Is the NFL Scouting Combine the Most Curious Spectactor Event in All of Sports?
As I mentioned in an article earlier this week, the NFL Scouting Combine seems to have acquired a cult following of sorts.
No, it doesn't compare to the annual Comic-Con Festival in San Diego and its many offshoots or even Burning Man in Nevada. Instead, it is more like a combination of the Underwear Olympics and a child-friendly version of "Hunger Games." Men, well at least most of them, performing in their skimps and being berated in front of national television for 32 NFL franchises.
We still watch it, and en masse. Nearly seven million Americans tuned in on T.V, while countless millions more took to Twitter and You Tube in order to get a second-hand glimpse of this new phenomenon last year.
Why is it so big? Why do we care? And why is it so darn curious that we do care?
Look at it in this simple manner. Stephen Hill, who was selected in the second round of the 2013 draft after a stellar combine performance saw him put up a 39.5" in the vertical jump, started to get a ton of recognition as one of the top receiving prospect in the draft following Indianapolis. Meanwhile, Marvin Jones put up a pedestrian score of 33" in that category. Just over six inches difference and those two players saw their trajectory change quite a bit leading up to April (via NFL.com).
If a receiver can go up and get the ball in mid air, completely taking a defender out of the play, he will be a tremendous red zone threat. In addition, he will be someone the quarterback can rely on to make plays after just throwing it up in the air. We have seen this, maybe to a fault, with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson in Detroit.
In case you didn't notice. Jones was considered a second-round prospect prior to the combine, but fell to the fifth round. Despite tallying less receptions (49) in Georgia Tech's run-heavy offense under Paul Johnson in three years than Jones recorded as a senior in 2012 (62), Hill ended up going in the second round.
I bring this up because Hill finished the season with just 21 receptions compared to 18 for Jones.
As outsiders looking in, those who were watching that single event from their couches on televisions probably didn't notice much of a difference between what Hill and Jones did in the vertical jump. Both seemed to be athletic enough to make it in the NFL. Both had the intangibles that we look for in a wide receiver.
Still, as armchair experts, they wanted to be a part of an event that had been reserved for scouts in Indianapolis since its inception in 1977.
Many of us who spent our time playing sports in high school just didn't see eye-to-eye with those "nerds" that you see above. To us, they spent their time in their parents basement re-enacting scenes from Star Trek: The Next Generation instead of doing something justified in the social construct of school, hitting on the girls and making mayhem around our towns at night.
They were going to spend lonely nights with their eyes entrenched on a computer screen, talking endlessly with people they had never even met in real life. Sound familiar? It should, it's called Twitter.
Little did we know that many of us would take part in, and become infatuated with, a sporting event comparable to Comic-Con. Little did we know that we would be spending countless hours watching men in skimpy clothing performing in front of other men, who are indeed evaluating how they look in said skimpy clothing. Little did we know that we would be spending even more hours debating with others we have not met in real life about the performances of those men in skin-tight workout clothes.
Who has the last laugh now? Anyone who spends even an hour watching the combine this week is a nerd. Don't fight it, don't pretend it isn't the case. Instead, embrace that you have become what you spend your entire adolescence, as jock, making fun of.
Oh, and realize that there are no Princess Leias to save the day for us. At the very least, the original "nerds" have that to look forward when they take roadtrips to far off destinations in order to attend Comic-Con.
Not much of a difference, eh? Again, we look at the combine in Indianapolis as a way to judge the players that might come to a specific team. We do so in order to feel like we are not left out there in left field when the annual draft rolls around at Radio City Music Hall in April.
Even those who don't write for major sites around the Internet have big boards set, do mock drafts and take part in scouting from their homes. Heck, I am not going to be at the combine this week, but my home office will sure have that type of feel to it.
To many, it is all about becoming part of something. The National Football League has grown to bounds never before imagined in the spectrum of the sports world. In general terms, more people pay attention to this sport than the other three major U.S. sports combined.
Do you plan on watching the combine
This is evidenced by the fact that only 3.5 million more people watched Game 3 of the 2012 World Series than tuned into the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine. In addition, less than 3 million Americans tuned into Game 4 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals between the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils (via TV by the Numbers).
So, more fans are interested in watching a bunch of grown men partake in what has been dubbed the "Underwear Olympics" than the ultimate yearly clash between conference winners in the NHL. Even more interesting, the combined drew 67 percent of the ratings that the World Series drew.
Yes, the combine most definitely has become more widespread and mainstream than anyone could have imagined.
More than acting as armchair scouts, many seem to want to feel a sense of connection with rookie they'll be drafting on to their fantasy football team. After all, the likes of Doug Martin, Trent Richardson, Alfred Morris, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, among others, were drafted into fantasy leagues before even playing a regular-season snap in the NFL.
Among the largest growing aspects of fantasy football are dynasty and keeper leagues. Again, this gives owners more of a sense of connection and/or control over the players they select, many of whom will play important roles in the success of their fantasy team moving forward.
Quantity of knowledge over quality of knowledge is also something to look at as it relates to why the combine has become one of the most curious spectator events in the sports world.
For a long time the average football fan knew the names of those selected in the first round, and the first round alone. This left them without much of a vested interest in the outcome of the remainder of the draft. Of course, those who followed specific collegiate teams could name off a few others, but in general terms this was perceived to be the case.
Not any more.
Even those who don't write about football for a living, the vast majority of you reading this article, can name 50 to 100 players participating in the combine. A smaller subset can name over 100 and give you a rundown of the strengths and weaknesses of each prospect.
Again, it is all about knowledge. A vast majority of these armchair experts don't have the knowledge of a Matt Miller or Mel Kiper, but they sure can explain in detail aspects of the combine and draft that had been reserved for TV talking heads in the past.
The drills are also extremely interesting and correlate well to the football field on Sunday. Among my personal favorites is the gauntlet, which looks at hand-eye coordination and well as the ability of a receiver and a tight end to look back and find the ball while running at full speed.
The three-cone drill takes a look at agility for skill-position players and defensive backs. Instead of focusing on speed alone, it helps us get a better understanding of how a prospect can change direction in mind stream by utilizing solid technique.
For wide receivers it is all about being able to run solid routes on the outside, stop on a dime and reverse direction. As it relates to defensive backs, the three-cone drill enables us to see how they're able to stay with the receiver on the outside and change direction on crossing routes.
In my humble opinion, these are two of the most important drills of the combine. They also allow regular viewers on television to get a better understanding of where each player stands without actually being at the event.
George Patton once said the following about the human mind....
Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
It's the idea that once we have the foundation to learn, in the case of the combine, the television and Internet, we can take it upon ourselves from learn and form a conclusion based on what we see.
If it means that we watch grown men in thigh-high and skin-tight shorts parading around on turf inside a dome, then so be it. If it means that we catch the awkward angle of a running back doing squats on NFL Network, so be it. If it means that we have to finally come to the realization that we are indeed nerds, so be it.
Nearly 7 million Americans will welcome this now-mainstream scouting event into their homes over the next few days. Their wives and husbands will mock them. Their boyfriends and girlfriends may give them a look that rivals Sheldon's reaction when Penny reads him "The Joy of Sex."
That isn't the point.
This curious sporting event has now gone mainstream and isn't going away any time soon. Embrace it. Embrace your nerdy insides, because that isn't going away either.
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