Higher, faster, stronger is still the goal for prospects at the combine, but teams are no longer easily impressed
Gil Brandt, the 77-year-old godfather of the NFL scouting combine, took a look around Lucas Oil Stadium last Saturday and marveled at what he saw: a football operation in Indianapolis running as efficiently as a watch factory in Geneva. On the field one set of offensive linemen and tight ends was being put through speed and agility drills. In a weight room other players took turns bench-pressing 225 pounds. In the press room some of the 648 media representatives lobbed questions at USC defensive end Everson Griffen, while others pecked away at stories on players they had already interviewed.
"I always thought of myself as an aggressive thinker," said Brandt, the longtime Cowboys scouting chief who now assists with the operation of the combine, "but who could have seen this coming?"
Above all else, the combine remains a measuring tool. The 329 players in Indianapolis this year were put through physical exams (four times, eight doctors at a time, one from each of the 32 NFL teams), intelligence tests and other mental exercises, athleticism and position drills on the field and, at night, team interviews lasting 15 minutes. "You get dizzy from it all," said Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford just before 11 p.m. on Saturday. "You go from 5:30 in the morning till 11 at night, every day. You better be in good shape when you come here."
But over the years enough combine standouts have failed to pan out as pros that some personnel men are putting less value on the data collected at the Underwear Olympics—the nickname old-time scouts have given the event—than before. One team executive told SI last week he had no interest in going to the combine anymore; instead he was relying on video study of the players' college careers to set his draft board. He said his board was 90% set before the combine and would change only if a player's character or medical condition came into question.
While there are no official combine records for the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and shuttle run, there is anecdotal evidence of outstanding achievement in the drills—which, in many cases, marks the high point of a player's NFL experience. For instance, at the 2000 combine defensive tackle Leif Larsen, a Norwegian from UTEP, set what is believed to be the alltime bench-press high of 51 reps. (No player has come within six reps since.) Larsen wound up appearing in 16 games and making 16 tackles over two seasons with the Bills before being waived out of the league.
The best vertical jump is said to have been made in 2004 by North Carolina safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who soared 46 inches. He's had a middling five-year career with the Jaguars and the Cowboys. As for the three-cone drill—in which players sprint and weave around cones placed in the shape of an L, five yards apart—Texas A&M cornerback Sedrick Curry rocked the combine 10 years ago, churning through the drill in 6.45 seconds (a time that has not been beaten). Alas, he wasn't drafted, never played in the NFL and hooked up with the Birmingham Bolts of the short-lived XFL.
"If you ran under seven [seconds] in the three-cone drill, you're almost a cinch to make it [to the NFL]," said Brandt, who then had a second thought. "But no drill's perfect."