Failing a Marijuana Combine Test May No Longer Be NFL Teams' Biggest Concern

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 23, 2018

Reuben Foster
Reuben FosterD. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

Last year, like so many others, more than 300 prospects lined up at the NFL Scouting Combine, went into a room and peed into a cup. 

Most would pass the litany of tests the NFL runs to see whether any players are using drugs banned under the collective bargaining agreement. But one drug in particular seems to snag multiple players every year: marijuana.

No matter the position—defensive linemen, quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive linemensomeone gets caught either with marijuana in their system or a diluted sample that constitutes a positive test under the CBA.

Last year, the big name was Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. He told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport that his failed test was due to a diluted sample. Foster said food poisoning caused him to become dehydrated, so he drank a large amount of water to rehydrate.

If you believe that, you also believe in flying saucers.

Failing that test remains one of the most remarkably dumb things a player can do. They know months in advance that they will be tested, yet some still smoke. Teams have long called the combine drug test an unofficial intelligence test.

This year, someone else will fail. It's as predictable as a Klingon sneer.

There's one thing about this combine that might be different, though. For the first time in a long time, some teams are telling B/R the impact of those positive tests might be lessened in the overall evaluation process.

Not ignored. Lessened.

"We just don't care as much about marijuana as we used to," one longtime AFC team official said.

Instead, several team officials said they are putting far more emphasis on domestic violence and other severe criminal acts.

A player that fails a combine drug test for pot will still be flagged, and his draft value will diminish. Just not as much as it did in previous years.

Now, three quick things. First, my usual caveat that teams lie during the draft season. You're welcome.

Second, some teams in the recent past have already taken the approach of de-escalating the impact of a failed combine drug test.

Third, teams will deny this publicly, but how they view the severity of off-field violence, including violence against women, has long been minimized, while the issue of drug use has been maximized. Teams have long feared drafting drug-users more than woman-beaters, because for years, the NFL had no rules against woman-beaters.

That has since changed. If an NFL investigation finds a player has committed an act of domestic violence, it can lead to a six-game suspension. That's what happened to Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Had Elliott failed a drug test for marijuana for the first time, he wouldn't have missed a single game.

As society has shifted its views toward marijuana, including legalizing it in several states, and become less tolerant of violent abusers, the NFL is slowly reflecting that societal shift.

The NFL's change is far from perfect. There are numerous examples of teams drafting violent criminals. There are numerous examples of signing abusers as free agents, like Greg Hardy.

However, it seems as though some teams won't view a failed combine test for marijuana as problematic as they had in years past.

Bill Polian
Bill PolianSteven Senne/Associated Press

A few years ago, a failed combine drug test was seen as devastating. Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian exemplified this thought process last year when he said no player who failed a drug test at the combine has ever succeeded.

"Just keep that in mind when you make the decision," Polian said, speaking to NFL teams.

Polian's statement was not accurate. He later amended it, saying the "overwhelming majority" of players.  But 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Warren Sapp failed a combine drug test. Numerous other great players have failed as well. And a number of great players smoked pot once they got into the NFL.

For years, players have told me at least half of the NFL uses marijuana. Players have long said they know how to beat the tests, mainly because players who aren't in the drug program are tested for pot only once a year, between late April and early August, giving them plenty of time to get clean before the testing.

Teams have long shared Polian's harsh approach to combine drug testing. From everything I'm hearing, that view is now shifting slightly. 

There are risks for NFL teams in taking a more relaxed approach. Take Randy Gregory, for example. He failed a combine drug test in 2015, but the Cowboys still drafted him in the second round. They felt as though they were getting a bargain, a prospect who was easily a high first-rounder if not for a series of off-field issues.

Last year, Gregory went down an ugly rabbit hole of drug suspensions, leading him to be suspended for the entire year.

Some people in the NFL, like Polian, would say Gregory's failed combine test was a precursor of things to come. But the league seems to be changing. Some teams see players like Gregory as more of an anomaly.

They still see a failed combine drug test as a problem, but it is no longer the draft death sentence it once was. 

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