For NFL hopefuls, the NFL Combine is the biggest workout of their lives.
During the Combine, the entire football world focuses on Indianapolis and the data being collected. A poor showing can cause a player’s draft stock to tumble, while an explosive workout can help a prospect shoot up the board.
But the NFL Combine is not the last chance for players to show their measurables to pro scouts. After the conclusion of the Combine, most of them work out at their school’s Pro Day. Almost without fail, the results players produce at their Pro Day are markedly better than what they did at the NFL Combine.
In 2014, Kony Ealy ran a 4.67 40-Yard Dash at Missouri’s Pro Day after running a 4.92 at the Combine. Chidobe Awuzie, a cornerback from the University of Colorado, recently improved his Vertical Jump result by 5 full inches at his team’s Pro Day.
The drills performed at a Pro Day are identical to the ones performed at the NFL Combine, so what’s behind this phenomenon?
Here’s your three-word answer—the Combine sucks.
While most people assume that the Combine is oriented for players to achieve their best results, the opposite is true. The NFL Combine is designed to make prospects uncomfortable in a myriad of ways. NFLPA president and Cincinnati Bengals lineman Eric Winston recently said that the general goal of the Combine process is to “piss off” the players.
Taryn Morgan, Assistant Director of Athletic and Personal Development at IMG Academy, told STACK: “The Combine is four days of extreme challenge. Medical testing, interviews, all day long, all night long. Then they have to bench press on the third day. Then they finally get to run and do all the football drills on that fourth day. So it’s really a test of their stamina, their endurance and how well they can handle adversity—because it’s not easy.”
As soon as the players arrive, they must undergo a battery of screenings—X-rays, blood tests, EKGs, MRIs—you name it. All of this happens between a ton of waiting around at IU Health Methodist Hospital. Once the screenings are completed, players are subjected to urine drug testing (peeing in a cup in front of a drug test screener) and baseline neurological testing. Then they’re given what equates to the world’s most thorough physical. There’s a doctor on hand from each of the 32 NFL teams, and each one wants to get as much info as possible about a player’s health and injury history. That means almost three dozen doctors poking and prodding the players for hours on end. Player comfort and convenience are not concerns.
“The medical evals are crazy,” DeMarcus Van Dyke, a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, recently told NOLA.com. “You get poked and pulled by 32 doctors all day, and if one doctor says something is wrong with you, they will make you come back for the medical recheck in April.”
Reuben Foster, a linebacker from the University of Alabama, found the process so frustrating that he lost his temper with a hospital worker and was subsequently dismissed from the 2017 NFL Combine. Nick Saban recently defended Foster and hinted at the fact that the medical process can be infuriating. “I think that if anybody here asks someone eight or 10 times, ‘Am I in the right place? Is my name on the list? Why have I had to stay here for so long?’ and nobody will respond to you, I think that it would probably create a little anxiety for all of us,” Saban told CBSSports.com.
Doctors push and pull on the players for hours, looking for any signs of an existing injury or condition. The results of all the testing are not revealed to the prospects, so they could potentially get pestered with questions about an injury or condition they don’t even know about. Joe Thomas revealed that doctors at the 2007 NFL Combine forced him to get an X-ray on an ankle he’d sprained roughly a decade earlier:
The rest of the Combine is similarly stressful. There’s the measurement portion, which involves a player wearing nothing but compression shorts standing on a brightly-lit stage in front of hundreds of scouts as their height, weight, hand size and arm length are measured and recorded. Each night, the players have to endure three to four hours of team interviews. These have all the pressure of an actual job interview, but NFL staff isn’t afraid to get bizarre or accusatory with their questioning. Former NFL player Austen Lane recently revealed some of the questions he was asked during his interviews at the 2010 NFL Combine, which included “do you find your mother attractive?”, “you smoke weed, don’t you?” and “If you had to murder someone, would you rather use a gun or a knife?” Yes, it’s insane.
On the same day that the prospects have to bench press, they’re subjected to a ridiculous amount of standardized testing. They start their morning off with the Wonderlic—a test that consists of 50 brain-twisting questions within a strict 12-minute time limit. In 2013, the league also added a mandatory hour-long psychological assessment designed to quantify things like mental toughness, learning ability and competitiveness. Teams can also administer their own psychological tests.
Ross Scheuerman, a running back who attended the 2015 NFL Combine, told STACK that he had to take four different psychology tests in a row. “You would just sit in these rooms and take the tests,” Scheuerman said. “Sometimes you had to complete certain patterns and answer questions that try to mess with your mind a little bit. There are also questions about your leadership and what you would do in certain situations.” After a mind-numbing day of testing, the players have to suddenly switch gears for the Bench Press.
If you think the players are getting plenty of sleep at the Combine, you’d be wrong. The players rise before 5 a.m. on certain days and might not get back to their hotel rooms until close to midnight. It’s only after three long days of medical exams, testing and interviews that a player actually gets on the field to perform the drills they’ve been tirelessly preparing for. The final day of testing is also ridiculously long. Scheuerman told STACK that by the time he finally ran his 40-Yard Dash at 3 p.m., he’d been on the field for roughly five hours and hadn’t eaten a solid meal since breakfast. “I think that’s the whole idea of the Combine,” Scheuerman says, “They put you through these stressful situations to see how you react. They know it’s not ideal conditions, but they want to see you respond and compete.”
Then add nerves on top of all these factors and it’s no surprise that most players don’t post the numbers they’re truly capable of at the Combine.
What makes a Pro Day different?
Just about everything. The players get to sleep in their own beds the night before. They aren’t forced to travel on an airplane. They’re familiar with the setting. They’re surrounded by their college teammates and coaches. They’re allowed to eat when and what they want beforehand. They aren’t burned out by hours of interviews, testing and medical exams. They’ve already run through the drills at the Combine, so their nerves should be greatly reduced. In a way, a Pro Day is like a home game while the Combine is like an away game in a hostile environment.
The takeaway is this—the NFL Combine is an absolute grind. Players rarely post their best results due to the environment, which makes freak performances from players like Myles Garrett all the more impressive.