Underwear Olympics, aka NFL Combine, irrelevant for evaluating NFL talent

In every fourth February, athletes from all over the world convene in exotic foreign cities (except when the games are played in the U.S.) for the Winter Olympics.

In every February, pro football players from all over the country convene in Indianapolis for the Underwear Olympics, aka the NFL Combine.

Though no medals will be awarded, the men who run the fastest, jump the highest, and/or lift 225 pounds the most times while wearing T-shirts and shorts could be poised to earn more money in July, based on the precise moment when they hear their names called out in April.

Jerry Rice didn't overwhelm anyone in pre-draft workouts. He did in the NFL.
Jerry Rice didn’t overwhelm anyone in pre-draft workouts. He did in the NFL.

The Underwear Olympics process has little or no relevance to the sport of football. As we’ve heard time and again over the years, a football player needs to be able to run 40 yards in a straight line only on one of two occasions — when something very good has happened, and when something very bad has happened.

And yet scouts continue to obsess over the Underwear Olympics, which provide tangible data regarding a transition process from college football to pro football that will be driven largely by intangibles like heart, desire, and the ability to take repeated shots to the chops from a grown man.

Because there’s no way to know whether a player who played well among college-caliber players will be able to thrive when competing against the best of the best that more than 120 universities had to offer over the course of a decade or longer, NFL teams rely on the Underwear Olympics to provide superficial justification for decisions that ultimately are made at a far more visceral level. Seasoned coaches and scouts develop a sense for separating the skilled players who genuinely love football from the guys who are pretending to love it in order to get paid, but if a mistake is made based on a hunch that isn’t supported by hard evidence, seasoned coaches and scouts quickly become unemployed seasoned coaches and scouts.

So the teams rely on the Underwear Olympics to help provide a safe harbor for risks that don’t pan out. If, after all, a player’s numbers measure up favorably to others at the same position, it’ll be a little bit harder for ownership to hold the front office and/or the coaching staff accountable for wasting a draft pick and the ensuing bonus payment and salary on a guy who’s out of the league faster than Ryan Leaf.

What does any of it mean? Not all that much. Receiver Jerry Rice’s talent suggested that, in hindsight, he should have been the first player drafted in 1985; his inability to run really fast without pads or a helmet and with no football in the air left him available when the 49ers used the 16th pick in the draft.

Then there’s Vernon Gholston. The Jets linebacker has become this generation’s Mike Mamula — a player who can run and jump and lift and who looks like a monster but who gets lost when it’s time to put on the uniform and make things happen on the field.

It doesn’t make the Underwear Olympics meaningless. But they can be very misleading. And the best teams understand that the numbers and the measurements generated represent a piece of a much larger puzzle for which the answer won’t come until months if not years after the pre-draft obsession has subsided.

By then, of course, the focus will have shifted to the next crop of incoming rookies, or the next. Or the next. It’s one of the strange realities of the annual player selection process. We put hundreds of kids under the microscope through April, and then we forget about most of them once the real work starts in July and August, when teams find out the one thing they’ll never know between now and draft day: Whether players who were able to perform well at the college level will become big men on an NFL campus — or whether they’ll be among the many who never find their way against the highest level of competition.

Mike Florio writes and edits ProFootballTalk.com and is a regular contributor to Sporting News. Check out PFT for up-to-the minute NFL news.

In every fourth February, athletes from all over the world convene in exotic foreign cities (except when the games are played in the U.S.) for the Winter Olympics.

In every February, pro football players from all over the country convene in Indianapolis for the Underwear Olympics, aka the NFL Combine.

Though no medals will be awarded, the men who run the fastest, jump the highest, and/or lift 225 pounds the most times while wearing T-shirts and shorts could be poised to earn more money in July, based on the precise moment when they hear their names called out in April.

Jerry Rice didn't overwhelm anyone in pre-draft workouts. He did in the NFL.
Jerry Rice didn’t overwhelm anyone in pre-draft workouts. He did in the NFL.

The Underwear Olympics process has little or no relevance to the sport of football. As we’ve heard time and again over the years, a football player needs to be able to run 40 yards in a straight line only on one of two occasions — when something very good has happened, and when something very bad has happened.

And yet scouts continue to obsess over the Underwear Olympics, which provide tangible data regarding a transition process from college football to pro football that will be driven largely by intangibles like heart, desire, and the ability to take repeated shots to the chops from a grown man.

Because there’s no way to know whether a player who played well among college-caliber players will be able to thrive when competing against the best of the best that more than 120 universities had to offer over the course of a decade or longer, NFL teams rely on the Underwear Olympics to provide superficial justification for decisions that ultimately are made at a far more visceral level. Seasoned coaches and scouts develop a sense for separating the skilled players who genuinely love football from the guys who are pretending to love it in order to get paid, but if a mistake is made based on a hunch that isn’t supported by hard evidence, seasoned coaches and scouts quickly become unemployed seasoned coaches and scouts.

So the teams rely on the Underwear Olympics to help provide a safe harbor for risks that don’t pan out. If, after all, a player’s numbers measure up favorably to others at the same position, it’ll be a little bit harder for ownership to hold the front office and/or the coaching staff accountable for wasting a draft pick and the ensuing bonus payment and salary on a guy who’s out of the league faster than Ryan Leaf.

What does any of it mean? Not all that much. Receiver Jerry Rice’s talent suggested that, in hindsight, he should have been the first player drafted in 1985; his inability to run really fast without pads or a helmet and with no football in the air left him available when the 49ers used the 16th pick in the draft.

Then there’s Vernon Gholston. The Jets linebacker has become this generation’s Mike Mamula — a player who can run and jump and lift and who looks like a monster but who gets lost when it’s time to put on the uniform and make things happen on the field.

It doesn’t make the Underwear Olympics meaningless. But they can be very misleading. And the best teams understand that the numbers and the measurements generated represent a piece of a much larger puzzle for which the answer won’t come until months if not years after the pre-draft obsession has subsided.

By then, of course, the focus will have shifted to the next crop of incoming rookies, or the next. Or the next. It’s one of the strange realities of the annual player selection process. We put hundreds of kids under the microscope through April, and then we forget about most of them once the real work starts in July and August, when teams find out the one thing they’ll never know between now and draft day: Whether players who were able to perform well at the college level will become big men on an NFL campus — or whether they’ll be among the many who never find their way against the highest level of competition.

Mike Florio writes and edits ProFootballTalk.com and is a regular contributor to Sporting News. Check out PFT for up-to-the minute NFL news.

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