INDIANAPOLIS – One hundred fifteen miles down I-65 sits Louisville, Kentucky, and they have themselves a race there every May that has come to be referred to as "the fastest two minutes in sports." The NFL Scouting Combine is no Kentucky Derby, but the thoroughbred athletes taking part in it eventually could come to recognize it as "the most expensive three minutes of their football lives."
There are 330-some NFL hopefuls here for the 2017 version of the World's Only Televised Job Interview, and the way they handle all of it can impact what happens starting April 27 when the 32 teams get together for the start of the World's Most Lucrative Version of Schoolyard Pick-em.
The difference in pay over just a handful of spots in the first round can be in the millions of dollars. Just saying.
And so the Combine has become big business. Where in the late 1980s, the Combine was scheduled for late January, it now is beginning in early March. Having it begin some six weeks later has a trickle-down effect touching on a bunch of different areas, but generally the impact on the football aspect is negative.
We could begin with the impact on the scouting arm of each franchise, because a later Combine means the schedule for the college pro days gets compressed, which can lead to having to be in two places at the same time. But since nobody really cares to hear about how tough someone else's job is, let's look at the impact on what is going to be done here and then the down-the-road impact on the guys who will be doing it.
The impact of what is going to be done here comes from the intense, specialized training a lot of these players have been doing for close to a month, maybe more. It's all about posting eye-popping numbers in drills that only can hint at a player's true potential, but those drills are going to be televised and talked about and replayed, and if a guy aces it, well, it sure won't hurt his chances when the decisions are getting made once the draft begins.
"This has become such a specialized event," General Manager Kevin Colbert was saying today inside a hunk of the Indianapolis Convention Center that has been newly appropriated as the Combine continues to grow.
"And it's become a recruiting tool for the agents, who send players to Phoenix or Florida to train. In reality, the players, in my opinion, are better off staying at their colleges with their strength coaches who have known them for three years. And not spending time away from school or their families, and spending money they're going to have to pay back to the agent, because it's a three-minute workout when you time it."
What also ends up happening is that by attending these training sessions, players are remaking their bodies for something that isn't what they're going to be doing once the draft is over. For the vast majority of these hopefuls, just getting drafted isn't going to translate into making a roster, which is what's required to be paid to play football.
"They do a great job of getting the kids conditioned for this workout," said Colbert, "and our concern is once this workout is over, those players have trained for, really, a three-minute workout … and they've neglected to get themselves into shape for what's coming next, meaning the OTAs and the minicamps."
Think about how many draft picks every year seem to miss sometimes significant portions of the offseason program with soft tissue injuries. Or even how sometimes those things bleed into the start of training camp, and how frustrating it is for everyone when an early draft pick is standing on the sideline at Saint Vincent College and doing nothing but watching.
"That's why there are a lot of pulled hamstrings, groins, etc.," said Colbert, "because when they come to us, they were preparing for this process, then (after this) they go into their predraft-visit mode, and there are 30 of those. And they're not working out like they need to be working out. So Coach Tomlin and I will always remind the players that once this is over, it's over. Start conditioning for football again, like you would in winter conditioning as you head into spring ball."
Colbert's Wednesday morning/early afternoon schedule here had him running the media gauntlet, and then Thursday it's into the dome for the start of the on-field portion, three minutes at a time. But in between, starting Wednesday night, is what Colbert said, also what Coach Mike Tomlin agrees, is the best part of the Combine.
"The biggest excitement I get starts tonight when we get into the interviews," said Colbert. "We get to see the person we've seen under the helmet for nine months. It's very revealing to us, positively and negatively, what we start finding out tonight in the interviews. We've interviewed some of the kids who were at the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game. A lot of the underclassmen, we haven't talked to at all. Some of the kids who didn't go to the bowl games, we haven't talked to. So we'll start learning a lot. To me, that's the most exciting part of this whole process."
And those interviews last 15 minutes. Not just three.