NFL Combine is a business venture now

After reading that the NFL Combine attracted 5.2 million viewers last season, or more than double the viewers to ESPN’s baseball telecasts on a typical week, I thought two things: Football draftniks have absolutely no lives, and the news probably emboldened the NFL owners to hold out for a better deal with the players.

They were probably shocked to hear that their network had that many viewers, considering the NFL Network is in 43 million fewer homes than powerful ESPN.

I’m not surprised this happened, but I can’t put my finger on why it happened. All this means is that the NFL has become an over-the-top sport. The Super Bowl would be a national holiday if it weren’t always scheduled on a Sunday.

This will be my fourth decade going to Indianapolis for the Combine. The first couple of years, there were maybe five reporters there. ESPN was just starting and hadn’t figured out that it was a worthwhile event to send a TV truck. Mel Kiper was just writing a big blue draft book back out of his basement in those days, and you simply called him if you wanted some inside information.

You didn’t need credentials to attend, and security was so lax I was able to go inside the dome with a team name tag that the late Fritz Shurmur was always happy to give me. I just had to worry about not running into Bill Polian or some general manager who would go nuts if he saw me in the room where the future players were posing while wearing nothing but gym shorts and sneakers.

The posing was right next to the weight room, where soon there would be linemen straining to lift 225 pounds in as many reps as they could.

For a couple years, or until security improved, I usually had lunch with head coaches in a draped-off area. I picked my spots, not to intrude. But I remember the late Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells always being friendly enough, well, friendly enough not to yell for a security guard. I think they were surprised that a California newspaperman would travel all the way to Indiana to check out draft prospects. In the beginning, only the Indianapolis reporters and my old friend from Chicago, the now-retired Don Pierson, were even visible.

I was in the lobby of the Holiday Inn when Troy Aikman told me he wasn’t going to throw at the Combine. Of course, I said something like, “Well, what the hell did you come here for?” To be tested and interviewed, Aikman replied. Aikman not throwing was really, really big news.

This was the beginning of the end of the Combine for me. It meant you had to attend individual pro days if you wanted to see the very best college players. I don’t know if this was agent Leigh Steinberg’s idea or what, but he represented Aikman, the eventual overall No. 1 pick, and he wanted a controlled environment when his client threw the football for scouts from the Dallas Cowboys and others.

The top quarterback in this year’s draft, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, has announced he won’t throw this week. Now, Heisman winner Cam Newton says he will throw for the scouts, and that’s good. But Newton should. He has to start showing NFL teams that he can actually drop back, set up and throw like a pro quarterback and not simply rely on his wrist action. Newton needs to prove he’s worthy of being a top-five or top-10 selection come April.

Speaking of quarterbacks, I will never forget the 1998 interview sessions with Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Manning showed up in dress slacks and a sports coat, but minus a tie. Every response was, "No sir, yes sir." He was programmed from the beginning, but always respectful and serious about every question. Leaf came in wearing jeans, a mountain plaid shirt and looking like some Washington logger. His shirt was out and he admitted he put on too much weight making all the All-American dinner tour stops available for a young quarterback back then. Leaf was 20 pounds heavy and more personable, but Manning came across as a better risk as a franchise quarterback type.

That interview session, by comparison, had to be something that Polian and the Colts were watching. Polian, though, has always said that if he was drafting second he probably would have taken Leaf, too.

It was also in Indianapolis, many years later, where Bobby Beathard, who drafted the messed-up Leaf for the San Diego Chargers, admitted that he believed the half-truths that then-Washington State coach Mike Price told him about Leaf in regards to his off-campus partying ways. Beathard said he didn’t do a thorough enough job researching Leaf’s background. This was the same Mike Price who was fired as the head coach of Alabama before he even coached a game because he was caught in a topless bar while on a recruiting trip in Pensacola, Fla.

Today, the Combine has really become a television affair. We can watch all the drills, linebackers running around cones and especially the 40-yard time trials. Essentially, that is the best event at Indy.

For NFL teams, the most important rituals are the individual physicals for the players, the nightly interviews of prospects and the intelligence results on the Wonderlic tests. A few years ago, a coach who didn’t want to draft Vince Young told me the quarterback scored a six on his Wonderlic test. The coach wanted the news out. I kept the information to myself because the situation was so sensitive. Even though he eventually scored a 16 on his re-test, Young’s low score has haunted him to this day as he searches for a new team.

The Combine is worth going to because it remains the best NFL convention where every important executive, coach, scout and agent attends annually. The players are the attraction, but the best information comes over morning coffee or late-night dinners with NFL types.