The bane of the NFL’s existence, the NFL Draft Combine, begins in mind-numbing boredom this week. As recently as a few years ago, the combine was nothing but a figment of fans’ imaginations — times, reps and distances printed in a paper or quoted during the draft. Now, it’s part of the NFL’s attempt to be relevant for 366 days of the year. (Don’t forget it’s leap year!)
The combine is reminiscent of the draft in that for years no one figured it would make for entertaining television. Unlike with the draft, however, they were right. While the draft has the built-in drama of a schoolyard pick and hopeful fans believing this is going to be the guy who changes the direction of their franchise, the combine is about as interesting as watching injured football players go through rehab.
How awful is the combine? Let us count the ways:
1. Entertainment: I’d rather be forced to watch college football signing day, the Pro Bowl, a regular-season NBA game not involving the Warriors, a continuous scroll of Kanye tweets and a recording of a Coldplay concert, all showing on one screen while I’m locked down Clockwork Orange style, rather than sit and watch the combine. It’s the least interesting football-related thing on television since every Texans playoff game.
2. Value: We don’t even know how much teams value it. My whole thing with the combine is that it seems to me that if you had 42 games of tape on a player (the amount you’d have for a healthy junior, with 28 for a redshirt junior and 56 for a senior, give or take), that would take infinite precedence over a standing broad jump. I mean, can you imagine this discussion going on in NFL war rooms?
Scout: "He comes off the edge like a freight train. When he played [an All-American tackle] last year, he just man-handled him. Man-amongst-boys type of thing. He’s healthy. He’s energetic. And his coaches say he just soaks up everything you tell him. Dude just loves to put on the pads."
Scout 2: "I don’t know. His vertical and shuttle were weak."
3. Boredom: Do you know what’s more boring than watching a guy do reps of 225 on the bench press? Guys doing a standing broad jump. Do you know what’s more boring than watching a guy do a standing broad jump? A guy doing the vertical jump. And do you know what’s more boring than a guy doing the vertical jump? NOTHING. NOTHING AT ALL.
4. The marquee event sucks. Just like at the Olympics, the sprints are the "best in show" at the combine. Unlike the Olympics, that’s solely because everything else is awful at the combine, so the slightly-less-awful 40 wins by default. That doesn’t mean it’s not terrible, though. The easiest way to tell the combine isn’t a made-for-TV event is that the 40 consists of guys just running 40 yards without competition.
Imagine watching the Kentucky Derby but with only one horse running at a time. Who’d watch that, right? Yet in that case, there’d at least be mile splits to compare and lengths to monitor. The 40 is a gunshot race. It’s over before you know it and if you didn’t have an onscreen clock or announcers you’d have no idea what the difference between a 4.3 and a 4.5 was. There’s a reason Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps race people. It’s because it’s enjoyable.
And anyway, why the 40? It clearly benefits the handful of players with a track background (it’s all in the start) and has no practical usage beyond combine comparisons. Make the guys run with the ball. Make them run crossfield. Make them do anything but run in a straight line. Granted, we all know the correlation between speed and receiving abilities, which is why all those 1980s and 1990s Raiders receivers are in the Hall of Fame.
5.Can it be fixed? Yeah, end it. Complete fix.
But that’s not going to happen. So if the NFL is content with the ratings it’s getting for the combine, then Princess Elsa it and let it go. (Sorry, I’ve had a sick baby for a week. LOTS of Frozen which, incidentally, I’d rather watch for the 75th time than watch the combine.) If the league wants to bring in new viewers, however, here are some possibilities:
A.First, make it a 60-yard dash, not a 40. No one runs the 40. It’s too short to be interesting. Once it becomes a 60, set it up like the 100-meters at the Olympics. Seeing guys run against air resistance, thrilling as it may be, just isn’t getting it done. Race head-to-head-to-head-to-head (maybe eight-runner heats) and make them do it in pads because that’s slightly important — how you run with the actual equipment you’ll be wearing. Then after a few rounds, get the top runners together, have them run the race and crown the winner, then give him some extra scratch.
B.Have a sort of Hard Knocks for the combine. Take a top prospect, two middle-tier prospects and then some longshots and see what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. This should be done for the draft, too, because unless you’re one of those Marilu Henner types who can remember everything, it’s hard to follow both the NCAA and NFL intently. NFL fans need some intro to the non-stars in the draft (which, in the case of this year, is most of them).
C.Make it a reality show. I don’t know how. Who am I, Mark Burnett? But I’m sure there’s a way to make this an interesting reality television experience. Have a competition at each position, using the data collected. Eliminate people every step of the way (but only from the "show," not from the actual combine), have Shakira be involved somehow, get Ryan Seacrest to host (he’ll need a TV job in about three months) and — voila — TV magic.