If you need any reassurance that the National Football League is king, the recent fuss over its pre-draft combine just about sums it up.
Even with a very good Winter Olympics making headlines, the NFL ruled the day with a glorified workout featuring its newest crop of potential stars.
I'm a Major League Baseball guy myself, but I can understand why the gridiron has taken center stage in the American athletic arena.
The League is much better suited to the modern age of video clips and information clutter than its closest competitors (for now keep an eye on the Ultimate Fighting Championship) because its events are mostly digestible in short bursts.
Nor does it hurt that the spectacle of the NFL is arguably unsurpassed: both in presentation and (when it involves an actual game) the athletic marvels on the field.
Of course, common sense often gets lost in all that enthusiasm.
And, again, the NFL Scouting Combine captures the phenomenon perfectly.
Remember, this is essentially a practice—the pressure is tweaked up by a measure I can't really appreciate so it's not Allen Iverson "Practice!?! ," but there is no sincere defense on the field and the guys in the stands have notebooks or computers instead of beers.
Still, every year, you'll see guys shoot up the board or fall down it based on their performance in pre-draft workouts and in the face of their collegiate, onfield resume.
It seems Bruce Campbell, an offensive tackle from Maryland, is this year's superfreak who's turning raw athleticism into cash money.
You should probably be sitting for this: The former Terrapin checks in at 6'6", at least 315 pounds, with a 32" vertical leap and a long jump of 8'5." He ran a 4.85 40-yard dash, tossed up 34 reps at 225 pounds, and I'm sure 7.58 in the "3-Cone" is impressive as well (but I have no idea what that is).
So, yeah, the 21-year-old has physical gifts oozing out of his pores.
The bad news?
How about this from FOX Sports ?
"He didn’t have a great career, struggled with his durability, isn’t much of a run blocker, and doesn’t have the raw bulk to be a bulldozer of a NFL run blocking left tackle."
If that's the consensus after three years in college, what's all the excitement about?
As I understand it, the NFL is more difficult than the NCAA version.
For the flip to this particular coin, allow me to introduce former Florida Gator cornerback Joe Haden and former Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Rolando McClain.
Haden would get more than a few votes for the best collegiate defensive back in the country.
He was part of that stifling Gator defense (right up until it faced 'Bama) and a big part by notching 57 tackles, four interceptions, and three sacks.
The 20-year-old also owns the distinction of being the first true freshman to start at the position for the Gators, i.e. he's been doing this for three years now (he's coming out as a junior).
McClain, another 20-year-old, is one of those nightmares who requires a link because listing all his various achievements becomes tiresome quickly.
Suffice it to say, if there was an award for a linebacker in 2009, it went to the Crimson Tide's stud.
Most notably, his mantle boasts the 2009 Jack Lambert Award, the 2009 Dick Butkus Award, and a nice slice of that 2009 National Championship.
You see the parallel: Both of these kids tore up the college landscape when wins and losses were at stake. They've proven it ON THE FIELD, yet both are apparently sliding down boards because of concerns about speed.
Look, I understand the NFL is faster than the college game. Much faster.
However, anyone who has ever played an organized sport that practiced between games knows exactly what it means to be a "practice player."
The game environment is the ultimate x-factor, whether it changes the individual psychologically, emotionally, or even physically, it most definitely changes most people.
Some get better; some get worse; and there are the weirdos who don't even notice a difference.
Consequently, we've all known that teammate who is absolutely unconscious in his/her chosen sport so long as the practice jerseys are on.
Put some fans in the bleachers (even a mediocre high school crowd) and rock those special game units...well...it's a different story and it ain't pretty.
Furthermore, it makes good logic that exceptional performers—the ones who find an extra gear when the chips are down—might have a little trouble mustering that oomph for a practice.
Even one as unique as the NFL Scouting Combine.
That's not to say both Haden and McClain are neither "can't-miss" prospects nor that Campbell will collapse like so many other pre-draft supernovae.
Let's face it: Pro franchises employ people for specifically this process of evaluation and I'm not one of them.
But ask Ray Lewis about the difference between practice speed and game speed.
I'll go to my grave convinced some beasts are simply faster during the real thing.
Maybe Haden and McClain are those types of players.
If I'm a betting man, though, I'm going with the evidence that argues most persuasively:their body of work with opponents hitting back.
Stopwatch and muscles be damned.
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