The National Football League is practically a 365-day sport. Ultimately, seemingly without fail, there’s typically an event taking place. It begins with OTAs in Spring; summer training camps follow. Then you have your preseason, regular season, postseason and Super Bowl, of course. Even the Pro Bowl takes place one week before the Lombardi Trophy game. And once the new champion is crowned, we move towards the NFL Combine shortly thereafter. We “conclude” with the NFL Draft before the entire routine begins again.
But of all the NFL events, there’s perhaps two we could do without. The Pro Bowl has become the biggest joke—it acts more like a game of touch football, yet fans still pay the premium ticket price to witness it. But unlike baseball, where their All-Star game is taken more seriously and the winner gets their respective league home-field advantage in the World Series, the Pro Bowl means nothing.
Meanwhile, the other event just recently wrapped up. We’re talking about the NFL Combine. Some fans will actually sit in front of their television the entire weekend just to watch the event, but just how valuable is this showcase? It draws front office personnel and coaching staffs, but these are tests without pads. Tests partnered with interviews and the infamous Wonderland test. So while these collegiate players are attempting to run their fastest, jump their highest, bench the most and so on, does it really make such a difference in their ensuing professional careers?
There have been calls in the past to eliminate the Pro Bowl, but should we take it one step further? Should the NFL Combine come to an end as well? The 40-yard dash is probably its most popular event and this year, we saw the University of Washington’s John Ross break the all-time record with a blistering speed of 4.22 surpassing Chris Johnson (2008) and Rondel Menendez’s (1999) mark of 4.24.
We will recall that Chris Johnson’s career got off to a very good start. His rookie season produced 1,228 yards on the ground with the Tennessee Titans, followed by 2,006 yards the very next season. Then, four more (consecutive) 1,000-plus rushing seasons before beginning to tail off. A move to the New York Jets was next, then the Arizona Cardinals. Of course, his numbers have been nowhere near those first two campaigns.
But Johnson’s success certainly did not come solely as a result of his speed at the combine. While those sessions in Indianapolis may show off good speed or jumping ability—or even strength through the bench press—the bottom line is that it simply does not reflect football talent. Or, what one man can do on the field while wearing pads.
Other combine tests include: a 10-yard sprint, the bench press, vertical jump, three-cone and the broad jump. There is a 20-yard shuttle and also a longer (60-yard) shuttle. On the bench press, most of the men setting the highest marks are defensive players—almost always a defensive lineman—and sometimes one from the other side.
The all-time record holder in the bench press at the combine is Justin Ernest, a defensive tackle from Eastern Kentucky. But, his strength did nothing for him in the pros. He went undrafted and was signed by the New Orleans Saints in 1999, but never made the team. His NFL career was over before it began. But at least his record on the bench (51) still stands, I suppose.
Behind him was Oregon State defensive end Stephen Paea, thrusting the bar up 49 times in 2011. Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, the 6’1”, 310-pound player was selected in the 2011 draft by the Chicago Bears in the second round. In his rookie campaign, Paea became the Bear to record a safety in a rookie season in over 40 years. He made the two-point play against the Philadelphia Eagles, sacking Donovan McNabb in the end zone.
For his efforts in 2011, Paea was given the Brian Piccolo Award as the Bear who as a rookie best exemplifies courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor in the model of former Bear Brian Piccolo. Paea would end up sharing the award with Brandon Hardin, and stay in Chicago until 2015 when he signed with the Washington Redskins. Ultimately he was cut from the team, but signed with the Cleveland Browns last September.
How high can you jump? The University of North Carolina’s Gerald Sensabaugh made the biggest leap in 2005 when he jumped straight up at a distance of 46”. For anyone lacking math skills, that’s a height of three feet, 10 inches! Once in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars at the beginning of his career in 2005, Sensabaugh would play eight seasons in the pros and intercept 14 passes. He also forced four fumbles and recovered another five.
Three other players came within an inch of Sensabaugh’s record with jumps of 45”. They were Chris Chambers (2001), Donald Washington (2009) and Chris Conley (2015). Chambers made it to the NFL and had a 10-year career with Miami, San Diego, and Kansas City before retiring in 2010. His career would have to be considered a success, as he caught 58 touchdown passes over that span. The highlight? 1,118 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns in 2005.
Chambers leaping ability was evident as a basketball player in high school where in his senior year, he was a third-team All-State selection in Ohio. As for Donald Washington, he was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs and was on their roster for three seasons before heading north to play in the Canadian Football League (CFL)—lasting just two seasons for two teams (Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats). The last in the group above is Chris Conley, who is currently entering his third NFL season.
So, the majority of men mentioned thus far have had or are having pretty decent NFL careers. But the question remains: Did the combine make the difference? It’s one thing to be athletic, but skill will always matter much more.
Some of the greatest players in the game either did not take part at the combine, or didn’t fair well there. And arguably the most ridiculous test is the Wonderlic. Its origins in the NFL lie with the late Tom Landry, former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Landry felt it important to have collegiate players he had his eyes on take the test to gauge their ability for potential success in the pros.
Once Landry began using it, the rest of the league got cozy with the idea. Whether players take it seriously or think that their talents will carry them into the pros regardless, of the 50 questions on the test only one man has ever scored a perfect 50. That was former Cincinnati Bengals punter Pat McInally. He kicked the ball for the Bengals for 10 long seasons and interestingly enough, was a graduate of Harvard.
McInally’s perfect score ended up being a perk for him. In 2006, the Wonderlic Company appointed McInally to the position of Director of Marketing and Testing, with the responsibility to assist student athletes in preparation for the SAT. Just to prove his perfect score was not a fluke, he retook the test in 2007 and missed just one of the 50 questions.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, are those who did not score well. Take Donovan McNabb, for example. McNabb was a highly successful quarterback in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, despite being booed by Eagles fans at the 1999 draft in New York City. But at the combine, his score on the Wonderlic was an awful 14.
But McNabb shouldn’t feel too badly given the scores of these men below:
- Vince Young (6).
- Oscar Davenport (6).
- Frank Gore (6).
- Edward ‘Pig’ Prather (5).
- Darren Davis (4).
- Morris Claiborne (4).
But as it was with McNabb, those scores did not reflect on the ability to play in the NFL. Frank Gore has had a fine career. Claiborne is still on defense for the Dallas Cowboys. Vince Young was highly-touted coming out of college and did last six seasons in the NFL despite consistent struggles.
Some other notable low scorers will be very familiar names. The best place kicker in the NFL for the last decade or so? Most would say the name Sebastian Janikowski. However, the Raiders current kicker took his Wonderlic and scored a nine.
Quarterbacks are supposed to be the smartest guys on the field, right? Jeff George‘s scored a 10. The Steelers’ Neil O’Donnell got them to Super Bowl XXX before he choked with two interceptions. He also choked on his test, getting just 13 of the 50 questions correct. Defensive players score no better sometimes. The great Ray Lewis came in with 13 right. Some consider Peyton Manning the smartest quarterback ever but when it came to this test, his final score was 28. His younger brother Eli was much better, scoring 39.
While Pat McInally scored the only perfect 50 on this test, others have come close. Mike Mamula came in with a 49, current New York Jets’ quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s score was 48—same as Greg McElroy, Benjamin Watson and Kevin Curtis.
And if you’ve never seen the test, we’ll conclude with three sample questions:
1. A biker travels 5 feet in 0.5 seconds. At this exact speed, how far will the biker travel in a minute?
2. Are the following two words similar, contradictory, or not related? (Employ & Terminate)
– Not Related
3. Mark got a 20% raise for his salary. If this salary was $1,800, what is his new salary?
How much do you think the NFL Combine matters? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! And, for more from Harv Aronson, visit his website.