drills. A sense of comparison in body size and movement skills is observable.

I like to evaluate a degree of explosiveness in each athlete and I do that by taking the results of three tests and combining them for a score. For the past 20 years I take the score on the vertical jump, standing broad jump and the bench press and hope for a number that reaches 70-plus. For example a 36-inch vertical, a 10-foot broad jump and 24 reps on the bench adds up to 70. That player has a chance to be explosive.

When the ball is snapped for every play most of the players on the field are in contact with each other immediately and the more explosive player is going to dominate his opponent. A score of 70-plus doesn't always guarantee explosiveness, but it has been right more than it has been wrong for me.

Enjoy the combine this weekend but keep it in perspective.

Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.

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