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Explaining The NFL Combine: What Does It Mean, And Why Do We Care?

"Robert Griffin or Andrew Luck?" is the question on everyone's mind after the NFL Combine, but now that it's over, Andrew Sharp and Bomani Jones take a look at how we got there, and why we care about the "Football SATs" year after year.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 26: Quarterback Robert Griffin III of Baylor runs the 40-yard dash during the 2012 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 26, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 26: Quarterback Robert Griffin III of Baylor runs the 40-yard dash during the 2012 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 26, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The NFL Combine began this weekend in Indianapolis and finished up this week, and as usual, football fans and NFL Network analysts were right there with the scouts, dissecting every inch of the action. But if you step back for a second, the whole thing's a little bizarre, isn't it?

Bomani Jones and I weren't sure how to feel about the NFL Combine, and likewise, kinda fascinated by the inexplicable and undeniable relevance of what basically boils down to watching some college kids work out. With that in mind, he and I got to e-mailing to try and make sense of all this. How much does the combine matter? Why do millions of Americans care about this? And, of course: RG3 or Luck? Without further ado...

SHARP: Okay, so the NFL combine is officially over with, and half the NFL is now officially and hopelessly in love with RG3, the entire NFL hates Vontaze Burfict, and Andrew Luck is still the clear-cut no. 1 prospect (right?). Also, my personal favorite prospect, Cliff "Money Be Green" Harris, said his off-field trouble helped him find God (+1) but then ran his 40 (in the 4.6 range ... -10). Of course, this is usually the time of year when we hear people saying the combine's an archaic exercise, 40 times are NOT a good way to measure football players, and the whole gauntlet of tests and interviews doesn't matter nearly as much as most fans think. What do you think, Bo?

BOMANI: I think the Combine is the SAT in sweats. It's standardized testing, though there is an interview portion to be done later. Run the same races, jump the same jumps, gather the data and ... know who's better at throwing up weight and running races. That'll be handy information when these guys get on TV and the network asks if they want to be on the new "Superstars." And just as is the case with standardized tests, much of what we learn from the physical challenges is how well guys prepared for the Combine, not how prepared they are for the NFL.

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SHARP: The SAT in sweats! That's pretty perfect. Or, the SAT in spandex bodysuits, with middle-aged white men ogling the test-takers at every turn. Either way, really.

And like the SAT, it's become hip to downplay the combine and its methods. The one difference I'd mention is that the SAT tends to favor certain types of thinkers and learners, whereas the combine's more objective, at least as it relates to the NFL. The combine is testing a handful of raw physical talents -- speed and strength that directly translates to how guys will fare in the NFL, playing against the best of SEC speed and Big Ten strength every single weekend.

Yeah, the whole process favors guys who prepare, but at the same time, it's not like certain players have advantages (financial or otherwise) over others in that department (as with SAT prep). The combine rewards the guys who work their ass off getting ready, and it can punish the ones who don't. Sometimes that alone can be telling, as far as a prospect's concerned. A bunch of drills in February aren't the same thing as football in the fall, but the combine as a measuring tool has been called overrated so often that at this point, I'd say it's a little underrated. Maybe it's flawed and it's definitely its own kind of creepy, but we're still talking about a pretty essential tool for scouts.

BOMANI: I'd say the interviews, when they're not just used as a way to mess with the players, can be very, very helpful. The biggest thing I'd want to know, if I'm an executive, is whether someone will lie to me when there's no penalty for telling the truth. That's pretty important in a world where public relations are so important. I do agree, also, that it's vogue to knock it, as if all these teams would spend all this money for something that serves no purpose. As much as contrarians like to knock "conventional wisdom," the convention wasn't reached by accident, in most cases.

That said, I still don't see any reason why people watch this on television. I mean, I get it for hardcore football junkies with an eye for what there is to see in the drills. But most people? Trust me: seeing Andrew Luck's 40 time was a lot more exhilarating than watching him run down the line. Watching dudes lift 225? I'd rather not watch Kevin Durant lift185.

I understand using it as a tool, and the benefits of agglomerative economics are clear (teams share the costs of weigh-ins, drills, etc.). But now, the Combine is an event, and that just blows my mind.

SHARP: Totally. For one thing, watching a bunch of 21- and 22-year-old kids run around in spandex will never not be creepy to me. And except for a handful of 40 times from some of the top skill players, this shit could not be more boring. Who really cares whether PLAYER X comes away with a third round grade or a fifth round grade? Who cares what Mike Mayock thinks of Brandon Weeden's footwork?

Anyway, I think the popularity of all this just speaks to how insane this country goes for pro football. The NFL Draft itself has become a bigger event than anything in hockey, and pretty much anything that happens in the regular season for basketball or football. NFL preseason games dominate TV in August. It's all pretty incredible.

The NFL's been really good at one getting people hooked on their product, and then keeping them hooked with stuff like the NFL Network. They understood the game early with respect to 24-hour news cycles -- if you talk enough about how important something is, it becomes important. Then you can air the actual event and everyone watches. Then you can have scouts and analysts on TV debating whether it's actually that important, and people will be glued to THAT. So suddenly you've turned a mundane scouting week in Indianapolis into like two weeks' worth of crack for a country of addicts.

It's ridiculous, but also a good reminder that NFL's got the game figured out better than any corporation in this country this side of Fox News. But where Fox generates interest by getting people angry, I think the NFL thrives by making people confused -- and therefore intrigued -- and eventually addicted. Does that make sense?

In the spirit of clearing up confusion, a couple questions at the end here:

  • In terms of the combine and the importance of 40 times, I always remember Peter Warrick, who looked full-on superhuman in college, then ran a 4.6 at the combine, which turned out to be a telling red flag as far his NFL career was concerned. Then again, there are guys who run fast every year but can't put it together on the field. Which do you trust more: How a player measures at the combine, or how he runs in college games?
  • And, obviously, the question the NFL network's going to be asking for the next six weeks. Post-4.41: RG3 or Luck?

BOMANI: The most fascinating part to me is how people follow mock drafts, as if any of them matter at all. I understand those early ones, just because they're fun and somewhat indicative of perceptions at a moment in time. The rest of the mocks? They're chock full of lies disseminated by people whom we all know are lying strategically. Nothing says "dumb Americans" like listening in February to where any analyst will be drafted in April. You're right, this manages to confound us. But we do it every year.

Now, to your questions ... First, the Warrick 4.6 is a moment that stands out in my mind, if only because he seemed like he may have been the best receiver of all-time in college. The problem, of course, is I could reply with Anquan Boldin's atrocious 40 times, followed by one of the greatest rookie seasons ever for a receiver. Broken clock, twice a day, and all that. Past that, you stumbled upon something: RG3 vs. Luck talk is going to ramp up.

But the more I think about it, that should have happened a long time ago. I can't think of the last time there were two quarterback prospects that seemed to be can't miss, and we have that here. The only reservation most could have about Griffin have to do with his relatively slight frame and time spent in a spread offense. Well, the last two No. 1 picks, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton, have laid waste to the idea that playing in a spread inhibits a player's ability to succeed in the NFL right away, let alone in a general sense.

So how have the Colts, by all accounts, stop doing their diligence on these quarterbacks? What are the things that Luck absolutely, definitively does better than Griffin? Who looked more impressive last season? Whose arm is stronger? Which guy is smarter? Who is more athletic? I've been sold on Luck since the middle of his sophomore year, and perhaps that is why I'd been so reluctant to consider that any quarterback in this could could even possibly be better. Had Luck come out last year, I would have drafted him over Cam Newton. I also may have gotten that pick wrong, had I done so. So given how we saw Newton obliterate the questions that followed him into the draft, many continue to be sure Luck is the pick of this litter.

Lots of people who know way more than me say the same thing. However, after Griffin's impressive showing at the Combine -- from his 40 to interviews to a lights out session with Steve Marriuci -- this should be a debate. And unlike Manning vs. Leaf, few seem to believe either guy has a significant chance of being a bust. There are two can't-miss guys, what we thought Oden-Durant was in 2007. It should be a healthy, robust conversation, and it could be quite illuminating with regards to the superficial reactions we have about quarterbacks in the 21st century.

I'll be damned ... the Combine may have done some good. I still won't watch it, though.