Lucas Oil Stadium is invaded each spring by the NFL Combine. | Photo by Ben Standig for The Sports Capitol

The NFL Combine is a world unto itself

BY BRIAN MCNALLY | FEBRUARY 25, 2018

The NFL descends upon downtown Indianapolis again next week for the annual football carnival known as the Scouting Combine.

The best college football players in the country arrive at Lucas Oil Stadium to run, jump and lift in front of NFL scouts, coaches and executives. Every drill repetition is monitored. Every tenth of a second matters. Millions of dollars are at stake as players’ reputations rise and fall leading into the NFL Draft on April 26 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.

“It’s definitely the biggest job interview we’ve all had so far to this date — all 330 of us here,” Baltimore Ravens defensive end Chris Wormley said last March. “But it’s football. It’s what we’ve done since I was in third grade.”

Wormley, a three-year starter at Michigan, hoped to be a high second-round pick in 2017. Instead, he slipped to Baltimore with the 10th pick in the third round, No. 74 overall. Teams weren’t sold on his pass-rushing skills. The explosion just wasn’t there on tape or at the Combine, where players theoretically have a chance to upend months of scouting work and film review.

The Combine is ultimately about measurables. Height. Weight. Hand size. Arm length. Players run the 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drills. They bench press 225 pounds as many times as they can with fans inexplicably allowed to watch from behind a rope line. Vertical and broad jumps are tested, too.

And, of course, nothing gets the football heart racing like the pure, unadulterated speed of the 40-yard dash. The gasp in the media room on the second floor of the Indianapolis Convention Center could be heard a floor below last March when Washington wide receiver John Ross broke the Combine record with a 4.22 40-yard dash. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Ross in the first round, ninth overall.

Only a handful of reporters, chosen by daily lottery, are allowed on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. Just like fans at home, most watch the on-field workouts on televisions in the media room next door at the Convention Center.

But the drills seen on NFL Network are just a sliver of the grueling week in Indianapolis. Players arrive by position group over four days. Kickers, offensive linemen and running backs come first, quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends land the next day. Defensive linemen and linebackers are followed by defensive backs, whose on-field workouts come on the final day after even the media has gone home.

Players register and head to a nearby hospital for pre-exams and X-rays on their first day in Indianapolis. They sit through an orientation meeting later. Day two features measurements and full medical examinations, including MRI exams. The medical process alone can cost players draft spots and money.

“All the medical stuff — it’s long,” New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara said. “Going to the hospital, doing the same thing over and over again. Running around with every team doctor. But it’s worth it, I guess. It’s necessary.”

It wasn’t for Redskins defensive end Jonathan Allen. A projected top-10 pick before the Combine, teams became concerned when doctors found arthritis in both of Allen’s shoulders. It didn’t affect him on the field at Alabama, but it was enough for Allen to drop to No. 17 in the draft. Washington happily took him there, but the unexpected fall cost Allen as much as $11 million on his rookie contract.

There’s a lot at stake in Indianapolis and tensions are high. Last March, Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster was sent home from the Combine after he got into a verbal altercation with a hospital worker while waiting for his initial medical examination. Some see the early wake-up calls, drudgery and endless waiting as a feature, not a bug, of the Combine. It tests players.

Foster was recovering from shoulder surgery and not expected to participate in the physical drills anyway, but his early departure left teams scrambling to figure out exactly what happened. Foster also submitted a diluted drug test sample at the Combine, which the NFL considers a failed test.

The San Francisco 49ers drafted Foster at No. 31 in the first round, he started 10 games as a rookie and was defensive rookie of the month in November. But he has twice been arrested this offseason — reportedly for domestic violence and weapons charges in California and a second-degree marijuana possession charge in Alabama. Sometimes the Combine confirms perceptions teams have going into the week.

The third day at the Combine is even longer. There are psychological exams followed by an introductory NFLPA meeting that lasts well into the morning. Players do their bench press and then fulfill media obligations. They stand at a podium in an exhibition hall as waves of reporters lob questions like so many grenades.

“Do you prefer playing in a 3-4 or a 4-3? Where did you prepare for the Combine? How fast do you expect to run the 40?”

Players are grilled on strengths and weaknesses, what position they’d like to play, what they learned at their college programs and so much more, especially if they’ve been involved in any controversy or criminal investigation during their college career.

In 2015, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston opened his Combine press conference in front of hundreds of reporters with a statement vaguely referencing a rape accusation for which he was not charged and a shoplifting incident, for which he was cited. His answer to a direct question about building trust with NFL teams was directed at an audience of 32 teams, not fans watching at home. The Combine is about apologies and promises, too.

The obligatory Combine question: “Did you meet with [the NFL team reporter covers]?” The answer to that one is usually “Yes” or “Not yet, but I will.”

That’s because after dinner, once their daily duties are over, players still have team interviews. You can always tell what time it is at the Combine because around 6:30 p.m. hordes of scouts, coaches and executives, conspicuous by the jackets, sweaters, polos or hats emblazoned with team logos, begin snaking their way through the endless corridors at the Convention Center.

You could walk for miles inside the place, which has 1.3 million square feet of space when including the attached Lucas Oil Stadium. They’re all heading to one of the many hotels adjacent to the convention center, but never have to step outside into the frigid Indianapolis night because of the skywalks that crisscross downtown. The outdoors are to be avoided as much as possible. At the 2015 Combine the temperature never rose above 26 degrees and steady winds blew over 20 mph. There are better times of year to visit the city than late February.

Teams host interviews for three or four hours starting at 7 p.m. One after another, players pass through, football get-to-know-yous masquerading as speed-dating sessions. Some teams intentionally ask wacky questions to measure a players’ personality. Is he defensive? Does he have a sense of humor? Is he quick on his feet? Then they watch film, talk football and move on to the next.

“I was going in expecting anything,” Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, a second-round pick from Florida State, said. “The previous [Florida State] guys told me to expect everything. Expect something crazy.”

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Pat Mahomes, the No. 10 overall pick, was asked if he considers himself a cat or a dog. Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard, chosen No. 19, had a coach ask him what he didn’t like about football.

“That’s a lose-lose,” Howard deadpanned.

Poked, prodded and examined for three days, the players finally move to on-field drills on the fourth day in Indianapolis. If you can run through it, around it or over it, you’ll probably have to do so at the Combine. Top players have the leverage of skipping some events and waiting for Pro Days at their colleges. Others hoping to float up draft boards do everything to put up numbers that will attract positive attention or at least force scouts back to watch more tape. Once they’re done with the on-field work, it’s time for a quick shower, some food and off to the airport.

Team personnel aren’t so lucky. Head coaches, scouts and executives are generally in town for the duration, one Monday to the next. Offensive assistants can at least leave Saturday morning when their position groups are gone and defensive assistants can arrive later in the week.

But wait in the bars and restaurants of downtown Indianapolis during the Combine and around 10:30 p.m. the crowds quickly build as coaches, scouts and front office personnel filter in for a drink or three after a long day. At Prime 47, a steakhouse where a prominent agent holds court every night at the same table in front of a bay window with a street view, floor space is cleared at about 10 p.m. in anticipation of what can only be described as an NFL frat party.

The Combine isn’t just for players, after all. It’s an NFL convention, too. The entire league has relocated to downtown Indianapolis. After hours at the JW Marriott hotel bar or Kilroy’s or St. Elmo’s, industry friends catch up, assistant coaches network for a promotion, agents chat with executives, reporters grab drinks with sources and public relations gurus make their rounds. At no other time of year are so many NFL employees confined to the same general area.

Jay Gruden signed his contract extension with the Redskins during last year’s Combine in a side room of Prime 47. Upstairs in the same establishment, coaches played Ping-Pong – or a form of it – against each other while reporters watched in amusement. At the bar, a prominent assistant provided insight into a long-ago controversy while feuding television personalities gave each other the side eye and trash-talked their rival to anyone who would listen.

This time it’s the players and agents who smile. Groups come and go, hopping from one bar to another, but the restaurant keeps right on serving until the heartiest souls finally call it a night around 4 a.m. In a few hours the whole thing starts again, the NFL evaluating its present and its future all at once.

“This is a giant process,” Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “But the [scouts] don’t work on it just in the weeks leading to the Combine. They’ve been working on it year round and I respect the job that they do tremendously. We fit into their world here.”

Jonathan Allen photo by Joe Glorioso for The Sports Capitol