Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Three-Cone Shuffle


For any sports fan looking to be vexed, this would be the time. For unless you are an abject college hoops bracketologist (which, by the way, is one of the dumbest made up words ever) there is so little to inform or entertain you at the moment in the world of sports. The NFL, of course, knows this and that’s why the Combine, wrapping up Tuesday, seems like such big news.

I hate the NFL Combine because it’s a mostly worthless endeavor that’s taken more seriously these days than pediatric AIDS. The NFL, of course, is at the center of this farce by staging it in a way that heightens its importance while hiding its irrelevance. This annual festival devoted to all manner of poking, prodding, measuring and ciphering is the kind of fraud that in another context might get someone arrested.

Many of these participating players, mostly students in name only, are put through a battery of mental and physical challenges as a kind of hazing ritual designed to test whether or not they are NFL worthy. Most of them aren’t, at least for the long term. Statistics back it up. At most, only a handful are staring a potentially long-term NFL careers, just don’t tell them that.

When the Combine was a sleepy little endeavor of general managers and scouts and a few bored sports writers, it was harmless and easily ignored, like Dancing with the Stars. But now it’s an Event, a carryover of sorts from the Super Bowl, with 24/7 coverage by the NFL Network. I’ve never been so glad to be a Time Warner customer because they wisely haven’t succumbed to the outsized demands of the NFL noodniks pricing their cable-only product. As a result, I’m never even tempted to flip over to see Group 3 of the offensive linemen do bench presses followed by the vertical jump.

The other problem with the Combine is that makes every Bill from Brunswick think they are draft expert, although in fairness to every Bill from Brunswick, Mel Kiper, Jr. used to be you. The reason this is frustrating has everything to do with altering a person’s expectations when it comes to the draft.

Suddenly they become experts on who the Browns should draft in the third round because they saw this player or that run a 4.2 40-yard dash on the telly-vision. Then when that player isn’t drafted, all manner of disappointment ensues.

And yet these folks aren’t even the worst offenders. That’s reserved for the local media types that trek to Indianapolis in search of The Truth. No particular offense to Tony Grossi of the Plain Dealer, but about the only thing he and his ilk know about any of these college players is what they’ve read in a magazine, heard on ESPN and gleaned from the Combine.

If these sports writers are doing their jobs properly, then they wouldn’t have had time until recently to even begin to contemplate the college game. The odds that any of them have followed college football closely enough to offer an informed impression on the differences between Nick Fairly vs. Marcell Dareus are slight.

Yet from the Grossis of the world we are offered any number of iterations of their mock drafts based on nothing more their casual fan’s knowledge of the college game and its players.

What’s even more amusing is their use of the empirical to back up what are essentially curbside opinions. Grossi offered up the results of various drills that defensive linemen ran at the Combine on Monday. It says, for example, that Fairley finished 14th in the 3-cone drill with a time of 7.14 seconds. I assume that says something about Fairley’s agility in the same way it says something about a dog’s agility when he runs through a line of pylons at a show. But until they put 3 cones on a football field and award points for who runs around them the fastest, it offers virtually nothing for the average fan to suggest why Fairley would be the right choice for the Browns with the 6th pick in the draft.

I’ll take it as a given that the annual meat market that is the Combine is something that NFL scouts and general managers find useful come draft day, though at this point it’s a premise worth challenging. For starters, it’s not an open cattle call. Players are invited based on their reputations. Even then some players don’t fully work out on the advice of their agents, preferring to work out for teams privately under better controlled conditions. Then of course there are those players nursing injuries that can’t perform fully at the moment. As a result, even the comparisons that come out of the Combine are essentially meaningless.

When you put that all together, it’s hard to see how useful the Combine really is in the overall player picking exercise. At this point it’s almost as if it’s conducted not because it’s meaningful but because it keeps the NFL brand in front of fans during a lengthy off-season. And because we have a compliant local and national media starved for any NFL-based news, we’re socialized to the notion that what happens at the Combine is directly related to whether or not a team has a successful draft.

Let’s return to the real world for a moment. If any team is using it as anything more than supplemental material to the more useful information gathered from watching a player perform on the field, then that team is probably failing at the draft. I’m looking at you, Cleveland Browns.

The Browns have made any number of draft mistakes in the last 10 years. By almost any measure, they aren’t very good at it. Perhaps some of that may have been caused by an overreliance of what took place at the Combine, but I suspect it’s more related to the simple fact that they have had a series of boobs making personnel judgments.

Who in their right mind would draft both Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi in the second round? Whatever contributions those two have made thus far and whatever else they may make down the road, nothing will obscure the fact that neither was worthy of a second round pick. There are receivers on the roster that Mangini mostly buried who likely could have contributed at about the same level (which isn’t much) just as there are probably at least a dozen others, from undrafted free agents to relatively accomplished veterans looking to hang on for another season or two, that also could have accomplished the same thing.

But let’s not pick on Mangini exclusively. Phil Savage, his predecessor in the personnel picking business, was almost just as bad. Savage traded for and then squandered a first round pick by drafting Brady Quinn. Then virtually every player he drafted in the second round was a bust. And let’s not pick on just Mangini and Savage either. Starting with Dwight Clark and continuing through Mangini, the Browns have been notable for what amounts to the stock market equivalent of buying high and selling low.

Yet I’m more optimistic about the current regime’s ability to pick players and that’s because of Colt McCoy. He’s exactly the kind of player that creates a bunch of negativity at the Combine and causes teams to take a pass. But Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert looked beyond that exercise in misinformation and saw a player who, you know, actually performed incredibly well over a long college career with a big-time program. Indeed, it’s a measure of their ability as evaluators that they could actually commit to McCoy as their starter next season and no one is much questioning the wisdom of that decision.

If you’re bored and the Combine scratches some sort of itch, then fine. But what’s happening there won’t make any difference to whether or not the Browns get better. The only way they get better is finding players who can actually perform on the field and not just in the 3-cone drill.

3 comments:

m. said...

So, Gary, if I laughed at the dumbest word ever made up, what does that make me? Maybe it was that it came out of you that made it funny. Since I count on you for my football education, this is the first I've heard of the Combine. I'll lump it with Dancing With The Stars. Maybe I am a duffus--who ever made that one up? I'll exit with Emerson--words we can count on: Earth laughs and flowers grow. m.

m. said...

Editor's correction: "The earth laughs in flowers"---Emerson got it right. m.

Ric said...

Teaching.
Training.
We'll never know if those draft choices could have excelled, because they never improved, rarely played, never contributed.
Savage and Romeo were at war with each other. That's why Savage dumped Frye against Romeo's wishes.
Mangini the coach was at war with Mangini the general manager.
Maybe, now, the coach will teach, train, develop, and play draft choices including three interesting WR's.