Combine is a metaphor of NFL life   

Updated: February 28, 2007, 2:49 PM ET

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Say this for live televised coverage of the NFL draft scouting combine: In terms of hard-hitting football action, it really makes you appreciate the Pro Bowl.

Keith Jackson

Michael Conroy/AP photo

Defensive linemen never begin plays on their bellies, but that doesn't stop coaches from measuring drills that way.

Guys standing around in their underwear. Guys standing around in sweatshirts. Guys standing around the RCA Dome's turf field, thumbing their iPods. Guys standing in front of logo-festooned podium banners, fiddling with microphones. After watching 10 hours of the NFL Network's combine coverage -- six of them live, four of them taped -- one thing seems certain: The league's annual livestock bazaar involves a whole lot of standing around. Except for the attending coaches. They're usually sitting. And really, who can blame them?

Scout: Sweet, time for the O-linemen to get into the Bod Pod!

Coach: I think I need to sit down.

Of course, all of the standing is interrupted by periodic flurries of physical activity -- some of which tangentially relates to football, most of which plays out like an unwitting homage to elementary school field day: 300-plus-pounders running wind sprints, tight ends performing two-footed broad jumps, quarterbacks engaging in timed games of freeze tag (OK, not really). In short, the exciting parts of the combine -- for instance, watching the aforementioned 300-plus-pounders shuffle around orange toy traffic cones -- are about as interesting as observing recess at Father Flanagan's School for Pituitary All-Star Boys.

And yet: the traffic cone shuffle is on TV. The combine attracts more journalists than a State of the Union address, representing the latest frontier for the Incredible Expanding NFL, which threatens to overtake not only the continent, but also the physical universe as we know it. Boring as it sounds, people actually watch this stuff. (People watch hockey and "Tyra," too, but some things can't be helped.) And that raises the oldest question in a slew of books, one that has perplexed prophets, philosophers and Nancy Kerrigan alike.

Whyyyyyyyy?


Maybe we just like football. Maybe we miss it. The Pro Bowl took place in early February; the AFL season doesn't start until Thursday. In between? A cold, unfeeling void. Weeks of nothingness. Hour upon hour to ponder existential dread, our common orbit around a harsh, indifferent sun, the meaninglessness of life without Sean Salisbury's Fact or Fiction.

Perhaps the televised combine is simply a reminder of all that was once good and can be good again, especially now that EA Sports has released an AFL video game.

C.J. Ah You

Michael Conroy/AP photo

Combine drills prove that Oklahoma defensive lineman C.J. Ah You is faster than this obstacle.

So yeah, they have an AFL game.

I discovered this while viewing the NFL Network's coverage of the Senior Bowl practices reruns of Senior Bowl practices. Specifically, the South team, Day 3.

Tuning in, I figured, would help me prep for watching the combine, the same way players prep for the combine by working on their 40-yard dash times. Also, I had a stomach virus and was confined to my couch. But never mind that. On came an ad for the AFL video game. A hapless digital kick returner was submarined over a virtual wall. I wondered who would play this, who would buy this. The answer was obvious: The same sort of person who would watch Senior Bowl practice reruns on a Thursday afternoon. Or has a stomach virus.

Nevertheless, I sort of enjoyed the show.

Yes, the Senior Bowl workouts featured plenty of standing around. Yes, there was much stretching of the hip flexors. Thing is, the players were wearing pads, not their weigh-in skivvies, and participating in honest-to-goodness football activities. Receivers and corners went one-on-one in the red zone; I saw Washington State's Jason Hill catch a perfectly thrown fade pass for an ersatz touchdown. This was followed, in true broadcast style, by multiple replays from multiple angles: behind, above, groundhog level. Even the color commentary -- and yeah, they had that, too -- was a comforting echo of lazy Sundays past:

"DON'T GIVE UP INSIDE LEVERAGE. DON'T EVER GIVE UP INSIDE LEVERAGE!"

Words to live by. Later, I watched Louisville pass rusher Amobi Okoye repeatedly abuse the quarterback in individual line drills. Actually, he didn't abuse any quarterbacks; he simply made a mess of a towel on the ground representing a quarterback. Or perhaps Joey Harrington. The announcers claimed Okoye was only 19 years old, intimating that: (a) he graduated from Louisville in two years, making him too smart for the NFL, and waaay too smart for defensive line; (b) he began playing major college football at age 15, making him a prime candidate to join Dolph Lundgren in a top-secret government super-soldier program.

Either way, I found the age claim slightly dubious.

Still, after watching Okoye pancake one of his blockers, it was easy to imagine the youngish man doing the same thing in the NFL. And I saw him first! Hmmm. That could be the hook. Watching the combine could be like hearing Nirvana a year before "Smells Like Teen Spirit" overran the airwaves, leaving a trail of broken boy band dreams and hair metal memories in its wake.

If that's the case, it's only a matter of time -- and possibly bandwidth limitations -- before somebody starts broadcasting live coverage of Pop Warner tryouts.


Maybe we liked shaved chests. Lots of those at the combine weigh-ins. Brady Quinn, looking like an Abercrombie model. JaMarcus Russell, looking a little pudgy (though hardly little). Even the linemen were booking passage on the S.S. Gillette Fusion, possibly to snip a few precious milliseconds from their 40-yard breaststroke times. By Belichickian NFL coaching standards, every moment spent lathering one's torso could be considered a distraction, in so much as everything not directly responsible for winning football games is -- invariably, inevitably -- labeled a distraction. Only none of the coaches seemed to care. So out came their prospective employees, one or two at a time, suitably smooth-skinned, just like everyone else.

The combine in a nutshell, or more accurately a hair-clogged drain: doing what's expected of you, even if nobody knows why said expectations exist, or what purpose they serve, or if they even make sense in the first place.

(Speaking of nonsensical, the Dan Marino-helmed Nutri-System ads broadcast during the combine promised "four weeks of rib-sticking meals." Er, isn't that the problem in the first place?)

(Speaking of nonsensical II, the NFL Network combine intro proclaimed, "Starting this weekend, this will be the place to be!" Meanwhile, the image on the screen was that of a frozen river.)

Jay Alford

Michael Conroy/AP photo

There is no finer drama in sports than the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.

Consider the 40. Athletes spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for it; pro teams spend an inordinate amount of money rewarding swift performances. Forget that football players always run in pads and helmets, seldom run 40 yards in a straight line and never, ever start from a sprinter's crouch. Oh, and opponents usually are trying to deck them. But so what? The 40 is the gold speed standard, an unchanging yardstick that scouts can rely on. A slow player could be the next Emmitt Smith; a fast player, the next Trung Canidate.

As the offensive linemen ran their dashes, former coach Dick Vermeil noted that coaches only really cared about the first 10 yards. Players still ran the other 30. After all, that was the expected drill.

Literally. Other drills were more of the same: standing vertical leaps, even though a stand-still football player is a loafing football player; standing broad jumps, which seem more appropriate for competitive hopscotch; a one-on-one minimal contact exercise in which O-linemen showcased their pass blocking footwork by staying in front of spinning, juking, fellow O-linemen -- which is a lot like grading wide receivers by having them catch passes from a kicker.

The codified oddness wasn't confined to the field. It oozed from the interviews. The head coach interviews.

While the punters and kickers worked out, Eric Mangini stood behind a podium and declared, with the solemnity of the Pope giving Mass, that "you have to evaluate the best you can and hope you make good decisions." That goes for dating, too. Sean Payton added that players "come in different shapes and sizes, and we're trying in a short period of time here to measure some different things that we look for." Right. Hence the stopwatches. The interviews proved that for NFL coaches, there's no offseason when it comes to sound and fury. Further case in point: Network analyst Jamie Dukes asked Oakland's Lane Kiffin about having the No. 1 overall pick. The newly hired boy coach positively effused:

"We are looking at quarterbacks and other players. We are looking at the best available trades. I won't address the team's areas of need, even though they're obvious."

Refusing to discuss the obvious, even though it's … obvious? I think the 31-year-old Kiffin will fit in just fine as a pro football skipper.

Perhaps go down as one of the all-time greats.

I also think he should consider shaving his chest.


Maybe we like watching people getting yelled at. The NFL Network guys definitely do. Can't say I blame them. The undisputed star of the combine -- bigger than any player, any coach, bigger than network news hawk Adam Schefter, who seemed to break a new story every five minutes -- was Arizona Cardinals strength coach John Lott, a Picasso-meets-Einstein when it comes to screaming at kids half his age.

Screaming in a good way, of course.

Lott is the bench press spotter. In theory, he makes sure no one gets killed; in reality, he pushes players to the edge of death, exhorting them to "GIVE ME ONE MORE! HUT! LOCK THIS OUT! HUT!" He barks, he cajoles, he clucks like a rooster hopped up on Winstrol. He called Quinn "sunshine." It worked: the Notre Dame quarterback popped off 24 reps at 225 pounds, as many as some linemen. The rest of us should be so lucky.

Who wouldn't want a life spotter?

ONE MORE PARAGRAPH! HUT!

CALL YOUR MOTHER! HUT!

PICK UP THE DRY CLEANING! HUT!

Dashon Goldson

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

We're just wondering: Do you run faster when a position coach is yelling at you?

Like everything else combine, the connection between the bench press and actual football situations is tenuous: as network host Rich Eisen points out, players don't spend much time supine, pushing opponents off their chests. (Pigskin rule of thumb -- if you're flat on your back like an upside-down crab, you done f'd up.) Worse still, the players totally cheat during the exercise. They bang the bar against their torsos, pump out reps way too fast, drop their elbows far too low, dangerously raise their butts and arch their backs to maximize leverage. The average personal trainer would be horrified.

I watched Justin Blalock, a lineman from Texas, take his turn on the bench. A roomful of coaches and scouts looked on, ensconced in what looked to be school desks. Lott's encouragement was gentle, barely audible: "All day long. Let's go. Don't you stop." Blalock breezed through two dozen reps. Fatigue set in. Lott began to shout. "C'MON NOW! GIMME ANOTHER ONE! LET'S GO, BEVO!" Blalock grunted. He groaned. He surrendered after 40 reps, matching Larry Allen's mark in the Pro Bowl's Strongest Man competition. He looked spent. It hit me: I was wrong. The bench press has everything to do with football.

Suffer pain. Risk injury. Push yourself past what seems possible, trying to outmuscle something that will eventually wear you down, all while a group of observers crammed into too-small chairs sits in judgment and someone -- probably a position coach -- barks primal, nonsensical exhortations. All the while, know in your heart of hearts that no matter how many times you jack up the bar, it will always, always be there. And some day, you won't.

A pretty good metaphor for NFL life. A pretty good metaphor for working life in general. Push the boulder, jump through the hoop, keep grabbing at the brass ring. Do what's expected. Sooner or later, we all become Sisyphus. Even Bill Gates can't reach the top of the hill. What possesses people to watch the NFL combine? The same thing that possesses people to watch game shows and reality TV. The combine isn't peddling football; it's peddling the attendant anxieties of the American Dream, pursuit in search of happiness, aspiration and its discontents. Tony Kornheiser once noted that "American Idol" was sports for people who don't like sports. The combine is "Idol" for people who don't like glorified karaoke -- and who would very much like to play an AFL video game in which the hits seem almost real.

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.


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