INDIANAPOLIS — Here's the task: From a standing start on the sideline, catch a ball fired by the quarterback to your right, immediately spin 180 degrees and catch a ball fired by the quarterback on your left. Then, run the width of field in a straight line and catch, and immediately drop, each ball thrown by five quarterbacks stationed at intervals on either side, without breaking stride.
Football’s gauntlet drill tests wide receivers’ hand-eye coordination, focus, agility and body control. It’s among many drills that make up the annual NFL Scouting Combine — a week-long, invitation-only job audition in which the top 300 or so college players hoping to be drafted are weighed, measured (height, arm length, hand size), timed and tested in series of drills performed for an audience of NFL coaches, general managers, position coaches and scouts.
But is it relevant? Quick-twitch reflexes are great for an NFL wide receiver, but dropping balls isn’t. So why have a pass-catching drill that includes throwing away the ball?
That question is likely to be revisited when National Football Scouting Inc., which runs the combine, takes a hard look at whether its drills are the most effective means of identifying which college players will make the best pros.
It was among the chief topics at this year’s combine, which concluded Monday.
No doubt, it’s easy to compare performances in the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and shuttle run. But where is the data point that measures heart and determination?
In addition to those measureables, all players invited to the combine take an aptitude test that measures smarts and problem-solving ability. They’re interviewed by team officials probing their emotional stability, character and social skills. And they undergo rigorous medical exams that focus in particular on past injury or surgeries, aided by a raft of X-rays, MRI exams and CT scans.
But which question in a 15-minute interview exposes poor judgment and selfishness? Conversely, what confirms maturity and work ethic, particularly given the extensive coaching each prospect’s agent provides on how to explain résumé blemishes?
“The agents have done a great job in the past five or six years of prepping them for every single question,” Arizona Coach Bruce Arians told reporters last week, explaining why he purposely asks the unexpected. “You want to see them shaken up a little bit, see how they recover.”
Looking on from a suite at Lucas Oil Stadium as a small group of quarterbacks and wide receivers went through drills over the weekend, it was helpful to have the official list of the combine’s 333 participants. No college jerseys or colors are allowed; all are outfitted in identical Under Armour gear with only a number and position code on the front of their jerseys: “WO40,” for example, was Ohio State wideout Michael Thomas, who regrettably stumbled on the turf and fell during his first crack at the gauntlet drill. “QB13” was easy to spot, given Paxton Lynch’s 6-foot-7 height, tallest among quarterbacks.
The cavernous domed stadium was largely silent, with only the smack of balls hitting receivers’ hands and the murmur of NFL Network analysts on the sideline, providing instant analysis on who exceeded expectations and who disappointed.
In NFL parlance, these would-be pros are often referred to as “pieces,” like end tables, that may or may not help round out a team’s roster. All 333 in Indianapolis this past week are vying to be one of the 253 players drafted April 28-30, along with countless others not invited to the combine. If passed over, they’ll try to get signed as an undrafted player.
For the most part, all but the injured competed in the half-dozen mandatory drills, their scores measured against others at their position, as well as past NFL players who set performance benchmarks.
Although not every drill is relevant to every position, former Kansas City and San Diego linebacker Donnie Edwards, who played 13 NFL seasons, sees value in the process, which he went through in 1996 out of UCLA. If nothing else, Edwards said, it gives insight into how players handle pressure and prepare for important tasks.
“It’s one of those rites of passage that we go through, but ultimately it all comes down to if you can play football or not,” said Edwards, 42, who returned to the combine this year as part of a new NFL initiative that pairs veterans with draft-day hopefuls in hopes of steering them through the often-bewildering process.
Veteran draft analyst Mike Mayock of NFL Network sees value in comparing performances in the established core of drills over time. But he also agrees with New England Coach Bill Belichick, who has argued that many of the combine drills do a better job training track athletes than training football players.
Mayock would like to see the traditional drills continued to preserve a database of analytics but favors adding new drills each year that test players’ ability to think on their feet by throwing live-game situations at them with no preparation.
Arians does something similar during his 15-minute interviews with would-be NFL quarterbacks, asking each to take him down the field in their two-minute offense, describing every play.
Then, in longer interviews, he’ll toss out specific situations: “ ‘Give me your favorite play, third and five, the game’s on the line. What coverage you’re anticipating?’ ” Arians recounted. “Hopefully that gives you enough information, if you do that enough times, that the guy’s smart enough to play.”