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Combine: Where words can count as much as actions

INDIANAPOLIS (Feb. 18, 2004) -- Every year about this time, football pundits everywhere raise questions about the value, if not the necessity, of the NFL combine.

We need a reminder of why it is so important to see an offensive lineman run a 40-yard dash when that is a distance he almost never will be asked to cover in a game. And he certainly won't be asked to do so in a T-shirt and shorts.

We need a reminder of the significance of having candidates for jobs as blockers, tacklers, throwers and catchers demonstrate their prowess, or lack thereof, in the broad jump, vertical leap, short and long shuttle, running around three orange cones and pushing 225 pounds of weight into the air.

Because those are the events in which about 300 college prospects will participate (with the exception of those who might avoid doing so on the advice of their agents) over the next several days at the RCA Dome. Those are the events from which every coach, general manager and scout in the NFL will gather data that will greatly influence the decisions they make before and during the April 24-25 draft.

They are important to the extent that they help the league's talent evaluators assess the raw athletic skills of players whom they already have seen perform on a football field. They are important enough for many of the prospects, aware that their draft stock (and income) could soar with impressive showings, to actually train for them.

But they don't capture the essence of why it is always so vital for the club representatives to be here, despite the fact every aspect of the combine -- including measurement of height, weight, arm length and hand span, and psychological testing -- is videotaped.

For the people who do the hiring, the most worthwhile exercise of this glorified job fair doesn't involve any physical activity, beyond the flapping of gums. It comes during the face-to-face interviews that coaches and/or GMs conduct in small meeting rooms in the dome between the drills on the field.

Marvin Lewis found them to be the best use of his time during the 2003 combine, his first as a head coach. He found that he learned much more about the players he was considering to select for the Cincinnati Bengals from those sessions than he did from any other form of the vast research he studied. He received the answer to the most essential question he had about each candidate's personality.

"Can they communicate?" Lewis asked a Cincinnati reporter rhetorically. "Can they talk about who they are and what they do?"

He is proud of the fact he "personally spent considerable time" with the Bengals' first six draft picks. And he should be. The Bengals had by far one of the NFL's best drafts last year. Many of their rookies had a role in keeping them in contention for a playoff spot until the end of the season.

Granted, there wasn't a whole lot of guesswork involved with the Bengals' first two choices, quarterback Carson Palmer and offensive guard Eric Steinbach. Palmer, the top overall pick of the draft, and Steinbach were two of the best-known players in the country.

But the interviews did allow Lewis to gain a good feel for Cincinnati's next four picks -- wide receiver Kelley Washington, cornerback Dennis Weathersby, fullback Jeremi Johnson and linebacker Khalid Abdullah. There were serious questions about the physical health of Washington and Weathersby, but Lewis had less concern after lengthy talks with them at the combine.

As it turned out, Johnson started for most of the season and Washington had a regular role in the offense, including three starts as a third wide receiver. Abdullah made a strong impact on special teams, while Weathersby appeared in four games.

The combine will feature plenty of discussion about Maurice Clarett, the sophomore running back from Ohio State that a federal judge ruled was eligible for the draft despite an NFL rule prohibiting eligibility for him and other players less than three years out of high school. There will be considerable talk about Drew Henson, the former Michigan quarterback and pitcher for the New York Yankees who could enter the draft if the Houston Texans can't make a deal to trade his rights. And a great deal of attention will be focused on wide receiver, which shapes up as the deepest area of talent in the 2004 college crop and could produce the top overall pick -- Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

But the conversations that will matter most are the ones that take place in private -- the ones in which coaches and other key decision-makers for the league's 32 teams get to know their future employees a little bit better.

As Lewis points out, "You feel a lot better when you take a name to the podium (at the draft) after you've spent time talking to them."

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