MADISON, Wis. — Four NFL scouts huddled in the front row of metal bleachers, attentively staring down the field with a stopwatch in their hands and a notepad and pen in their laps Wednesday afternoon. The fate of players’ professional football careers rested in those digital numbers quickly converted to paper.
The men, decked in polo shirts and hats representing the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints, were waiting to see if Montee Ball could shave a tenth or two off his 40-yard dash time — as if a faster finish than his NFL Combine performance would somehow make him a better running back.
Ball took off and sped past the bleachers, giving them exactly what they were looking for during his pro day. He registered a 4.46 and 4.49 on two runs, down from his time of 4.66 seconds 10 days earlier at the Combine. The scouts glanced at one another’s stopwatches and marked down the times approvingly. Two-tenths of a second improvement, and Ball was back in the fold as a viable first-round NFL draft choice.
Yet something about the whole process seemed flawed. Ball is the all-time touchdown leader in NCAA history, a Doak Walker Award winner and a Heisman Trophy finalist. And one disappointing 40-yard dash time — after a stellar four-year college career — threatened to send his draft stock plummeting.
Yes, a certain aspect of drills must be quantifiable and measured against other prospects. But isn’t a bigger component statistics or film or something that more accurately resembles an actual game? How often do players run a straight 40 yards on Sundays? Shouldn’t physicality, vision and instincts be met with the same sense of anticipation?
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez recently pointed out that many of the same scouts and draft gurus who suggested Russell Wilson couldn’t play quarterback in the NFL because of his height were saying Ball couldn’t be an every-down running back because of his perceived lack of speed at the Combine.
“It’s the biggest farce I’ve ever seen,” Alvarez wrote last week in his column in Varsity Magazine, the UW athletic department’s weekly publication. “They ought to spend more time watching game film. How about watching someone actually play football instead of comparing their times and reps to others?
“Some of these guys who are breaking down players at the NFL Combine — the ones who have never coached or played — wouldn’t know a good football player if one hit them between the eyes.”
Putting so much stock into numbers at the combines and pro days that it overlooks a player’s on-field performance in games clearly is a mistake. Wilson stood 5-foot-10 5/8 at last year’s NFL Combine, meaning he would be the shortest quarterback in the league. All he did was lead the Seattle Seahawks to the playoffs and earn a spot in the Pro Bowl.
At this year’s Combine, Ball bench-pressed 225 pounds just 15 times, which tied for last among 33 running backs participating. The numbers set off more alarms that Ball somehow wasn’t ready to be an NFL standout.
Does the football weigh 225 pounds when he’ll be carrying it, too?
Badgers center Travis Frederick encountered similar blowback after participating in this year’s Combine, when he benched 225 pounds 21 times — a relatively low number for an offensive lineman. That didn’t prevent Frederick from starting 31 games on Wisconsin’s offensive line in his career and becoming an anchor to one of the best units in the country.
“I think 21 is a respectable number,” Frederick said. “It may not be where I thought it needed to be. But here at Wisconsin, we don’t do reps. We go out to be as strong as we can on game day. We do a lot of low rep stuff. I think I’m pretty good at that.”
Just as lower-than-expected numbers don’t guarantee failure, spectacular Combine numbers are no sure indicator of success.
In 1999, for example, Eastern Kentucky defensive tackle Justin Ernest set the Combine record by bench-pressing 225 pounds 51 times. Based on his Combine numbers, he should have been a 10-time Pro Bowler. He went undrafted and never played in an NFL game.
That same year, Eastern Kentucky wide receiver Rondel Melendez ran a 4.24 40-yard dash. He was a seventh-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons and also never played a down in the NFL.
In 2001, Iowa wide receiver Kevin Kasper ran the 20-yard shuttle in a record 3.73 seconds. The Denver Broncos drafted him in the sixth round, but he played for nine different teams — and he was a practice squad player on four of those teams.
In 2007, East Carolina wide receiver Aundrae Allison tied for the fastest 10-yard run time at 1.43 seconds. He was a fifth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings, was cut after one season and most recently played for the Virginia Destroyers of the United Football League.
“A tenth of a second is like that,” former Badgers cornerback Devin Smith said as he snapped his fingers. “It really doesn’t show anything. I think film shows game speed just by being able to react. You’re not really running a flat-out 40 on the field.”
Even Ball admitted the past 10 days had been frustrating knowing one number served as the biggest judgment on his ability and jeopardized his draft prospects.
“But they’ve got to evaluate all of these players somehow if you think about it that way,” Ball said. “You’ve just got to step up to the plate and do what’s expected. That’s how the NFL is.”
Still, just because that’s how NFL scouts operate doesn’t make it the best model for determining success.