More Measurables! Comprehending the NFL Combine

Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images
Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images

Certain people can feel a storm approaching. Their joints ache.

The NFL Scouting Combine sends a similar physical warning for me, but the symptoms are usually migraine-related. I felt it coming a few days before the NFL Network televised the event that ended last week in Indianapolis. ESPN draft expert Todd McShay showed up on TV telling a studio host of the latest measurable he sniffed out concerning one member of the Draft Class of 2011.

“He has an 11-inch hand-span,” McShay said of USC’s Tyron Smith. “And a 36-3/8 arm length.”

Further discussion revealed that to be a good deal above the norm.

The studio host gasped in a way one might upon hearing an astronaut’s harrowing tale of a space walk gone awry.

The segment ended with something understood but left unspoken:

If you are a NFL team in 2011 in need of a big, strong, tough offensive lineman, Tyron Smith could be your man.

The same goes if you are a Dutch farmer in need of a new windmill.

In the ensuing days at the Scouting Combine we heard that Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea benched 225 pounds 49 times for a Scouting Combine record. Three players held the previous record of 45. Unless you are Todd McShay or their parents, you have never heard of them.

So what does that tell us about the importance of Combine “events” such as the bench press, the 40-yard dash, the three-cone agility run, the vertical jump, the broad jump and, I believe, the Double Dutch jump rope competition (though I may have that mistaken with a foggy schoolyard memory)?

ESPN’s Tim Hasselbeck would say it doesn’t tell us much. “It probably means he could also dominate the Shake Weight,” Hasselbeck joked of the bench press record during an on-air Scouting Combine segment.

The NFL knows how to attract an audience. But even the NFL wouldn’t waste money on a scouting combine if it felt it was a waste of time. It’s not.

There are actually two NFL scouting combines. One conducted in the open watched by fans, which gives supporting statistical information. The other, the more important one, behind closed doors where teams try to decide what kind of people the prospects are.

That’s where they try to answer the question: if we give this kid millions, can we be sure he isn’t going to turn into Charlie Sheen, and one day show up on Good Morning America calling himself a warlock?

The conversations between teams and players are the sleuth work that can help save teams from making giant blunders and separates the best organizations from the worst. They’re far more important than the measurables, but the measurables somehow make for good enough TV that NFL Network showed up this year with its first sponsor — Under Armour.

By the way, a special Under Armour workout shirt, the E39, has a built-in sensor (The Bug) that allows for the measuring of breathing rate, heart rate, horse power and a G-force generated as prospects run through all the events.

“More measurables,” as one NFL Network analyst happily said.

Yep, the on-camera scouting combine is the tortured measuring of everything that moves. That one was watched on NFL Network by 5.4 million viewers last year, proving that the NFL is the most brilliant sports league in the history of sports leagues.

NFL.com asked voters to pick their favorite event: the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump, the broad jump, the three-cone agility, the bench press, the shuttle run.

You could not click on “None of the above.” Thousands of people responded.

To me, it’s like C-SPAN asking viewers to name their favorite filibuster. But I’m clearly in the minority.

An online betting service set prop bets. You could bet on whether Tyrod Taylor would run a faster 40 than Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. You could bet on whether Nick Fairley or Da’Quan Bowers would get more reps in the bench press. You could bet on whether A.J. Green or Julio Jones would score higher on the vertical jump. The over-under on the fastest 40 was 4.3, 41.5 on the bench reps.

You could not bet on how many times Newton would refer to himself in the third person during his media interview, but that was reported anyway. Three times in 12 minutes.

It’s not surprising that the NFL Network has made a TV show out the scouting combine. It’s a network. It needs programming. What’s surprising is that so many people watch and seem immersed in the minute details.

“He’s a little bit of a waist bender,” an NFL Network analyst said of Arkansas offensive tackle DeMarcus Love.

Aren’t we all?

It’s more important to know if Cam Newton really did get defensive when an NFL assistant questioned him about why he changed a play in the BCS National Championship Game than it is to know that he led all quarterbacks in the standing broad jump.

Unless he’s going to play “Batman” someday and wants to do his own stunts, we already knew he was the best athlete at his position. It’s more important to know how he takes criticism, whether he thinks it’s his job as a quarterback to go rogue or follow the script.

Behind closed doors, prospects are still given the Wonderlic test to judge intelligence and other psychological traits. But even the late Eldon Wonderlic’s test is being criticized, this time by a woman who doesn’t believe it measures what it’s supposed to measure.

She happens to be Wonderlic’s daughter, 71-year-old Kathy Kolbe, and she also happens to be trying to market her own IQ test, The Kolbe, to supplement her father’s work.

NFL scouts say everything at the Scouting Combine is just a piece of the puzzle and they’re right. The problem is too often team’s see size and speed and strength (or the lack of it) and give those elements emphasis over what game films tell them.

The elementary issue is one that doesn’t necessarily make for good TV and can’t be measured.

Can a player show the maturity, professionalism, instincts, desire and attention to fundamentals to be a valuable part of a championship team?

I mean, except for those waist benders.

[Cam Newton image: © Gene Lower/ZUMA Press/Corbis]

WORKOUT WARRIORS OF FAME AND MISFORTUNE

Mike Mamula. The Boston College defensive end’s workout in 1995 was legendary — 38 inch vertical, reportedly 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic. It vaulted him from possible third-round pick to seventh overall by the Eagles, who traded a first and two seconds to get him. He played just 77 career games with the Eagles.
*
Tony Mandarich. Sports Illustrated declared him the best offensive line prospect ever. Ran a 4.65 at 315 pounds. Had a 30-inch vertical jump. And, as we found out, a serious steroid problem.
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Ryan Leaf. Big, strong arm, out of shape. Failed to show up for a meeting with the Colts, who had to “settle” for Peyton Manning. That didn’t stop the Chargers from taking him second and ruing the day they did so. One of the great busts in history.
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Matt Jones. The Jaguars fell in love with his speed and converted him to wide receiver, even though he played quarterback at Arkansas, when he ran a 4.3 in the 40. Drug issues combined with drops on the field have dominated the conversation about him.
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Akili Smith. Oregon quarterback who had scouts raving about his arm. Somehow scored a 37 on the Wonderlic after allegedly scoring 12 first time he took it. Big-time bust for the Bengals with five career TDs and 13 interceptions.
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Joey Harrington. Oregon QB had a great Combine workout despite being sick. The Lions took the bait and picked him third overall. Had only one season with more TD passes than INTs.
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Mike Williams. Strong workout led Lions to take him 10th overall in 2005, third year in a row they drafted a wide receiver. Major disappointment only now on the rebound.
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Darrius Heyward-Bey. Oakland took the bait this time (see, it’s not always the Lions). After Heyward-Bey ran a 4.30 and turned in a 40-inch vertical jump, the Raiders made him the seventh overall pick. He’s had 35 catches in two seasons.
*
Kyle Boller. An SI.com Classic Combine Story. Wowed scouts by throwing 50 yard passes. From his knees. First-round pick of the Ravens. Career: 48 TDs, 49 INTs.
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Jarron Gilbert. This isn’t a Combine story as such. But so what. He became a YouTube sensation when he showed his strength and athleticism by jumping out of the shallow end of a pool. Was drafted in the third round of the draft by the Chicago Bears. One career tackle (Not sure whether it was a Dolphin).

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Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Mike Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.