Thursday, February 25, 2010
Myth busters for the combine
By Bill Barnwell
Mike Mamula, No. 59 for the Philadelphia Eagles. Let the man rest.
Each year, the arrival of the NFL scouting combine brings a tired plethora of narratives and stories about players both past and present. That's to be expected; without much to say before the players actually lift and run -- and with teams tight-lipped about which players they're interested in -- there's only a few obvious paths to cross.
But repeating a lie frequently enough turns it into a truth, and that's where Football Outsiders comes in. Enough bashing of men in underwear! Too long have we denigrated scout-speak like "bubble butt" and "plays the piano." It's time to set the record straight on several myths of the combine.
Mike Mamula is the example of combine hysteria gone bad
When scribes discuss "workout warriors" -- players who rose up the draft charts thanks to an impressive performance at the combine -- Mamula's name inevitably comes up. Page 2's David Schoenfield even declared Mamula, the seventh pick of the 1995 NFL draft, to be the 45th-worst draft pick of all time, in 2006.
Mamula's status as the combine's pre-eminent failure requires two things to be true: (1) He was drafted far higher than his level of play in college would suggest because of his performance at the combine, and (2) he underperformed as an NFL player. Both are false.
At Boston College, Mamula was a stud defensive end. Over his final two years at BC, Mamula racked up 28 sacks, and that was back when the Big East wasn't a punch line. He played outside linebacker in the 3-4 and defensive end in the 4-3, so there weren't concerns about where he'd fit as a pro. In reality, if Mamula had an average combine, he still would've gone in the first round; he's not someone like Matt Jones, a player with a third-round grade who moved into the first round because of the combine.
When Mamula made it to the pros, he actually wasn't half-bad. His problem wasn't production; it was injuries: He tore his ACL and his meniscus in the preseason in 1998, and although he came back with 8.5 sacks in 1999, he couldn't stay on the field and was done after the 2000 season. He finished with 31.5 sacks in five seasons -- not what the Philadelphia Eagles were expecting, sure, but he was better than a league-average player. Compare him to the New York Giants' Cedric Jones, taken a year later with the fifth pick: Over five seasons, Jones had 15 sacks. In 1998, Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Andre Wadsworth went off the board with the third pick; he was done in the league after 36 games. Why is Mamula the precautionary story and those guys aren't?
Consider one player we saw Mamula compared to this week: Vernon Gholston, taken sixth overall by the New York Jets in 2008. Over his first two seasons as a pro, Mamula racked up a respectable 13.5 sacks. Gholston's two seasons have yielded 11 tackles. Gholston has as many sacks in the NFL as Baylen Brees. Let Mike Mamula rest.
Jerry Rice proved 40 times don't matter
You know the story: Rice ran a 4.6 40-yard dash at the 1985 combine, but Bill Walsh saw through the irrelevant combine number and drafted the small-school star with the 16th overall pick, giving the 49ers one of the best players in the history of the league.
That's all true. Using it as an excuse to pretend that the combine is useless, though? That's poppycock. Jerry Rice joined a 15-1 Super Bowl team chock full of Hall of Famers. That helps. Furthermore, Rice had a work ethic that was downright legendary, even among the insane workouts of NFL players; Steve Young once said about Rice, "He outworked the work ethic guys."
Rice proves that a player can succeed without a good 40-yard dash time, sure, but using him to prop up the slow times of busts like Dwayne Jarrett and Mike Williams is faulty logic. Jerry Rice succeeded without great straight-line speed because he outworked everyone else in the league, had otherworldly hands and was surrounded by great players while he developed. Does LeBron James' success prove that college basketball is a waste of time? Should safeties cut off their pinkies because Ronnie Lott didn't need his? Of course not.
Quarterbacks need a good number on the Wonderlic test to succeed
Sure, taking the Wonderlic test every April is fun. And it makes sense that quarterbacks, playing the most cerebral position in the game, would show off their intelligence and propensity for future NFL success with high scores.
That's just not the case. There's absolutely no relationship between a quarterback's Wonderlic score and his likelihood of succeeding as a pro quarterback. Sure, there are examples of excellent quarterbacks with high numbers -- Eli Manning scored a class-high 39 in 2004, notably -- but the majority of quarterbacks have numbers that are about average.
Since 1995, the average quarterback taken in the first round has had a Wonderlic score of 26.8. Both Drew Brees and Peyton Manning scored a 28, about average. Quarterbacks below that figure include Carson Palmer (26), Ben Roethlisberger (25), Chad Pennington (24), Steve McNair (15) and Donovan McNabb (14). If we go further into the past, Brett Favre scored a 22, while Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Terry Bradshaw each failed to break 15.
Big hands mean big pro numbers for wide receivers
Size Matters Not
You know what they say about little hands? They can catch a football just as well as big ones!
Player Hand Size
Braylon Edwards 9 7/8"
Dwayne Bowe 9 7/8"
Mike Williams 9 7/8"
Santonio Holmes 9 5/8"
Roddy White 9 5/8"
Vincent Jackson 9 5/8"
Calvin Johnson 9 3/4"
Donnie Avery 9 3/4"
Ted Ginn, Jr. 9 1/8"
Mark Clayton 9 1/8"
Craig Davis 9 1/4"
Sidney Rice 9 1/4"
Greg Jennings 9 1/4"
Dwayne Jarrett 9 1/2"
Steve Smith 9 1/2"
DeSean Jackson 8 5/8"
Much like the Wonderlic test for quarterbacks, just because something makes sense doesn't mean it's actually true. Of course, it seems like wide receivers with bigger hands would have an easier time catching the ball than those with tiny ones.
In reality, though? Not so much. We've provided a quick chart of wide receivers taken in the first two rounds from 2005 to 2008, sorted by hand size.
The players with the biggest hands in the league over that timeframe include a famed NFL washout (Williams) and one famed for dropping passes (Edwards); meanwhile, the guy over that timeframe with the smallest hands by far (Jackson) is a star. There's a lot that goes into catching passes besides the size of a player's hands; at the very least, hand size by itself doesn't tell us much about a player's likelihood of success.
Teams place measurables over college performance far too frequently
In the end, those who wish the combine would just go away complain that teams ignore what a player did on the field on Saturdays and overemphasize how he ran for 40 yards in a straight line in shorts and a T-shirt.
Well, maybe the Oakland Raiders do that. But the other NFL franchises don't. Defining a player's NFL value is a lot like the process of getting into a college, and in that sense, the combine is the NFL's equivalent of the SATs: a way of comparing the entire pool of applicants through a series of standardized tests. Just as there are brilliant people who bombed the SAT, there will always be players who struggle at the combine and go on to be great pro players. And just as colleges don't rank applicants by SAT scores, NFL franchises consider a player's body of work as a whole, weighing the combine results versus what a player might have been expected to do. Did the player show up in peak condition, prepared physically and mentally? Did he party during the week? How did he perform during the interview process? Can he think on his feet? Those are the questions smart teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens ask at the combine.
In the end, if there's one simple rule about the combine, it's this: Don't let a story about one player's performance (or lack thereof) convince you of anything. The one exception? Well, we'll cover that next week.
Bill Barnwell is an author of Football Outsiders. His ESPN.Com archives can be found here.
The year's upcoming draft and the college game can be discussed here.
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