Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Farce of the 40

The combine is this weekend. The best college football players from around the country congregate in Indianapolis to be measured to the quarter-inch, weighed to the half pound, and poked and prodded in determining their health. After that, they are subjected to a battery of tests such as the 40-yard dash, the bench press, the shuttle, and so on. The scouts examine all the results and compare them down the second decimal place against each other, searching for the player that could be draft gold. It is sad though, because the combine really provides no merit.

I'll start with the 40. I've heard rumors about how Devin Hester ran a 4.1 and about how Darrell Green repeatedly ran in the 4.2s. But they didn't really run that fast. This article provides all the information you need on the 40 if you're really interested. I will echo some of its sentiments, but for the full monkey, read that. It has some good evidence. How can guys in t-shirts, baggy shorts, and sneakers running on artificial turf run that fast? The truth is they cannot. Well how do they get those times? Hand-timing. The NFL does not use electric timing, so it depends on 30-some scouts holding stopwatches to record these times, which is a somewhat corrupt system.

If a scout has a favorite prospect, he can easily shave a few notches off his time, making him look better to the team. If a team has a problem with a prospect, the scouts can fudge his times, pointing to bad combine performance as their reason for not drafting him. If their decision is second-guessed later, they always have bad combine performance to fall back on.

Another problem with the 40 is the circumstances. You have a football player. Starting in a sprinter's stance. Not wearing pads. And not carrying a football. Does that accurately translate to on-field ability? I don't think so. A player will run differently if they're wearing pads. A player will run differently if they are carrying the football. A player will run differently if they are carrying the football. A player will run differently if there are 11 other faster men out there chasing him. And at the combine they want him to run a 40-yard dash to determine his draft? Please.

The best analogy for the combine I have heard is "a test for which the students already know the answers." That describes it perfectly. The players know exactly what will be at the combine, and therefore can train specifically for those events. They can train to run a fast 40, they can train to bench press 225 pounds more times than anyone. But does any of this translate to on-field ability? Not really. Does Mike Mamula sound familiar? He vaulted himself to the seventh pick in the draft in the late 1990s because of his combine performance. However, he was not much of a player on the field, thus labeling him a workout warrior and a draft bust.

If I was a GM searching for talent, I would most likely stick to looking at on-field performance when evaluating talent. Certain gems can be revealed through the combine, but would do you really want to go by tests the students have all the answers for?

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