By Dr. Ken   

The NFL has lucked out due to successful marketing strategy. One can believe that Roger Godell, the National Football League Commissioner since September 1, 2006, has been less than effective, less than forthright, and less popular than another individual may have been in the same position, but he has also been a lock-solid perennial in his exalted position because he knows how to make money for the team owners. Generating profit income is the bottom line responsibility for any CEO and the NFL, like so many other multi-billion dollar corporations, is in business and designed to make money for its ownership. The actual games are spectacle enough to attract television and computer stream viewers and fill the stadiums and every HELMET HUT reader understands that even in a partially filled stadium, every seat in 99% of the stadiums has been sold, even those that are empty for any specific game. As a rather typical example and reported as recently as February 25, 2019 via documents obtained by the stadium authority in Atlanta, 60,626 fans attended the Falcons’ seventh home game of 2018 although the announced attendance was 72,262. Their December 30th season finale against the Tampa Bay Bucs drew 56,470 with an announced attendance of 72,084. Changes in the income tax laws have not yet prevented the purchase of most luxury boxes and better stadium seats by corporate entities, many if not most of which are utilized “for business purposes” and thus frequently not used. As long as the seats have been paid for, they can in fact remain empty. In the long run, the loss of some concession sales will not amount to a significant loss of income. 

In what seems like little more than a few years, Godell and his people have taken the annual NFL Draft and made it part of the modern day football spectacle. Late friend Joe Tuths, a fellow teacher and coach at Malverne High School and a training partner the author had gone to the Westchester Bulls of the Atlantic Coast Football League with, met me one day with the news that former Malverne Mules star athlete and Hofstra running back Wandy Williams whom was Joe’s high school teammate, had been a sixth round choice of the Denver Broncos in the 1969 draft.  He stated that he had “read it in the newspaper” and it wasn’t published until perhaps two days after the conclusion of the NFL draft. I was more aware that University Of Cincinnati quarterback Greg Cook had been the Bengals first choice and the fifth player taken overall while running back and return man Lloyd Pate had been chosen in the twelfth round by the Bills. Other than some phone calls from fellows still living in the Cincinnati area, this too would not have been national news for a day, two days, or more. Welcome to the world of the Modern NFL where the draft has become a major cultural as well as sporting event.  

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The top prospective draft choices pose pretty in front of a massive live and media audience

The NFL Draft, the almost boring process of watching men sitting by telephones waiting for instructions coming from scouts, personnel staffers, and general managers relative to the team’s next draft choice, with the “inside look” at some of the organizations’ “war rooms” where the decisions were made, has become prime-time viewing. Live attendance at the draft event results in packed crowds attired in their favorite team’s jersey, hollering, cheering, and jumping around at the announcement of draft picks to the level equaling a Super Bowl clinching score. It might be sad commentary on the condition of our culture and/or fans that are so committed to football that they give up family or leisure time to participate or view the minute-to-minute progress of the three day affair, but it speaks volumes about the successful effect of NFL marketing.  

Always aware of trying to sell, what will sell, and how to sell to its fans, the NFL has somehow managed to package and sell its version of “The Underwear Olympics” to a rabid public. The NFL Combine of course was initially supposed to streamline the evaluation and draft process for team personnel staffs. It wasn’t enough that even in the early 1980s, there were scouts specifically assigned to colleges, some to viewing players on other NFL teams, and some beating the bushes for foreign, junior college, and other players that might have somehow slipped through the extensive evaluation system that determines if a player is worthy of being offered a contract inviting him to training camp. Through the decades as the league went through expansion, roster sizes and practice squad membership was enhanced, and rules were altered so that at any one time a team could have up to eighty or more players under contract, on injured reserve, or just “hidden” until they were needed and called to publicly known or active duty, evaluation procedures have also become bloated. Former Utah and World Football League Head Coach Mike Giddings [ see HELMET HUT  http://www.helmethut.com/College/Utah/UTXXUT6666.html and     http://www.helmethut.com/College/Utah/UTXXUT6767.html ] was perhaps the first “football guy” to tinker with a specifically formulated evaluation system that became codified and sellable, with the Dallas Cowboys Gil Brandt viewed as the “father of player evaluation techniques.” Interestingly, most of those with long experience as players, coaches, and/or personnel men in the National Football League will readily admit that one cannot evaluate a pro draft group until years later and often, the measurable physical parameters do not equal NFL success.  

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Lyle Alzado lifted a lot of weights at various locations in the author’s neighborhood including the author’s garage. Entering his rookie season with the Denver Broncos, he was encouraged to get his weight up to 300 pounds. The misguided advice resulted in his 1972 football card showing a strong, hard 1971 rookie in a photo taken at the College All-Star Game. He still made an immediate impact with the Broncos although it took everyone in the neighborhood two or three days to receive news that he had in fact been a Broncos draft choice. Had he trained for a specific Combine performance, it is just as certain that he would have arrived closer to his in-better-condition appearance that he carried for the remainder of his professional career

One may immediately wonder if having three or four years of collegiate varsity experience and daily practice during seasons in addition to spring football practice, all of it on tape, all subject to evaluation, and all pitting an individual player against others of varying size, speed, and ability would reveal his true talent. An assistant coach from Penn State came to Coach Tuths and me at one point to evaluate two of our players. We put film into the projector that we believed demonstrated the two young men at their best and settled in to watch. After perhaps no more than a dozen plays the collegiate coach said, “Okay, we would like to pursue the tackle, the other kid can’t play at our level.”  We were a bit surprised at the brevity of the film evaluation but the coach, something I have heard echoed numerous times by both college and NFL coaches, said in summary that when you watch film all day for most of the year, you “know what it’s supposed to look like when a player has the ability to play at your level” and if it isn’t displayed, if it isn’t what they see, they move on.   

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The Best Of The Best: former Dallas Cowboy personnel evaluator Gil Brandt, perhaps the father of modern scouting with NFL Radio mate Alex Marvez, absolutely the best pro football show host and announcer to grace the airways in decades. These two first-class gentlemen provide insights and information no one else brings to their audience 

Of course with what is termed “analytics” and other recently introduced evaluation techniques, one might think that there is a new and better way, a more “modern way” to evaluate football talent. The Combine was a 1984 attempt to do this and save money by gathering what were deemed to be top prospects to one location and direct them through a battery of physical evaluations. If this was done once and “under one roof,” teams would save the expense of traveling to individual colleges to engage in similar testing activity. Of course, the NFL teams still went and continue to travel to individual college “Pro Days” to do their evaluations, while The Combine has seen the biggest stars refuse to complete specific drills they may not excel in with the entire affair deteriorating into another fan event with little real meaning for the personnel staffs. At one point an NFL Director Of Pro Personnel told me that the Combine if nothing else, served the purpose of interviewing players which often revealed what he termed “serious issues or character flaws” but like the physical events, the interviews too have been scripted and practiced by players with a battery of coaches, speech therapists, and psychologists so that the best possible “personality presentation” can be made during team interviews. In the past, sitting with a player made to be comfortable within the interview room might get him to reveal that he truly intended to “jack that mother f******r up, damn right, I would have kilt him dead if I coulda!” but those days are long past due to mock interview and prep work, very much like the physical tests that are repetitively practiced so that even a poor athlete in less than optimal condition can at least successfully navigate the few “position specific drills.”  

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Stephen Boyd was the long-time training partner of the author’s son through their school days and college graduation. Boyd, a Consensus All American Linebacker at Boston College was denigrated by some scouts who claimed “he isn’t fast enough” but the fifth round pick of the Lions was a multiple time All Pro and/or Pro Bowl performer despite lacking “the measureables” of others. Some scouts forgot that above all else, Boyd knew how to play football, always the bottom line 

Helmet Hut rarely singles a player out for something negative or presents a performance in a less than flattering light but the failing of the Combine will forever be linked to Peter Koch. Former Boston College All Big East and Philadelphia Eagles linebacker/defensive end Mike Mamula is “the usual” example of an electrifying Combine performance resulting in an overreached draft position but he did play adequately and at times quite well for the Eagles over a six year career and was coveted by a number of teams prior to the Combine. Mamula did what was obviously the smart thing and practiced the specific Combine tests repeatedly for many weeks until he had mastered them, resulting in an outsized performance and resultant enhanced draft position. Koch, a product of Long Island’s New Hyde Park High School and the University Of Maryland was in the first Combine where the drills were unknown to all but a few coaches who had helped put the drills together. One of those coaches was a member of the Maryland Athletic Department and Koch, to his credit, worked diligently to specifically master what were drills not usually performed and certainly not practiced by others invited to the initial NFL Combine in 1984. His relatively spectacular performance elevated him from what might have been a mid-round or free agent contract to one of three Cincinnati Bengals first round picks. Crediting Koch with a willingness to work hard in the weight room, developing a spectacular physique that he later showed off when he entered the acting field as “Swede,” a U.S. Marine who gets quickly punched out by a dwarfed Clint Eastwood in the 1986 movie Heartbreak Ridge, he did not have the talent to justify or sustain his draft position. He was released by the Bengals before his second pro camp was over and fortunately picked up by the Chiefs who had literally run out of defensive ends due to injury and legal issues. He lasted a total of five seasons in the NFL, appearing in but ten games in his final two years, the last with the Raiders. He continued to appear in films and has trained numerous other Hollywood actors.  

Also on February 25th, Baltimore Ravens Orlando Brown who finished his rookie season as the starting offensive tackle after having a disastrous Combine outing last year which dropped him from a presumed first rounder to the third round, explained that offensive line specifics are “difficult to evaluate because there are different types of players.”  He explained that some “are great athletes, but others rely on fundamentals and technique to succeed.” He warned against judging a player based upon their Combine performance relative to the “way players did on the field in college.” As early as 1996 a study demonstrated that having the highest number of bench press repetitions was not only a poor predictor of future NFL success but worse, there was an inverse relationship (this author’s emphasis) between the bench press performance and longevity in the NFL as a participating player. Of course common sense and the slightest bit of analysis explains that the linemen with short arms and a deep chest move the barbell a significantly shorter distance in the bench press movement relative to a lineman with long arms. That short arms are a distinct disadvantage and long arms an ideal body configuration for pass blocking makes it obvious that doing many bench presses could in fact be a predictor of failure in the NFL! The majority of studies since, many undertaken by various university statistics analysts, indicate that performance in the Combine drills as a general conclusion, do not in any way predict future NFL success, playing time, or longevity. The obvious question then becomes, “Why bother, especially when individual universities continue to have their pro days to allow player evaluation?” Obviously, the only justification at this time despite any past usefulness lies in the income the event generates.  

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Bodybuilder and fitness instructor Terron Beckham is obviously muscular, no doubt strong, and seemingly well-conditioned. He played football in high school garnering no more than a Division III experience for a year yet despite training at a facility that “prepares players for the Combine and professional football” predictably did not pass a try-out with the New York Jets. As one long-tenured NFL scout told the author in 2002, “When it’s time to play football, we only want to know if a guy can play football!”