The NFL returns this week for the first time since the Super Bowl. That is, I mean, if you consider fat men in shorts dancing among orange cones to be any way related to football.
It’s Scouting Combine time. Starting Tuesday, more than 300 young men will be measured, tested, questioned and humiliated, all in hopes of improving their status in April’s NFL draft. A few will earn — or lose — millions based on how nimbly they perform gym drills.
Don’t believe me? Consider Mike Mamula, a pass rusher regarded as a third-round pick when his Boston College career ended in 1995. Mamula was a pioneer in hiring a personal trainer to improve his combine numbers. So he wowed in the vertical leap and bench press. He ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash — still in the top 10 among 449 defensive ends whose times are listed at NFLCombineResults.com.
The Eagles were so impressed they traded up five spots in the first round to grab Mamula at pick No. 7, bypassing Warren Sapp. Somehow, Mamula’s combine scores didn’t translate into on-field greatness. He amassed just 31.5 sacks in a lackluster five-year career.
That cautionary tale may be two decades old, but the mistakes repeat each year. Darius Heyward-Bey went from decent college player to seventh-overall pick based on his blazing 40-yard dash at the combine. In eight NFL seasons since, he’s averaged fewer than 25 catches and two TDs.
The flip side is true as well. Darren Sproles rushed for an incredible 4,769 yards in his final three years at Kansas, but left facing skepticism about his size. His combine performance only added doubt, as he broad-jumped 105 inches — fifth-lowest among 393 RBs ever.
Sproles fell to the draft’s fourth round. Last we checked, he’s eighth in all-purpose yards in NFL history.
And then there’s the Wonderlic intelligence exam. Hey, I’m delighted Carson Wentz aced it with a 40 last year. I’m also aware that Dan Marino (15) and Donovan McNabb (12) went on to fine careers despite flubbing the test.
It’s silly stuff, folks. And now it’s on television, pretty much wall-to-wall next weekend. We’ll watch because we’re starved for anything related to football. The combine drew 8 million TV viewers last winter, plus another 3.6 million on mobile devices.
If you tune in and become smitten by some Adonis’ shuttle run scores, heed what veteran personnel man Mike Lombardi said on NFL Network: “There are times in which many, including myself, have gone to the combine and fallen in love with numbers, then begun to build a case for a player.
“The combine is an athletic test, not a football test. That means problems arise when teams fall in love with the athlete and not the player. Each time a player has a great workout, there is a huge push to view the tape with colored glasses.”
Unfortunately, nobody will listen to that. We’ll study padless players competing against air and believe we’ve discovered the next draft diamond. Hey, don’t feel bad if you get fooled by the combine. It happens just as often to the NFL experts.