Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Scouting Combine Royalty


So, I've been watching/listening to the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine on and off for the past 4-days. Yes, yes I am a sports nerd. As amusing as it is to watch all of these athletes run, jump, catch, throw, and lift weights (all things that I do sans cameras), there is this voice in the back of my head asking "why and how does this matter?"

Robert Griffin, III, the highly touted Heisman trophy winning quarterback from Baylor University ran the 3rd fastest 40-yard dash by a quarterback in the history of the scouting combine. He also had an impressive long jump and, by all accounts, he has blown every interview out of the water. Griffin chose not to throw at the combine, which hearkens the question, in what other industry can you show up to a job interview not demonstrate the the essential functions of your potential job?

Enter Andrew Luck, the outstanding Stanford quarterback and consensus # 1 pick in the April draft. Luck also ran an impressive 40-yard dash at this weekend's combine. He threw in a broad jump that was better than his counterpart RG3's and a high jump that eclipsed 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, # 1 pick, and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton. Like RG3, Andrew Luck (sorry, no cool nickname as of yet) decided to forego throwing at the combine.

When one person makes a seemingly inexplicable decision, it's an anomaly. When ALL of your projected top draft picks, regardless of position, decide to forego showing their skills, it becomes an epidemic (think more bubonic plague and less iEverything) .

What is the cause of this epidemic? I think that several entities can claim ownership over this recent fad.

First of all, this epidemic was formed in part by the greediness (some would call it cunning business sense) of the agents representing their clients. Like many businesses, profits for a potential draft pick are inversely correlated to the amount of deficiencies they have on tape. In this sense, the agents agents are protecting the profitability of their clients (while also solidifying the fees they will proffer from said clients). On the flip side, this tactic manipulates the evaluation process for perspective teams. In the age of JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf, owners are less likely to fork out big bucks on a shot in the dark. That begs yet another question. Are athlete's that don't display their wears at every given opportunity at an advantage or a disadvantage in the long run?

Secondly, there is the blind acquiescence of the athletes who bow to their representation. Every year around draft time, agents are frantically positioning themselves for the top talent with a few dark horses (no pun intended) thrown in for insurance. Scouting Combine preparation has become as much a part of an agent's job as negotiating complex contracts (with lots of guaranteed money). These young men (and the vast majority of these guys are only a few years removed from having acne), already daunted by the pro process, almost blindly follow the advice of their representation even when the advice given is not necessarily commensurate with current trends and/or in the ultimate best interest of the athlete (to show what they have to offer a pro team). There used to be a day in the not so distant past where athletes handled things on the field while agents handled things in the board room. Increasingly, it is becoming hard to distinguish where the field of play ends and the boardroom begins.

Lastly, the NFL owners, who are expected to hand out multi-million dollar contracts to these star athletes, are to blame for this debacle. I would even go so far as to argue that the NFL owners are ultimately responsible for the sad state of affairs that has befallen the relationship that the combine has with its star attractions. Not only do the NFL owners hold the purse strings, they also hold title to the means by which these athletes audition for and are hired for positions on a NFL team. Why do they sit idly by as the inmates and wardens take over the asylum? Have they not learned from the hundreds of millions of dollars in "my bad" money they've been forced to payout to players that didn't pan out? These men and woman aren't dumb. They wouldn't be multi-billionaires if they were incompetent. I think that money is the key factor in this equation. As much as NFL owners bitch and moan about revenue splits and salary caps, the fact of the matter is that NFL owners are making money hand over fist, so much so that they can afford to allow loopholes like this to exist in the scouting process. To the next Jeff George...you're welcome.

Some would argue that the athletes that choose not to participate in organized activities at the combine are simply waiting until their school's pro day, where they can run on a field that they're familiar with and throw to/catch from wide receivers/quarterbacks that they are familiar with. That is precisely the point of the combine! In the NFL, you don't choose what field you play on or, sometimes, what player you throw  the ball to/what player throws you the ball. THE NFL SCOUTING COMBINE IS ALL ABOUT COMPETITION and rising to the occasion in adverse circumstances.

For example, Cam Newton had a less than stellar showing at the 2011 combine in QB throwing drills. However, the fact that the Heisman Trophy winner participated at his own detriment said volumes about his competitiveness and desire to prove the doubters wrong. Cam went on to pass for more yards as a rookie than any other quarterback in NFL history, eclipsing the record of demigod Peyton Manning. Do I think that Andrew Luck and RG3 would be less competitive on the field due to their lack of participation in the combine? Not necessarily. I'm just a firm believer that every time you step foot in the arena is preparation for the next opportunity. I don't care how good you actually are or how good everyone says you are, more practice never hurt anyone (even Allen Iverson).

Some might also argue that the best gauge of a player's effectiveness is to look at their game film. That's where you gauge talent, drive, technique, and competitiveness applied to work. I agree with this assertion. The player's performance on the field is the ultimate gauge of potential future production.

The scouting combine is about seeing how these players will react in unfamiliar surroundings with the pressure of the situation on broil. We all know from watching the game film that RG3 and Andrew Luck are winners but they haven't won at the pro level yet.

Whose afraid of throwing in front of strangers? I guess we'll find out when RG3 and Andrew Luck visit Revis Island.

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