By Jason Keidel
The quintessential meat market, the NFL Combine — sardonically called the Underwear Olympics — is in full swing.
Poked. Prodded. Fondled. Tape-measured. The NFL intelligentsia descends upon Indianapolis every March to measure future pro football players, using the same metrics and often getting the same results.
It’s become redundant. We know they want 30 reps of bench press, 40-inch vertical leap, 4.40 seconds in the 40-yard dash… such and such a broad jump, such and such a high jump, such and such and such…
Despite all the evidence that you can’t measure a man or a football player simply by stats, by his physical contours, we’re still spellbound by the latest lightning bolt out of college.
John Ross, wideout from Washington, just ran a remarkable, 4.22 seconds in the 40-yard dash. It now lifts Ross from a top-five WR to perhaps the leading player at his position. His stats last year were impressive, particularly how often his receptions led to first downs. But now he’s supposed to supplant Corey Davis (Western Michigan), and leapfrog Mike Williams. Of course, Williams just won a national championship with Clemson and was universally regarded as the top pass-catcher entering the 2017 NFL Draft.
Amazing what four seconds, indoors, on a fast track, with no crowd or cornerback covering you, can do for your fledgeling career. Call it the Bob Beamon effect. With one leap in 1968, Beamon became a pillar of track and field, of the Olympics, of American athletic history. Smaller scale, of course, in Ross’s case.
Jerry Rice ran a slow 40. He’s only the greatest wideout — if not the greatest player — in NFL history. Antonio Brown was so bad in the 40 he wasn’t taken until the sixth round. His quarterback at Central Michigan — try naming him! — was drafted before Brown, whose last four years are the most productive in NFL history. The Hall of Fame is festooned with wide receivers who were hardly Bob Hayes, from Lynn Swann to Raymond Berry to Don Maynard to Michael Irvin.
Bill Polian, renowned GM and personnel man who was so clever at his craft his bronzed bust now sits in Canton, has said that while the data is hardly foolproof, the best players tend to fall within those parameters, those sacred statistical watermarks. Polian knows better than most, but even he got canned from the Colts.
The wonder of football is not the blue-chip prospects, the surefire first-round picks. John Elway and Troy Aikman and Andrew Luck, while marvelous players and a joy to watch, are only half the story. Speaking of half, half the NFL rosters are filled by undrafted players. That’s what gives the NFL it’s emotional prerogative — the outhouse-to-penthouse narrative.
Brown was picked in the sixth round. His teammate, Le’Veon Bell, widely regarded as the best all-around running back in the sport, was not a first-round pick. David Johnson, the second-best RB in the NFL, was plucked in the third round. Malcolm Butler, Super Bowl hero, wasn’t even drafted. Julian Edelman, slot receiver extraordinaire, was a quarterback in college.
Folks talk about height and hand size and mobility. Tom Brady is as mobile as a library gargoyle, he’s considered the best QB in history. John Elway was the chalk in 1983, when six quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the most fertile QB class ever. Last QB picked in that round? Dan Marino, who was even less mobile than Brady. Marino was also rumored to have an epic drug habit.
The Rooney family hired two detectives to dig into Dan’s life, to get the scope of his addiction. They were laughed out of every room they entered. Marino’s teammates said the QB was so straight-laced he was the one who suggested the team be tested for narcotics. Yet the Steelers still didn’t draft him.
Marino was not only the perfect tonic for a team that just lost their legendary QB, Terry Bradshaw, but Marino was born in Pittsburgh, raised in Pittsburgh, went to Central Catholic and attended the University of Pittsburgh. Miami made the playoffs for the next 15 years, while the Steelers sank into a stupor with a sad soup of quarterbacks, from Mark Malone to Cliff Stout to Bubby Brister.
In 2005, Alex Smith was the first player picked in the NFL Draft. There were 23 more teams in the first round, many of whom needed a quarterback. Like the Lions, who picked their nth wide receiver, Mike Williams. Like the Jaguars, who picked WR Matt Jones. Like the Browns, who took WR Braylon Edwards. Like the Raiders, who picked CB Fabian Washington.
All of them had a shot at a kid from Butte Community College, who played a little ball in Division 1. But he didn’t have much a 40-time. Didn’t have a high jump or broad jump or javelin throw. Didn’t look ripped in his Calvin Klein boxers.
The loser of the Underwear Olympics…? Some kid named Aaron Rodgers.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.