The NFL Draft Combine is the SAT of the Football World
About halfway through the three-and-a-half hour SAT I took with about 20 other kids in 2012, one girl asked to be excused. She never came back. Most of us test-taking students noticed the minor disruption, and after the time for a verbal section and a writing section was over, we realized she had fled the cramped public high school classroom that College Board wanted us to think would determine our futures.
I'm not sure if an NFL-hopeful has ever ran out of Lucas Oil Stadium in the middle of his Wonderlic, but like the SATs, the annual week-long showcase consists of various mini-tests that fail to efficiently gauge the skills that will lead to professional success.
Just as it's impossible to conclude that students who know the definition of the words "pellucid" or "obstreperous" or "calumny" are more equipped than their peers to handle a college setting, players' 40-yard dash times, wingspans, and Cybex scores are insufficient measurements of football intelligence.
There are countless Word of the Day services and test prep books that high school juniors pore over in Barnes and Nobles all over the country in the months and even years leading up to the SATs. Similarly, athletes can train over time to produce longer jumps and improve their agility to master the three-cone drill (yes, that is a thing).
But in a reflex-driven sport that necessitates quick thinking, the entire combine system is somewhat paradoxical. One of the most well-known pieces of evidence supporting the fact that combine stats and pro success are not correlated is Mike Mamula's NFL career.
Mamula had a legendary combine. The 6'4", 248-pound defensive end from Boston College trained specifically for each of the included drills, and ended up scoring 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic, the second-highest score ever recorded by an NFL player, and had a 4.58 second 40-yard dash (the average at the DE position is 4.88 seconds).
This stellar showing led the Philadelphia Eagles to select Mamula seventh overall in the 1995 NFL Draft, trading up from 12th overall in order to secure the player they hoped would replace Hall of Famer Reggie White.
Mamula ended up having the decently average five-season career that was predicted by his game tapes, recording 209 total tackles and 31.5 sacks across 77 games.
But while mediocre athletes can have amazing combines, elite players can do poorly. Prior to the 2003 NFL Draft, Florida State's Anquan Boldin, who was converted into a wide receiver from a quarterback, had a 4.7 40-yard dash time, the lowest out of all of the wide receivers that year. Despite catching 1,780 yards and 21 touchdowns in just 23 games at WR, Boldin fell to the second round of the draft, selected 54th overall by the Arizona Cardinals.
Almost immediately, Boldin showed that on-field performance should outweigh combine performance. In his rookie year, Boldin had 101 receptions for 1,301 yards and eight touchdowns, was the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and was the lone rookie in the Pro Bowl. He later went on to win Super Bowl XLVIII as a Baltimore Raven, and is considered a future Hall of Famer.
Doing well on the SAT is ultimately something to be proud of, as is having an exceptional combine showing. But considering the copious amount of evidence out there emphasizing the general uselessness of "testing" players and students in a controlled environment, you have to wonder if there is something more nefarious going on.
College applications have a variety of components, including letters of recommendation, transcripts, and personal essays. Evidently, schools are aware that students are more than their standardized test scores.
Yet the SATs still have enhanced significance in the collective psyches of high school students, and though it may be due to an inherent human desire to live up to arbitrary bench marks (2100 is good, 1800 and below is awful), it has to have some roots in College Board's own machinations. The abundance of bundled practice tests College Board puts up for sale and the $70 fee required to take the actual test indicate that the company is the one that perpetuates its tests' importance.
The NFL is the College Board of the football world. By now, coaches and owners know better than to draft a player based on how fast they run in one 40-yard instance. There are behavioral red flags to pay attention to, medical histories to take note of, and most importantly, lots of film to watch. Yet athletes can only attend if they receive an invitation, which undoubtedly adds to the pressure they already feel to perform well.
Take into account that the entire week is broadcast on NFL Network and that it takes place only a couple of weeks after the Super Bowl, when withdrawal symptoms are beginning to emerge, it appears that the NFL is actually completely aware of how people perceive the combine.
But the entertainment value--and thus financial value--of watching talented athletes try their hardest to jump their highest and run their fastest is what maintains the existence of this week of tests. As long as the NFL is able to generate a buzz for the showcase, and as long as fans remain insatiable for all things football-related, especially in the face of a long offseason, the combine will stay.