Wednesday, March 5, 2003
Updated: March 13, 11:15 AM ET
Teams, agents need to work on solutions
By John Clayton
The problem with the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis is that there is a split.
On one side of the RCA Dome, sitting in the stands with stopwatches are the coaches, general managers and scouts. On the other side, standing on the field refusing to work out, are the draftees. On the outside looking in but not allowed to see anything are the agents, who often advise their players not to work out.
Each year, the split widens and gets sillier. Last month, 96 of the 308 position players didn't work. A total of 126 missed one of the drills. The worst was the running back position. In one group of 16 running backs, 12 didn't run and most were to encourage scouts to come to their individual workouts on their college campuses.
What needs to happen is a group of front office people and a committee of agents need to combine their grievances and come up with a marriage that will make the annual February combine more beneficial to each group. Of course, getting front office executives to accept being on an equal negotiating turf with the agents might be harder to broker than United States diplomatic relationships with North Korea.
"It's an age old problem, but the situation is still the same," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Guys aren't going to work out no matter what we do as long as the agent is involved. We just have to take a look at the positive things. We gained a lot of mileage with the new interview process. That's a plus."
There is no job fair stranger than the NFL combine. Imagine a $3 billion business that brings 323 prospective employees to a downtown hotel each year to get to know one another. Until this February, the interview process was chaos.
The 32 teams each had scouts whose jobs were to shag players and bring them into rooms to meet the coaches, general managers and assistant coaches. Near fist fights broke out as players were tugged one way or another to get them to into the room.
Wisely, the people who run the combine decided this year that enough was enough. To provide order, teams had to submit a list of 60 players they prioritized to have scheduled interviews. Players were brought in two days earlier so that those interview requests could be better managed.
The system worked beautifully. Teams got their players. Players had a schedule. Tension was eliminated. Sure, there was more idle time for the players, but they knew that millions of dollars might be on the line so you grin and bear the inconveniences.
But where the big rift is brewing is the money being spent to prepare the players for their workouts. This is where NFL teams and agents have to come together on the simplest way to agree on a one-hour workout.
From the team side, each team pitches in $65,000 to operate the seven-day combine. They block off a hotel. They control the RCA Dome for a long weekend. The cost includes the physicals players take at hospitals.
"Before we had the combine, a team would have to bring in these players for physicals and interviews and workouts, so the team cost for the combine just to have all the interviews and the physicals is worth it," Texans general manager Charley Casserly said.
What's changed over the past 10 years is the agents' cost in preparing their clients for workouts. Most agents have to send their top players to trainers to prepare them for the combine and the workouts. Costs could range for $600 to $1,500 a week. Considering that most top trainers work on contracts for maybe six or seven weeks, one player might cost $10,000 to train.
That doesn't always include the costs of supplements and food. It may not include the lodging cost. Most of the time, these costs are fronted by the agent, who hopes to recoup the investment by making his client going higher in the draft.
When the agent gets to the combine, they are banned from the hotel in which the player is staying and they can't see what happens during workouts. Knowing that the NFL loves to work in secrecy anyway, one shouldn't expect agents to be invited into the RCA Dome to watch the combine. However, this is where the suspicion grows.
Each year, the NFL improves the working conditions for the combine but it takes a year or two for the "outside-looking-in" agents to accept whether the changes are positive. For years, the turf in Indy was slow. That's changed. Cornerbacks ran 4.3s. Linebackers ran 4.6s. The track is fine.
There were valid complaints that players were asked to do their workouts after tiring their legs on the Cybex machine. Now, there is a two-day span between the Cybex and the workouts. Complaint accommodated.
Finally, after maybe 10 years of tweaking, the track and the environment is ripe for a player to get good times and good workouts in Indy. So why do so many skip the workouts?
This is where players have to pull more into the loop to be convinced that the players should run at Indy. Agents complain that their clients have to go off of their nutritional diet for five days at Indy because meals are more sandwiches and room service. That's a valid problem that needs to be discussed.
One of the oversites this year was not having general managers make a speech to the players about the value of running at Indy. That probably will be added back next year.
"We try to get the message to players that if you run at Indy you are doing it before all of the decision-makers about your future," Casserly said. "It's the only time you are going to have a coach, general manager, position coaches and scouts together watching everyone work. We tell the players that we are only going to use the best times. We don't take the bad performances into our scouting report."
Players and agents don't believe that. The agents and the individual trainers try to peak their clients to get their best 40 times and best shuttle times at the Pro Day workouts at their schools. What is forgotten is that the cornerbacks who ran in the 4.3s would have to go into the low 4.2s to top what they did at Indy.
Experienced teams know the slopes on the fields that promote better times. They discount a lot of these improved times because they are accomplished almost at too perfect settings. That $10,000 of individual training could be wasted if a player pulls a quad or hamstring prior to these March workouts. A bad weather day could leave a mid-round choice with only a few people doubling back to see his work.
The process of drafting a player is becoming too scientific. Trainers use the latest in technology and nutrition to get a player ready for a one-hour workout he might perform once or twice in the winter. After most of the top players skip the Indy workouts, teams kill themselves to criss-cross the county in a six-week period to see what they didn't see in Indy.
It's time for teams and agents to combine their resources and get the combine and the individual workouts on a more level playing field. After all, each side is trying to accomplish the same goal -- getting the college players to present his talents in the best possible light.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.