If you're a football fan then you know that the middle of February can feel like you're drifting aimlessly in the NFL ocean, waiting for "that next thing to pay attention to" to be the cargo ship that floats by and rescues you from the depression of another year of being single on Valentine's Day ... or another year of being with someone on Valentine's Day.
"Hey, I think I see something! It's ... It's ... the NFL Scouting Combine!"
"The NFL Scouting Combine?"
"Look Scott, it'll have to do. Anything to help me move on from the end of the Super Bowl, or worse ... deflate-gate."
"You're right," you say, just as you fire off your last flare.
The scouting combine does provide a hopeful distraction because something is happening, but I'd argue that it does little more than that. If anything, the combine can be dangerous for some teams, often making GMs out-think themselves from drafting a player who was great in college and instead going for a guy who was great on February 20th.
I begin my ruthless takedown of the combine by pointing out the obvious: Draft busts are as prevalent today as they were 70 years ago, when soldiers were still shaking the Normandy sand out of their boots, if not more so. And finding great players, before any of this mass media, mass popularity of the sport, before 4K televisions and box scores for every game, seemed to be just as easy during World War II as it is during a time when you can "stream WWII in HD on Netflix through your PS4."
Accuracy hasn't changed for the better.
Let's take the '5' draft year from every season starting with 1945.
The top pick was Charlie Trippi, a quarterback/running back out of Georgia who was selected by the Chicago Cardinals and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame. Now standards for Hall of Fame induction for someone who played in 1945 are much different than someone drafted in 2015, but Trippi was still one of the best players of that draft class and they didn't need a scouting combine in order to figure that out.
Hell, they didn't even need televisions. They didn't even need Trippi to play college football during a time when our country wasn't involved in a world-changing war.
Trippi threw 16 touchdowns, rushed for 23 touchdowns, and caught 11 touchdowns over eight seasons.
There were 32 rounds that year with 330 players picked out of college and five of them made the Hall of Fame: Trippi (1st overall), Elroy Hirsch (5th overall), Pete Pihos (41st overall), Tom Fears (103rd overall), and Arnie "The Meister of Wien" Weinmeister (166th overall.)
At a time when you could get a better scouting report on Adolf Hitler than you could on Zeke Chronister (35th overall), NFL teams still had a good idea of who was a good idea.
Now, there were plenty of guys drafted in the first round and so on that never played in the NFL, but that wasn't all that surprising considering how much the appeal and lucrativeness of playing professional football has changed in the last 70 years or that this was still pretty much wartime. If you don't believe me, just watch Leatherheads*.
*JK, do not watch Leatherheads. We get it Clooney, you're "quirky."
The 1955 draft provides an interesting tidbit that kind of goes against my point, but that's the joy of picking these examples at random, basically. There was only one Hall of Famer taken that season and he went 102nd overall in the ninth round.
The consummate "All-American football player," Unitas was rejected by his dream school (Notre Dame) but showed a lot of promise at Louisville despite losing a lot of games and subsequently was hurt for most of his senior season. For all intents and purposes he was like a rich man's Jeff Tuel and if they had a combine back then he might have been torn to pieces for his wiry, too-thin frame.
Basically they would have called him "The first Tom Brady" and everyone would have been confused as to who Tom Brady was, but it still would've rang true.
So is 1955 an example of why the scouting combine improves draft accuracy? Hell no.
First of all: Tom Brady. I just said it. It's basically the same situation.
First of All 2: The Second Firstening: Out of 13 players drafted in the first round that year, four made at least one Pro Bowl. In the second round, four more made at least one Pro Bowl. Out of the next 335 players drafted, nine made at least one Pro Bowl, including Unitas, who made it 10 times.
One more long-forgotten tidbit about Unitas: If practicing with the team that drafted him wasn't elevating his status as a professional football team, there's no way a combine would have helped.
Unitas wasn't drafted by the Baltimore Colts, the team he'll always be remembered for, he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the Steelers cut him before his season and he was working a regular day job when he made his audition for the Colts.
Three of the most iconic football players in NFL history were drafted in 1965. Let me guess where they were picked ...
Uhhh, 65th ... 190th ... and ... not drafted, smuggled out of the U.S.S.R., running cockfights out of a Chinese restaurant under the pseudonym "Lucky Pete"?
3rd, 4th, and 12th overall. Those players: Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, and Joe Namath.
There were two Hall of Fame sleepers that year -- Fred Biletnikoff (39th) and Chris Hanburger (245th) -- but for the most part things shook out as you'd expect them to shake out in 2015, in my opinion. At this point you could definitely meet potential draft picks, run workouts, and check out grainy game film in an abandoned farmhouse, but still many years from a scouting combine.
Perhaps the only "mistakes" were Tucker Frederickson (the Heisman runner-up was drafted first overall and tore his knee up in 1971, retiring with one Pro Bowl) and Ken Willard (second overall pick, four Pro Bowls) but there weren't many "busts" in the first round of the 1965 draft despite not having GIFs of Archie Sutton running the 40.
The 70s were perhaps the worst decade of the 20th century. A decade too late for the sexual revolution and a decade too early for cocaine, but hey, Friday night and the lights are low. Looking out for a place to go. Where they play the right music. Getting in the swing. You come to look for a king. You are the dancing queen.
Don't worry, at least you have disco music and that time when Forrest had sex with Jenny.
The '75 drafted featured two Hall of Famers. They were drafted 2nd (Randy White) and 4th (Walter Payton.)
Just think about it. Doesn't it make the most sense that White and Payton were high draft picks? Don't let measurables get in the way of common sense.
Sidenote: Measurables still don't usually get in the way of common sense. If a projected top-10 draft pick skips the combine, it's probably not going to change his draft status much, if at all. Which makes the combine all the more pointless.
This was the first year of "the scouting combine" sort of as we know it today. The first camp of it's kind was held in Tampa in 1982 but only members of "National Football Scouting, Inc" could attend. It was sort of like how we view ProFootballFocus today in the way that they believe they have information that teams could use, and some teams pay them for that information.
Others think that information is useless and well ...
To make things simpler, three different combines were combined into one in 1985 and it's continued now for 30 years, with changes along the way. Still, the '85 combine was the first chance for many of the relevant prospects and all of the teams to get together for one event.
This should create drastic differences in how many great players are drafted at the top of the first round, right?
More like flop of the blurst round, am I Rice?
The top overall pick was Bruce Smith, a Hall of Famer. The next Hall of Famer was Chris Doleman, who went fourth overall. And then 11 other guys were drafted before a dude named Jerry Rice went 16th overall, the third wide receiver taken.
Now maybe some could argue that Rice, a receiver that went to the most non-triumphant Mississippi Valley State, only gained enough attention to go in the first round because of the combine, but that one person would probably be wrong. Because Rice broke the NCAA records for catches and yards in a single season in 1983.
And then broke them again in 1984, with a NCAA record for touchdown catches in a single season (27) to boot.
Rice was the greatest receiver in college history and so you'd think that a guy with the nickname "World" (because he could catch anything in the world) would only solidify his status as the top receiver in the draft thanks to this new "combine" business. But it didn't.
Another Hall of Fame receiver, Andre Reed, went 86th. Randall Cunningham went 37th. Kevin Greene and Herschel Walker went 113th and 114th, respectively.
Okay so the combine has had 10 years to refine it's importance and nail all of the top picks. This is gonna be embarrassing for me because my point will be obliterated by how sick the top pick was in 1995. Unlike Jesse Spano I am not so excited, but like Jesse Spano, I'm so scared.
Round 1, pick 1, the Cincinnati Bengals select ... Ki-Jana Carter, running back, Penn State.
Carter, one of the biggest draft bust of all-time, was followed by Tony Boselli and Steve McNair, two great players, and then Michael Westbrook, perhaps the most-forgotten fourth overall pick of the last 25 years.
Like the Bears did 30 years earlier in 1965, the Buccaneers came out of this draft with two Hall of Famers -- Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks -- and did so with the 12th and 28th overall picks. The other Hall of Famer in 1995 was Curtis Martin, who went 74th overall to New England.
Sapp was drafted after players like Carter, Westbrook, Mike Mamula, J.J. Stokes, and Derrick Alexander. Brooks went after Ellis Johnson, Tyrone Wheatley, Napoleon Kaufman, James Stewart, Rashaan Salaam, Billy Milner, Devin Bush, and Mark Bruener. Martin went after nine players who played in 16 or fewer career games.
If anything, it seems like at this point, if you only used these examples, the scouting combine is actually having the opposite effect of what you'd expect.
This is the year of Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers. At the combine, Smith was able to show off his height and athleticism advantages and he scored a 40 on the Wonderlic (which is high.) Some scouts thought Rodgers was a system quarterback and looked too much like Joey Harrington or Kyle Boller.
The combine was certainly part of the "tie-breaker" that went into Smith going first and Rodgers going 24th.
The best player drafted in the top 10 in 2005 is Antrel Rolle, who is very good but fairly far away from "great." It honestly seems like after 20 years, the combine has provided more "sleepers" than it has done anything for improving accuracy at the top of the draft and it's accuracy at the top of the draft that helps make shitty teams into competitive teams.
I mean, I think that the Seahawks improved because of hitting on their "sleepers" like Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, but if the combine is good for something then why were Sherman and Chancellor available in the fifth round to begin with? Especially considering that we now consider them athletic anomalies.
Over the next week, we're going to learn a lot about what the current group of draft prospects can do in a controlled environment where there are more stopwatches than helmets. Where there are more tape measurers than pads. Where they run more 40s than they run plays.
I believe that Pete Carroll and John Schneider use this time to find guys that are athletically-sound enough to run their system at specific positions, but overall I would not be surprised if for every win gained, there's a loss as well. It's all eventually balancing out to: "We still don't fucking know."
Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston? Who fucking knows.
Is Randy Gregory the next Reggie White? Maybe. Is Lynden Trail the next Reggie White? Maybe.
What does the scouting combine really provide?
Coverage of something NFL related. Articles. TV segments. Work for Rich Eisen. Feel good stories. Feel bad stories. Distraction that the Super Bowl was three weeks ago and the actual draft isn't for another 10.
We will certainly learn a lot over the next week, but sort of like your minor in history, we ain't gonna do shit with that knowledge.