Football requires a unique combination of speed, agility, strength and talent to succeed. The NFL combine, which annually brings top college players from around the country to Indianapolis’ RCA Dome, attempts to measure these factors that are so essential for success.
Players in each position run agility drills and the 40-yard dash — the ruler by which the speed of all football players is measured. They bench-press 225 pounds as many times as they can to show off their upper-body strength. Most players compete in some sort of a position-specific drill, but these drills rarely showcase a player’s true ability or skill, because it is nearly impossible to simulate real-game situations. Putting an NFL player through the combine is like having politicians check a box to state their policy positions: It provides vital information but an incomplete picture of the candidate as a whole.
This one-week media circus is overrated, and many players see their game film overshadowed by raw combine numbers. Several players from this year’s University of Michigan draft class — and one in particular from several years ago (bet you can’t guess who) — seem to be case studies in this phenomenon.
Players who run good times in the 40-yard dash rocket up from a late-round pick to a borderline first-round pick. Backs, like Michigan’s Michael Hart this year, drop to the late rounds if they are perceived as too slow. Within many scout circles, he is no longer viewed as an elite back, despite averaging 136.1 yards per game against strong competition his senior season.
The draft board sometimes flips upside down as a result of the NFL combine.
So why is this bad? Because the players whose stocks are rising and falling have not played a real game, senior bowls notwithstanding, since the end of the college football season. They are being judged merely by a set of physical tests.
And true skill is not quantifiable. Michigan wideout Mario Manningham gave defensive coordinators across the Big Ten nightmares for years. He has Freddie Kruger-like hands, Silver Surfer-like football speed and Dr. Evil-like intelligence. He was unstoppable (except by his own kryptonite-like quarterback Chad Henne, who sometimes seemed to confuse the other team’s jerseys for his own). His ability to beat defenders down the field and make plays over the middle still makes Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel wake up at night screaming, despite the fact that Michigan never actually beat the Buckeyes.
Manningham, by all accounts, performed well in the drills at the combine, showing good bursts into his routes and catching everything thrown near him. But he then ran the 40-yard dash in roughly 4.6 seconds, which is relatively slow for a wide receiver of his size in the NFL. Manningham has fallen faster than my econ grade, going from a surefire first-round pick to a fringe second-round pick, all without playing in a game.
But he’s still a big-time player. And not just because his last name is a combination of a great football family and a delicious breakfast meat.
The one thing we know about the draft is that it’s about as unpredictable as the quality of dining-hall food here at Yale. Sometimes first-round picks turn out to be steak dinners (Peyton Manning, for example), and other times they turn out to be the tempting but not quite satisfying General Tso’s Tofu. Who remembers Akili Smith and Troy Williamson? If you don’t, I’m not surprised. They were highly drafted players who never lived up to the hype. People fell in love with Williamson’s speed at the combine … until Minnesota realized he can’t actually run routes and dealt him this week for a sixth-round pick. Meanwhile, Super Bowl heroes Tom Brady and Terrell Davis were sixth-round picks.
Tom Brady’s scouting report heading into the draft said he was skinny and not mobile. (Read: did not bench-press well and ran a slow time in the 40-yard dash.) Teams saw these results from the combine and passed on him. Years later, we see clearly their mistake.
Brady isn’t the most mobile quarterback, and he does not possess the most powerful arm. But he has a great knowledge of where to throw the ball (as shown by his play in college) and a knack for winning (also displayed at Michigan). Yet scouts and executives saw his 40-yard time and forgot all about his game film.
Don’t necessarily pass on Manningham, Hart and the other Michigan players from this draft. They may not jump like Jordan or run like Johnson, but they could get the job done. They might just have “it,” and until the combine finds a way to test that, I’ll be seeing the combine for what it is: a test of physical ability, not a predictor of NFL success.
Collin Gutman is a sophomore in Pierson College.