The NFL Combine wraps up Monday with defensive backs completing their on-field drills, bringing to a close the league’s weeklong annual scouting showcase. And for those who have never been there, it’s an interesting experience to say the least. With that in mind, here are nine things you might not know about the Combine and the city that calls it home:
It’s a well-oiled machine
The Combine has been in existence in some form or fashion since 1982 and made its first appearance in Indianapolis in 1987. Over the 30 years since, the NFL has mastered the art of putting on the event, maximizing every second that athletes, coaches, agents, executives and reporters have. For the players themselves, it’s virtually nonstop motion throughout the 72 to 96 hours guys spend in town, as they’re shuttled from event to event to event by NFL handlers. And though I did observe a few personnel-types making midday burger-and-beer pit stops throughout the week — as you should in a city where 3 Floyds brews are readily available — they were almost always on their way to or from somewhere important, as well. So while it looks like fun, and guys will talk in retrospect about how enjoyable the experience was, it’s a business trip, first and foremost.
The nights are long
On a given day at the Combine, the various workouts are complete by dinner time. Even the media workroom closed its doors at 6 every evening. But at that point, the work is only beginning. From there, players often go through a series of grueling team interviews, with many going late into the night, especially for athletes who are in the highest demand. Some also start early in the morning — I had one player tell me about a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call one day to meet with a team, a seemingly cruel request if true — and it makes for an exhausting experience. Additionally, every hotel lobby, hotel bar and restaurant in town is packed with a who’s who of Important Football People (good luck getting a last-minute table at St. Elmo’s) and journalists working to cull information from sources. By the time it’s all said and done, everyone is ready for a long nap.
The physical events matter, but only so much
The on-field drills are broadcast live and get the most media attention at the Combine. Certainly those events matter, especially if they reveal something potentially negative about a player. (That is to say, we didn’t need John Ross to run a 4.22-second 40 to know he was fast.) But while the workouts are important, there’s more to the Combine than that. In fact, for many teams, it’s the stuff you don’t see that could have the biggest impact on where some guys are selected. For players, the physical stuff makes up just a small part of the experience and save for the bench press, it all comes on the last day, right before guys head to the airport. The rest of the week is made up of medical testing, measurements, psychological testing (including the Wonderlic), NFLPA meetings, media obligations and, most important, those team interviews. These can be informal, with a position coach or scout, or formal, in a hotel room with a board of team representatives that may include everyone up to the owner. On several occasions throughout the week, coaches and executives remarked about how the Combine is as much about figuring out what they’re drafting as who they’re drafting, the former coming through film review and private workouts as much as the Combine itself.
You appreciate the bench press more in person
All of that said, the workouts do still matter. Of all the physical events guys take part in throughout the week, the bench press -- not pictured because here's another thing you don't know ... no pictures or video are allowed, so here's a picture of Carl Lawson, who tied for a Combine-high 35 reps -- is easily the most impressive to witness in person. More so than the famed 40-yard dash, because it’s the only one that most people, by and large, can’t do. For perspective, next time you’re in the gym, find the bench press and load up 225 pounds. Don’t try to lift it (you don’t want to hurt yourself) but just get a sense of how heavy the bar feels while it’s sitting in the rack. Then imagine lifting that bar 10, 20, 30 or even 40 times without stopping (the Combine record is 51). Just thinking about it makes me tired, considering I once hit a one-rep max in the ballpark of 225 and needed a week of recovery. But almost all these guys do it and make it look easy. It’s really an exhilarating thing to witness, especially as they strain to crank out those last couple reps with the crowd cheering them on.
It’s increasingly fan-friendly
Another neat aspect of the bench press is that this year, for the first time, the NFL allowed spectators to attend the event as part of the NFL Combine Experience, a new interactive fan fest that ran throughout the weekend. The presence of fans added an extra layer of excitement to the drill, but the whole free event truly seemed like a lot of fun and a great way to engage attendees. In addition to viewing the bench press, fans could also try out several of the same drills the players run through — the 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill, broad jump and vertical jump among them — and really put themselves in the participants’ shoes, an experience also offered at the Super Bowl in Houston (pictured). Fans also had access to exhibits, virtual reality simulators and a photo op with the Lombardi Trophy. It really looked like a good time, and hopefully it’s something the league continues to provide at future Combines.
There are autograph hounds — but not many
With so many people descending on the site of the Combine, you’d expect the autograph hawks to be in full force, but fans were actually surprisingly respectful of the stars’ space, especially considering how many elite athletes there were. In fact, autograph seekers were penned off in a small area in a convention center hallway that the players, coaches and executives regularly walked through. The crowd never grew larger than a dozen or so fans in the time I was there.
Many media interviews don't provide much info
Unfortunately for us in the press, the media window — especially that with coaches and GMs — is often unhelpful when it comes to getting a sense of a team’s plans for the draft. Most executives prefer to speak in platitudes during their 10 or 15 minutes of availability, lest they show their hand to other teams. Due to the timing of the event (a week before free agency) teams are also not permitted to speak about players who are currently under contract with another team, but even when asked about guys they can comment on, teams like to play coy. (For example, Browns GM Sashi Brown answered about six different ways — none of which provided an actual answer — when asked about Robert Griffin III’s future with the club.) To be fair, it’s not like anyone expects these guys to reveal their offseason strategy to the public, but it’s interesting, nonetheless, to witness the verbal gymnastics they use in an effort to address reporters without actually providing much insight on the team’s plans.
USA TODAY SportsBrian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Indianapolis is a great host
If you’ve never been to Indianapolis, perhaps you have a skewed view of what the city is like. While no one is confusing it with New York or Chicago, it’s more of a metropolis than you might imagine. This week was my first visit to Indiana’s capital city — I promise I’m not being paid to say this — and frankly it was a lot more vibrant than I expected, with plenty of hotels, great restaurants and other experiences to keep people entertained for the duration of their stay. (They also, helpfully, have indoor sky bridges connecting the convention center and football stadium to many of the hotels in the area, which is especially helpful when it’s colder than it should be in March, which it was.) You always hear NFL types talk about how much they enjoy coming to Indy when duty calls, and after a few days there it’s easy to see why so many events set up shop in that city and why so many people like coming back.
Brian SpurlockBrian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
It’s not the only show in town
To this point, there were plenty of other things going on in Indianapolis, in addition to the Combine, over the past several days. In fact, the Combine wasn’t even necessarily the biggest event in its own building, with the Indiana Home & Garden Show (expected attendance: 12,000) also taking up residence at the downtown convention center all weekend. In addition, the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament was ongoing (with local Purdue advancing to the finals) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which on Tuesday plays host to WWE Smackdown, one of the promotion’s final shows before Wrestlemania at the beginning of April. If nothing else, it makes for interesting people-watching — I’d listen to any joke that starts with, “a Heisman winner, a general contractor, a women’s basketball star and a professional wrestler walk into a bar…” — and helps further illustrate why the Combine likes to call Indy home.