A Four-Point Plan to Reimagine the NFL Combine With Technology in Mind

There aren’t many reasons to visit Indianapolis in the winter, unless you’re playing against the Pacers, have an unhealthy passion for high school hoops in the Hoosier state, or if you’re an NFL coach or scout. The NFL combine is happening right now and thousands have descended upon the aptly nicknamed Nap City, where there’s not a whole lot to do except pray that your team or agency splurged for a hotel that’s connected to Lucas Oil Stadium via indoor walkways (snow is in the forecast today).

The NFL combine is, without a doubt, the second most important event of the year for every team in the league (after the draft). It’s also one of the … strangest. As a player, Dave was poked and prodded and put through a gauntlet of drills in 2006 to determine if he was the next Wes Welker. After retiring from the league, he went back to sell tech products to coaches and clubs (and was suddenly a fan of all that poking and prodding). Before this year, Steve had attended 12 combines in a row as a coach and a consultant.

This is the only time of the year when every NFL coach, scout, trainer, owner, and agent is within the same 10-block radius and (for the most part) working together. There is no direct competition; this is a time when you catch up with friends who’ve moved on to other jobs, or observe, out in the open, how other teams operate. It’s one part high-school reunion, one part back-room business. If there were to be an unfortunate gas explosion or salmonella outbreak at St. Elmo’s, it’d wipe out the league and there’d be no one to write about it—the entire NFL press corps is also in the same 10-block radius.

There are three main functions of combine week: 1) Collect data on players, 2) Get a head start on deals, such as free agency, rookies, corporate, etc., and 3) Network. Here’s how it all works—and how we think technology could make it better.

Collecting Data on Players

The combine exists to put players through a series of tests that give teams a chance to measure their athleticism and see if it matches up with what scouts have been watching on game film for months. Players participate by position groups, with each group taking four days to cycle through the process.

On Day 1, they register and do the hospital exam, including X-rays if needed. That evening, they go through orientation and the first of three rounds of interviews with clubs.

Day 2 begins with players parading, in their underwear, past hundreds of coaches sitting on the edge of their seats to hear height, weight, hand, arm, and wingspan measurements. The real point of this is to get an eyeball on the players’ body types, because all of the stats are given to the clubs after the combine. High ass, pigeon-toed, fleshy and many other descriptions are scribbled into notebooks during this show of skin.

Then it’s on to the detailed medical examinations. For teams, this is the most critical event. And this is one of the most thorough medical evaluations a player will ever get. Teams look for both internal and orthopedic issues. Everything is covered: blood work, EKG, stress tests, MRIs, kidney and liver function, pulmonary, knees, shoulders, lumbar spine, and Cybex joint movement, among other tests. Drug testing is also done, and then teams get to do an independent evaluation so their own doctors can get a close-up look.

Day 3 begins with psychological testing. By that afternoon, players have taken the infamous Wonderlic test. The Wonderlic is widely regarded as a horrible test, but it allows for side-by-side comparisons. The league is split on it, with half of the teams refusing to take it seriously and the other half believing in it. We did some studies and found that there is a low validity to the test as a predictor of performance and draft position—and it actually has a negative relationship for some positions. Based on internal studies, we found that an ideal score for a quarterback is around 27. But that’s only because the baseline threshold for IQ is 115, which is roughly a 27 on the Wonderlic. But we must stress that there are better ways to test for IQ, and good teams will use those methods when a player visits the club in March for one-on-ones. (Also, a QB with a 115 doesn’t guarantee success, it’s just one variable. A dynamic athlete with a 105 may be just what the end zone ordered.)

Day 3 also includes the bench press, which is now the second most insane thing in television after a GOP debate. You’ll hear talking heads on NFL Network drone on about how it shows competitiveness and heart, but that reasoning is garbage. The event is a chance for coaches to get together and talk shop, and for players to do something in front of everyone that they already do every single day. Bench press is just a part of football and it’s just a part of the combine, it has zero validity for evaluation.

The third evening is also the third round of interviews for players. There are two types of interviews at the combine: formal and informal. Teams are allowed to pick 60 players for formal interviews over the week. They get 15 minutes with a player, who sits with the GM, head coach, coordinators, and position scouts. The team psychologist, or psych consultant, is often present as well. There is wide variance in the way these are conducted. Normally the GM or head coach will lead the interview questions, but a coordinator or position coach might put on a prepared film that shows the player performing both well and poorly. Coaches will put the player up on the white board and ask them to diagram plays.

Some teams will use this time to perform short psychological profiling as well; a small cottage industry for consulting psychologists has sprung up at the combine, but many sell false claims. There is no valid psychometric test that takes less than 15 minutes to administer. And then, finally, this is the time for a “come to Jesus talk” for any player with character issues or off-field concerns. The conversation is direct and teams cut to the chase. In 2010, Steve was still a coach and interviewing tight ends; the team had identified one in the draft who felt pretty complementary to Antonio Gates, but he had some adverse reports from the past. In this instance, the player came straight out and addressed it when the interview began and then moved on. The point is, everything is out in the open.

The informal interview process is held at a place called the “train station.” Teams are given eight passes for the room, with six normally going to position coaches and two to runners. The coaches are there to interview players in 10-minute increments, and the runners are there to make sure the coaches get the players they want. There is zero organization and uniformity to this process. The group of scouts charged with organizing it blow an air horn every 10 minutes for the first hour before they realize that all of the older coaches are ignoring them. The entire train station devolves into a free-for-all where coaches fend for themselves in order to check all of the designated players off their list. The interviews themselves are very coach-centric and based on relational or technique questions. Overall, the train station is a good chance to see how a prospect handles chaos, but it’s also a good place to make dinner plans for later that evening. The smartest coaches are a slick group of QB coaches who interview players together and normally knock out their lists by the first half of the second night.

That leaves Day 4 for the players to do the drills. It all starts with the 40-yard dash (about the distance one would cover on a punt). Without a doubt, speed kills in the NFL, but this test provides mixed validity. There are some positions where it’s used as a red line, but it’s hard to say that it alone is predictive of future performance. The vertical jump and broad jump both have low validities; these tests just don’t really predict anything. The 3-cone drill and shuttles (20-yd and 60-yd) actually do have some validity by position. These drills show short-area quickness, explosion, bend, agility, footwork, and overall athleticism. The tests then finish with position-specific drills, which can reveal specific technique issues but are rarely used in making meaningful decisions.

Past studies have shown that there are some interesting nuggets of validity at the combine. Running back, wide receiver, and defensive back results are predictive of draft order (but not of NFL success). Which means that somewhere between the combine and the draft, teams are making evaluation mistakes. This most likely occurs when a specific GM falls in love with a player, or a type of player, and their bias overrides the evaluation data.

We found that specific 10-yard intervals of the 40-yard dash may have some value for some specific position groups, but the results still need to be verified with a real study. The 3-cone drill may have significance, especially for quarterbacks (because of footwork), but the broad jump and bench press are basically useless. Like the winter storms that typically hit Indy this time of year, the end result of the combine testing is slushy, but it provides standard information that allows scouts and coaches to compare the players of today against players of yesterday, and that is useful for standard NFL scouting models.

That said, we think the combine should strive to reimagine the usefulness of events and ensure that both teams and players get value from each one. Rather than timing straight-line speed, we should be timing players getting in and out of breaks, off the line of scrimmage, and the like. We can do this right now with simple wearables and timing gate technology—and we can also do a lot more (which we’ll get back to in a minute).

Deals and Networking

The combine is also about business. This is often the best time for teams and agents to begin working on deals, for companies to pitch teams, and for coaches and scouts to get a head start on their next job in case they get fired after the upcoming season. And like the player interviews, there are two types of deal-making and networking going on—formal and informal.

The formal process happens in private suites and hotel rooms throughout the city. Teams and agents begin discussing current renegotiations and establishing common ground for free agency and even rookie deals. No explicit negotiation occurs, since that may be against league rules, but rather teams and agents begin to build relationships that will solidify deals in the not too distant future. Agents spend time spreading the gospel of their players to clubs and writers to create buzz that might help them get drafted higher or at all if they’re borderline players.

Internally, GMs and head coaches spend a lot of time running through free agency and draft strategy during combine week. There are hundreds of moves to make during the off-season and each has a ripple effect. Game-planning those moves, and then bouncing ideas off others on the team or throughout the league, is simply good business.

The informal process takes place in bars and restaurants. Venerable watering holes like Ike and Jonesy’s (old-school coaches), the Severin Bar (cigar smokers), Kilroy’s (binge drinkers), 1933 Lounge (upscale drinkers), and Claddagh Irish Pub (stalwart NFL front office types) are where much of the business behind the NFL gets done. Dinners at one of the many steakhouses (St. Elmo’s, Ruth’s Chris, Harry & Izzy’s, Morton’s) are attended by coaching staffs, old friends reconnecting, and new networks being established. Smart coaches and scouts use this time to get friendly with not only agents and other teams, but also with media personalities who may be able to help raise their profile.

At the end of each night, you find yourself hanging out at Mo’s with a group of agents, head coaches, scouts, and reporters before you are granted access to the bus outside with the big Cowboys star on it. The late nights of the NFL combine are the seeds of future personal and business relationships, and you must always remember that this is a relationship business—a beer shared one night may turn into an opportunity down the line.

Reimagining the Combine

So that’s what happens at the combine, but what should happen at the combine? At least two teams (the Broncos and Rams) aren’t sending their assistant coaches this year—after all, those coaches get the information from the tests in near real time. Watch “Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching” and fast forward to 6:30 in the documentary; watch for a minute and you’ll see how “important” the combine’s “objective” tests are to two of the best coaches in any sport, let alone football.

It’s time to reimagine the combine to make it more useful and insightful beyond medical screenings. Here’s our four-point plan:

  • First, take away tests that are also done at Pro Days or observable on game film. What’s the point of getting 35 bench reps at the combine and having the player do it again at their Pro Day? The GM/scout/coach can watch game film to see how players move on a football field, with other football players around them. Let’s remove the unnecessary stuff.
  • Second, get back to football and forget the track and field. Add drills that reveal actionable info about a player’s football movement. For example, receivers should run hitches and ins/outs with sensors on them so we can see just how fast they get in and out of breaks. Let’s spend some time trying to put data to descriptive terms in scouting reports such as burst, get-off, and explosion.
  • Third, put athletes in realistic scenarios. Running around in your underwear isn’t exactly telling us who can really strap it up and perform. Tests should be done with gear on and simulate more of the aerobic exercise and constant battle a player must endure for four quarters and over four months. Running a 25-yard shuttle doesn’t inform anyone if you can and are willing to run down a play from the backside in the fourth quarter on a cold December in New York.
  • And finally, turn medical information into performance programming. Every player is medically screened, but none leave the combine with a prescriptive list of things they can do to alleviate any issues the doctors may have found. Here is an example of how that might work. Johnny Smith from Alabama runs through a biomechanical screening that identifies an imbalance between his right and left quads that is causing an overcompensation and inappropriate loading of his left knee when he uses it to push off. He discovers that at the combine and is given a six-week training program that will correct the imbalance, thereby reducing the chance he blows out his knee on the first day of rookie mini-camp after he’s drafted and signs a deal for $20 million. Companies like P3 out of Santa Barbara are doing things like this already in the NBA and other sports. The NFL can and should do this as well.

The NFL combine is a lot of things, but boring is not one of them. One week, about 335 players, about 1,600 staffers representing 32 teams. To those watching it on TV, enjoy the show. To those traveling there, enjoy the snow. I (Steve), for one, will be basking in the sunny L.A. sunshine. But, truth be told, part of me will miss the circus.

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