This week, hundreds of college football players hoping to take their talents to the highest level of the game will descend upon Indianapolis for the annual showcase officially known as the “NFL Scouting Combine.”
That gathering has a history stretching back more than 40 years, and for the vast majority of that span, the combine was viewed as a fairly crucial event for the coaches, scouts, and front-office executives who’ve relied on it to perform some fairly exhaustive evaluations as they prepare to firm up their draft board.
However, the tides have slowly but surely begun to turn.
Last year, Troy Vincent (who serves as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the NFL) managed to tick off a number of owners when he compared the NFL Combine to a “slave auction” thanks to the wide variety of physical, mental, and medical tests players are subjected to.
Last month, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith echoed those sentiments when he suggested the combine may have run its course and proposed a new approach that would eschew the traditional format in favor of a number of smaller and less intense exhibitions held across the country.
The 319 players who received an invite to Indy this year will comprise the smallest NFL Combine since 2003, and while that’s certainly not an insignificant number, it seems very, very likely it will only continue to get smaller in the coming years based on the writing on the wall.
Only time will tell if the combine will be able to endure the test it’s currently facing, but now that it’s arrived at this seemingly crucial crossroad, it’s worth taking a look at how it rose to prominence before ending up on the verge of potential extinction.
The rise of the NFL combine
The combine can trace its origins back to 1982, which marked the first year National Football Scouting, Inc. (the organization that facilitates the hiring of scouts for the majority of NFL teams) invited 163 players to take part in what was dubbed the “National Invitational Camp” in Tampa.
At first, attendance was limited to the franchises that were affiliated with the aforementioned organization. In the two years that followed, it gave non-members a chance to attend satellite events it held to supplement the main attraction, but that approach was abandoned in favor of the centralized (and rebranded) NFL Scouting Combine that was held in Arizona in 1985.
The showcase was held in New Orleans in 1986 before Indianapolis was given the honors in 1987 en route to becoming the combine’s permanent host city.
One of the primary reasons the NFL Combine was organized in the first place was to give teams the chance to conduct medical evaluations of the players in a set, central location (prior to its introduction, franchises had to personally reach out to prospective draft picks and organize physicals themselves).
However, the combine also gave players the chance to prove their worth by participating in a number of physical tests like the 40-yard dash, 225-pound bench press, and vertical jump as well as affirm their psychological mettle in the notoriously intense interviews prospects have been subjected to over the years.
The fact that NFL teams have traditionally devoted a ton of resources to the league’s premier scouting event is a testament to its importance. However, it’s also been the source of a fair amount of controversy that’s played a role in the gradual downfall of an event that lost a fair amount of its luster as it continues to cling to relevance.
The fall of the NFL combine
In theory, the combine has plenty of value not just for the NFL teams who attend it but the players who are hoping to make the best impression possible ahead of the draft.
With that said, they tend to have much more to lose than they stand to gain. There are certainly cases where overlooked athletes were able to boost their stock by posting some surprising numbers, but there’s also a major risk they can see their value plummet if they fail to rise to the moment during physical and mental tests or encounter a red flag while being examined by doctors.
At the end of the day, franchises are obviously allowed to draw their own conclusions based on what they observe at the combine.
However, it’s also a bit absurd to claim that players who managed to impress on the gridiron during their time in college should be judged too hard for an underwhelming showing in the physical trials designed to isolate various subsets of their athletic abilities (which at least one study has suggested aren’t reflective of success on the NFL level).
The mental aspect of combine evaluations has also been the source of some blowback over the years. In addition to the strange questions players can be expected to be peppered with, the somewhat infamous Wonderlic test (which the NFL abandoned in 2022) was a longtime point of contention thanks to how much credence was given to an evaluation built on a fairly shaky psychological foundation.
However, the biggest factor in the decline of the NFL combine might be the technological innovations that have made it increasingly obsolete.
Teams currently have access to an unprecedented amount of film when it comes to evaluating players, and when you consider it’s now possible for a scout to comb through hundreds of hours of footage on their couch, it’s arguably foolish to devote an inordinate amount of time and effort to breaking down what unfolds at the combine barring some truly unexpected developments.
Now, it’s doubtful the NFL Combine is going to go down without a fight—but based on how things are trending, it’s going to need to mount a massive pushback to the prevailing forces if it wants to survive in the long term.