Ah, the time of year where NFL personnel evaluators fall over themselves to over scrutinize displaced workouts in shorts, very likely scripted interviews where many prospects have been extensively coached up, and more is upon us. Evaluating worthwhile players to draft and develop is an arduous process, no doubt. No one makes it more difficult than the men in charge of an NFL team come the weekend of the annual valued, but easy-to-pick-apart model of the Scouting Combine.
Yes, as the league descends on sleepy Indianapolis, it’s simultaneously fair to grill potential future franchise cornerstones in what is effectively a job interview, but also make sure to not put too much into stock of an event that tells you nothing about a player in pads. The Bears will learn a lot over the coming days about who they want to take the next step with them at Halas Hall, but they must not set the bar so high. Really, every team should face the same lesson of not reading into glorified workouts as the means to an end for a pointless narrative.
What is that narrative at the Combine, exactly? Why does it manifest itself in the minds of teams creating a false archetype of what it means to be a football player?
It’s about “work ethic” as penned by Tony Manfred of Business Insider. It’s about placing too much stock into this event. Even if you falter relative to their expectations, teams want to see you “care” as a player to be prepared for this and physically fit according to their set measurements. As if your desire should be wholeheartedly questioned because you don’t seem as strong or fast as originally assumed.
That facet applies even if your tape and instinctive play tells them you will be a dynamo such as the Arizona Cardinals’ Tyrann Mathieu - who struggled with the bench press in 2013, getting just four reps at 225 pounds. Of course, Mathieu even despite recent injuries and his struggles with something “meaningful” like the bench press, turned out to be a Pro Bowl and All-Pro player.
This narrative, is also about fitting a player into constructs of your inflexible, over-personal diagnosis. It’s here where the conversation suffocates players in being judged by their efforts sometimes solely in a weight room and separate setting away from the game. Sure, you want to watch for fluidity of hips, explosiveness, strength, and all of these positive traits needed to be successful. But just because a guy struggles in any of these aspects, doesn’t mean he should be automatically given up on or precipitously fall down draft boards.
What does it matter if someone didn’t light it up in the shuttle drill, or jump as high as possible with a vertical? Relatively nothing.
Disappointment here shouldn’t be an automatic black mark against how a player performs, and yet, this is how sleepers such as Mathieu (who was drafted in the third round) are created. The nonsense of the Combine leading a league sans the Cardinals, to miss out on a special player.
And let’s be honest, workouts such as the 40-yard dash or bench have no bearing on ability. For example, when current Bears punter Pat O’Donnell gets more bench reps (23) than Jadeveon Clowney (21) at the 2014 Combine, the prospects of this workout become hollow considering current career trajectories - Clowney has become a franchise defensive end.
On the dash, how many times is a skill player, let alone an offensive lineman, actually streaking down the field in that respect? (Yes linemen can be seen in their 10-yard time, but even there the same concept applies. They’re not moving 10 yards down field all that often.)
Nevertheless, even the faintest whispers of a player’s “work ethic”, lack of “drive” or his meandering performance at the combine will in all likelihood, have him fall to a luckier team who still sees the light, though. All providing the production and other more valuable game action matches their scouting report and investment in that guy.
The combine is also mistakenly and inherently about asking players questions that bear no meaning to their actual character or status as future NFL players. That’s because teams have convinced themselves these kinds of pertinent questions somehow have a bearing on deciding what a player will become.
Here are a couple of examples starting with former NFL defensive end, Austen Lane, putting this silly interview process on blast.
When a scout asked me at the combine if I had to murder someone: Would I use a gun or a knife? pic.twitter.com/R5BHMxiDM7— Austen Lane (@A_Train_92) February 23, 2016
Hmm. Interesting. If a player were to murder someone, he’d tell you how he’d do it, or it would in some distant universe it would matter how he would commit the murder, instead of the act itself in any vain. Not sure if the aim here is actually about football.
Then, just last year, current Minnesota Vikings guard Willie Beavers was asked if he’d rather be a cat or a dog.
Western Michigan OT Willie Beavers said the Falcons asked if he'd rather be a cat or dog. He said dog.— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) February 24, 2016
Again, is this a horoscope or BuzzFeed quiz. Is it even about football? I know when I think of my ideal offensive lineman, I definitely want to know which character he most relates to in Sixteen Candles. I want him to dish all the details. That’s the separator between winning and losing in this league.
Of course, there’s always the possibility they want to see how a player reacts on the fly to an unexpected question or intrusion of privacy, but what right does a team have to do that? The fact that that is part of evaluations of a player speaks of a flawed, perverse mindset. NFL teams have all the right to do their due diligence and homework on a rare chance to add quality talent to their roster, but there has to be a line.
You can’t over think and forget previous qualifiers you know about a player. And, you can’t or rather, shouldn’t delve into pointless non-sequiturs found on any general or deep internet personality quiz. There are better ways to apply these ideals. There are other avenues to explore than pushing all of your chips onto the table in this odd manner.
The best advice for a player who can’t control how teams look at the Combine: Run the best 40-yard dash all you like. Knock out a heavy set on the bench press. Dominate every drill to the best of your ability. It still matters...to an extent, only because the system hasn’t changed. In reality, it’s only there for scouts and general managers who want to convince themselves the worth of a faulty evaluation process in many ways.
So as the Bears and general manager Ryan Pace work to turn themselves into a contender in one of the most crucial off-seasons for the franchise in recent memory, they’d do best to step a little away from their magnifying glass on the Combine after the fact, and not look directly into the sun.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.