Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Mike Mamula Olympics

Here's hoping you don't watch NFL Network this weekend, because if you do, you are going to be in for it. The otherwise great channel is once again dedicating this weekend to wall-to-wall coverage of the Scouting Combine. For a few days around this time each year, hundreds of the nation's top college football players descend upon Indianapolis to impress NFL decision-makers at (among other things) repping 225 on bench, cone drills, the vertical jump, and of course the 40 and the Wunderlic test. It's the world's largest group job interview, and we're all invited. Forgive me for remaining seated as I try to contain my ravenous excitement.

I've decided to bestow the Combine with the moniker "The Mike Mamula Olympics" in honor of one of the first in the long line of players whose draft statuses were grossly inflated by a head-turning performance in the dome. Back in 1995, Mamula was a respectable pro prospect, earning All-Big East honors as a defensive end for Boston College. He trained specifically for the Combine events and blew scouts away with his strength and mobility, impressing the Eagles so much that they traded the 12th overall pick and two 2nd round picks in the 1995 Draft to move up to take him 7th overall, ahead of players such as Warren Sapp, Ty Law, and Derrick Brooks.

Suffice it to say, Mamula's NFL career was relatively underwhelming. He wasn't a bad NFL player, but he rarely showed himself to be the game-changer that is expected out of a 7th overall pick. I don't want to say that the Combine is total garbage, because the drills are a very good snapshot of what a encompasses a player's skill set, and if a team is going to throw eight figures at a guy, it's only prudent to meet him face-to-face and see exactly what they may be investing in. Plenty of players have used a good Combine performance (Joe Flacco, for example) to compensate for a relative lack of exposure at the college level and parlay that into success on Sundays.

But let us all calm down on valuing football players based on what they can do in shorts in a controlled atmosphere. You know how you see kickers nail field goals from 55+ yards in pregame and then shank 28-yard gimmes once the crowd is roaring and the pressure is on? It's the same premise. Football is the hardest game to simulate among any of the major sports. It's great if my cornerback runs a 4.4 and has a 40 inch vert, but none of that will do me any good if his coverage instincts are bad and he bites on double moves all the time. It's true that the 18-yard-back-to-15-yard out is the most telling throw on whether a quarterback has an NFL arm or not, but can I see the guy throw that pass with shoulder pads on, outdoors, and while his back is killing him because he's been sacked 4 times already today? And is this guy someone who is going to quit on his teammates, or get rabbit ears anytime something negative is written or spoken about him? That's the kind of stuff I want to know. That's really where you separate Ryan Leaf from Peyton Manning.

What I don't understand is anyone who actually watches this thing. These guys aren't even on anyone's team yet and people set aside time for this? Plus, the same people that jump for joy when their team drafts a 4.3-40 receiver or a lineman that threw 225 up 38 times are the ones crooning over how they wasted a pick on a "workout warrior" when their guy is getting trucked come September. It's no coincidence that the teams who consistently make sound personnel decisions, i.e. Pittsburgh, are the ones who put less stock in the Combine than most others do. Call me old-fashioned, but I think 3-4 years of game tape are more substantial than a few jumps and shuttle runs.

I don't want to indict the millions of football fans out there, because as a nation we have come to thirst for all things NFL year-round. And that's why the Combine has become a monster of its own: in the sports desert of late winter, the Combine is a canteen of murky water, and many people will take a swig of it, out of what they feel is pure necessity. If it gets you by until come upon the beautiful unmuddied lake of baseball season in April, then fine. But just know that you can't live on the stuff, because it will leave you with a bad stomach lining - or a Vernon Gholston.

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