For the past few days, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman have sat in Lucas Oil Stadium and watched the country’s top prospects sprint, sweat and strain in the so-called Underwear Olympics.
As the coverage of and interest in the NFL’s annual Scouting Combine has grown, 40-yard dash and shuttle-run times among the participants have improved – thanks in part to the explosion of state-of-the-art, pre-combine training facilities that have popped up across the country.
The proliferation of the training centers, the nicest of which feature synthetic tracks, indoor playing fields and access to a team of nutritionists, physical therapists and strength and speed coaches, has helped players get faster, stronger and bigger.
But the combine-specific training also has prompted scouts and coaches to view combine results somewhat cautiously. They’re leery the guy blistering through the 40 in Indy could be a workout warrior, a player whose combine performance does not match past performance or predict future success.
“You’ve got to be really careful with that,” Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “They go there and train them in all of these drills, the 40 obviously and the change-of-direction drills relative to their position. So when you watch these guys, you have to remember that this is just a piece of the (evaluation).”
O’Brien said he’s not sure if it’s more difficult to evaluate players who have been conditioned to excel in the six combine drills. But scouts and coaches have to balance what prospects did in the controlled combine environment with what they did on the field.
“The fact that they’re running routes on air, throwing the ball on air without a defense or vice versa, and they’re taking on a shield instead of a real, live (pass rusher), you just have to remember what it is. Because a lot of these kids will show up and run a great 40,” O’Brien said.
“It’s just in your mind making sure that, whoa, this guy ran a 4.3 and man, he ran a great shuttle or ran a great figure-8 or whatever. Wait a minute, remember now on film this guy wasn’t very good.”
A different time
When former Panthers safety Mike Minter was preparing for the combine in 1997, his agent sent the Nebraska defensive back to train in Pittsburgh for a week.
It was far from state-of-the-art.
“It really wasn’t a facility. It was just a workout place,” Minter said. “There wasn’t an indoor track like they have now.”
So many of the drills took place outdoors. In January.
“All I know is it was snowing and they had us outside,” Minter said. “It was like Rocky when he was in Russia (in Rocky IV).”
Former Eagles defensive end Mike Mamula is credited with starting the combine training trend. Mamula was considered a mid-round prospect after leaving Boston College early for the NFL in 1995.
But BC strength coach Jerry Palmieri designed a program to get Mamula ready for the combine, where he ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds, pumped out 28 reps on the 225-pound bench press and had a vertical leap of 38.5 inches.
After his big showing in Indy, the Eagles traded up five spots to draft Mamula No. 7 overall. Mamula had 31.5 sacks in five seasons with Philadelphia, but is largely considered a bust.
There have been plenty of others like him.
Ex-Maryland offensive tackle Bruce Campbell owned the 2010 combine, putting up 34 reps in the bench and running the 40 in 4.85 seconds at 314 pounds.
Oakland took Campbell in the fourth round, and traded him to the Panthers before the 2012 season. Campbell, who was cut by the Jets last summer, has not started a game in four seasons.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock says he believes more mistakes are made on the “measurable piece” than any other aspect of the combine, where players meet with teams, undergo medical exams and take drug and mental aptitude tests.
“You get a little excited with height, weight, speed and sometimes you want to allow the numbers to outweigh the playing thing,” Mayock said. “I always say, fast guys run fast, slow guys run slow. It’s only a story when the opposite happens.”
Getting an edge
Agents pay upwards of $20,000 to send a player to one of dozens of pre-draft workout facilities for as many as six weeks leading to the combine. Many of the training centers are in warm-weather states like Arizona, Texas, California and Florida.
Minter, the head coach at Campbell, visited one of the newer facilities in Colorado Springs, Colo., and came away impressed. “It’s unbelievable,” he said.
Minter, the Panthers’ second-round pick in 1997 who spent his entire 10-year career with Carolina, says agents that aren’t aligned with a respected training center risk missing out on prospects.
“Really today that’s what it’s about,” Minter said. “That is what they’re selling right now.”
No one coached Minter on eating and sleeping right or put him through leg strengthening drills to reduce potential hamstring injuries at the combine – all standard fare now at the top facilities.
But Minter still performed well in Indy, turning heads when he zipped through the three-cone drill – a test that measures a player’s ability to change directions – in 6.57 seconds.
Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys personnel chief, said Minter’s time was among the fastest in combine history at the time. Not anymore.
“Any time anyone was under seven seconds, you were like a 99.9 percent chance of making it,” Brandt said. “Now (training) has destroyed all those tendencies. We’ve got guys that are running (6.4).”
San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke said advances in combine prep make it difficult to compare combine results over the years. But Baalke said the 322 players at this year’s combine in theory are on a level playing field.
“It’s all relative because they’re all getting the same benefit now. Each season it’s relevant to that season,” Baalke said. “But I think historically, when you look back and try to compare it, it’s a little more difficult because they are so much better prepared to come in now and run a good 40.”
Giants coach Tom Coughlin said he’s no longer surprised when a player runs a fast 40 or rips through a quick shuttle drill.
“You have total knowledge that they are well-groomed, if you will, in the drills that are going to be run. Therefore you’re not really that surprised when they do well in them,” he said. “But the differences are still there. The times are different. The executions of the drills are different and all those things are recorded and compared.”
Penn State offensive tackle Donovan Smith spent the weeks before the combine working out in San Diego at EXOS, one of the biggest training programs with facilities in Phoenix, Texas, Florida and two California cities.
Smith said some days it felt like he was going to track practice.
“These guys fine tune and find your faults and correct you on things you’ve been doing wrong for years,” Smith said. “It’s also a track training in a way, working on speed, flexibility, mobility and strength.”
Where players like Mamula trained at their schools, Smith said it was beneficial getting away from possible distractions.
“I had a great time out in San Diego at EXOS. It’s a great facility,” Smith said. “It’s secluded enough to where you can focus but there’s a mall two minutes away.”
UNLV offensive lineman Brett Boyko trained at Bommarito Performance in south Florida. Like Smith, Boyko said the focus was not on football.
But when the combine wraps up Monday, the football training will begin in earnest.
Minter believes it’s time for the NFL to revamp the combine format. He thinks there are better ways to test a player’s football skills than putting them through drills they’ve spent two months preparing for.
“When you want to find out if a guy is ready for the National Football League, one of the main things is how can he handle stress, how can he handle change and things he’s not prepared for?” Minter said.
Part of the pre-combine work now includes getting players ready for their meetings with teams, which are limited to 15 minutes.
Panthers special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven, who has more than 25 years of NFL experience, says prospects’ responses are so rehearsed now that the sit-downs reveal little about a player.
“It got to the point where the answers started getting more staged,” DeHaven said. “We’re to the point now where I’m not sure you ever learn anything. If a guy screws up his interview, he’s probably really got a problem.”
Gettleman, the Panthers second-year GM, tries to mix up his meetings by asking only football questions.
“Our rooms are just a little different atmosphere. I think they get a little surprised by the fact that I’m not going to ask them if they like their mother,” Gettleman said. “And I think that throws some of them. They’re kind of shocked and surprised by it.”
Gettleman spent nearly 30 years as a scout before the Panthers hired him in 2013. He’s an avid film junkie, and puts more stock on how a player performed in the fall rather than what he ran in Indy.
He said he spot players who have made good use of their training before the combine.
“You’ve watched an offensive tackle, and the last time your scout (saw him) he weighed 335. And he shows up for this at 315. Well, you know he’s getting ready for the 40,” Gettleman said. “Does it make you a little cautious, not so much cautious -- is it something you factor in? Absolutely. You think about it.
“But really there’s a lot of workout wonders. A lot of guys that come here and blow it up and everybody oohs and ahhs. But the game’s played on grass in pads.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson