INDIANAPOLIS – Already, the downtown area is bustling with NFL people, with primarily the scouts, general managers, and player personnel people being the ones who have checked in already. Once it all gets underway later in the week and through the weekend, there will be over 300 prospects in attendance, each one trying to enhance his chances at a career in professional football.
What was called the National Invitational Camp in 1982 and staged in Tampa has evolved into the NFL Scouting Combine, and while one of the primary purposes of all this remains the medical information all teams are able to gather on the top prospects eligible for the upcoming draft, this whole week has become an event.
And as with any event, an invitation is required to attend, and the NFL has extended some 335 invitations. These players are chosen based on the recommendations of a selection committee made up of members of various NFL personnel departments plus the directors of both the National and BLESTO scouting services. The participating NFL executives rotate on a yearly basis and remain anonymous, and the process calls for the review of all eligible players and then a vote by the committee members. Each athlete receiving the necessary number of votes, by position, is then extended an invitation.
Sounds good, but history shows the selection committee misses some guys every year who go on to have productive NFL careers, even to be voted the MVP of the Super Bowl.
And so it was that Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith – upon being voted the MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII for his nine tackles, pick-six, and fumble recovery during the demolition of the Denver Broncos – was asked what time he posted in the 40-yard dash at the previous NFL Scouting Combine.
"I wasn't invited to the combine," said Smith.
One of the people helping to chronicle the results of this combine is Jerry Olsavsky, currently a defensive assistant on the Steelers' coaching staff. He wasn't invited to the Combine in 1989 despite being a first-team Kodak All-American as a senior at Pitt, and he ended up getting drafted and having a 10-year career that included a starting spot at inside linebacker on the Steelers' team that won the 1995 AFC Championship.
"I was kind of naïve in college, and I was really just concentrating on being a good football player," said Olsavsky of that time. "When I found out I was an All-American, I got to attend some events because of that, in Atlanta, in New York. I knew the combine was out there, and my roommate (Burt Grossman) had been invited, but he was a top 10 pick. Although I was confident in my abilities, I wasn't anticipating getting picked real high (in the draft).
"Maybe I was naïve, and maybe it was tunnel vision," said Olsavsky, "but I just told myself I was going to work out and do my thing. I had been the defensive MVP in the East-West Shrine Game, and that made me confident I could play in this league."
There are other stories of the spurned making it big in the NFL, but for the most part the selection committee identifies the correct people. The Steelers know that guys like Ike Taylor and William Gay and Vince Williams and Steve McLendon became starters for them despite being snubbed by the Combine selection committee, and they already have compiled a list of some 30 non-invitees this year they plan to investigate further.
That's part of the business, but a part that has nothing to do with the next several days, a time to be spent doing their due diligence with respect to the 335 prospects to participate to varying degrees in this orchestrated talent show.
"More than anything, we get an opportunity to put a face and a personality with what we see on tape," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "That's a big part of it, obviously, getting to know the young men and what makes them tick. What their goals and aspirations are, and how they have gotten themselves to this point."