I’m finding this time of year to be a bit cringe-worthy. Uneasy, even. You?
The stomach rumbles for uncertain reasons, the key word here being “uncertain.”
Football may be on the back-burner, but the NFL does its’ darndest to fire it up again front-and-center and pull us into a made-for-TV event of running, jumping, stretching, pulling and prodding sometimes known as the “Underwear Olympics.”
The NFL Combine is intriguing, sure. Hope you enjoyed the show. Because that’s all it is.
No doubt, you’ve got to scout players in order to make decisions before adding them to a roster. Seeing players perform in person helps, but under laboratory conditions designed to manufacture non-football results seems a bit duplicitous. After all, you don’t just draft a guy if he runs a 4.3 40 in a straight line, but can’t catch or hold onto a ball, or hit and tackle, or take coaching instruction – do you?
Answer a simple question. Can the guy play? The Patriots have done just that, better than most.
Bringing 300+ invited players together into a now-televised, three-ring circus environment every year was started by ex-Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm in the early 1980’s. He thought a centralized location bringing coaches, scouts, front office personnel and players together would make the process easier on everyone, and he was right.
For a while.
Now, all teams perform their due-diligence (some more than others) on potential new players before and after the Combine. The science of scouting has evolved into a constant, consistent process beyond just this showcase event. Additionally, many schools still hold individual “pro days” as you’re undoubtedly aware, where athletes can run, jump, stretch, preen and test themselves in front of scouts and their stopwatches…just to drum up interest.
Most of those pro days begin this week. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Except that it's’ overkill by now. Teams and their scouts already know the newbies, and it is quite likely they learn more about a player from actual football film study than by watching a guy run around in tights. But teams don’t want to miss out on a ‘live’ performance, in case the “next big thing” appears from out of nowhere. Or, maybe a player has grown and improved from earlier in his career, with scouts unaware of that growth.
Interviewing and talking with a player to find out more about his personality, his intelligence level and what drives him to succeed is also a huge part of the process.
It’s sort of like the media showing up in droves to a Bill Belichick news conference, already knowing how it will end, just in case he says something outlandish. Which never really happens, of course. But you never know, so you’re there anyway.
This annual Indiana circus has degenerated into little more than an attempt at stealing time and attention away from sports that live in football’s shadow every fall and early winter.
Well, this IS the NFL, and it IS the National Pastime. Can’t fault football if other sports don’t generate enough interest for you. But it depends on your point of view. This POV has always been to back away from the table for a bit once you get your fill after a season has completed. Otherwise, indigestion is a sure-fire result of over-consumption, isn’t it?
Pass the Pepto. I know a ruse when I see one. Maybe you can find a diamond-or-two-in-the-rough, a surprise from someone off the radar.
And maybe you’ll find JaMarcus Russell, too. Just sayin’.
Take the Underwear Olympics with a grain of salt and know that the real scouting has already been underway for weeks. It will continue, too, right through the draft and into training camp next summer. It is an ongoing, constantly evolving process.
This isn’t a knock on scouting. Quite the contrary. Scouting is a 365-day job every year, largely existing in the background during a season, only to peek out from under the rug during this “show” a month after the Super Bowl. But scouting is more – way more – than just watching guys in tights for a week.
The horses, the elephants, the acrobats and a few clowns appear every year at the circus, don’t they? The Combine is no different. The circus may have left town for now, but the show – and the process behind it – goes on.
Roster shake-up a-comin’
One of the other primary reasons for an unsettled “feel” in the off-season comes from player movement. Restricted and unrestricted free agency. Retirement. Trades. And with those things, also comes tampering.
The window for talking to and wooing potential free agents actually began when the Combine did last week, although it’s “unofficial.” Everyone does it, and even though it’s tampering…the NFL largely looks the other way.
Legal tampering formally begins next week, March 11th, before the new league year begins on Wednesday, March 13th. The term “tampering” suggests something not legal, of course…which makes the term “legal tampering” ridiculous.
But also a huge part of the NFL off-season. Kinda like the Combine.
Unrestricted free agents can begin negotiating with any of the 32 NFL teams. Nothing official can be offered right away, but contract parameters can be determined. And conceivably, a team structure for 2019 can begin to take shape.
There are 20 Patriot players from last season, restricted and unrestricted free-agents, who could conceivably wind up elsewhere in 2019. That’s some serious upheaval, and while some of those players could certainly return there are others who will find opportunity elsewhere.
That’s enough agita for any coach, player or fan to have to deal with – but a by-product of the present-day system of personnel movement within the league. Add to this unsettled roster all of the coaching movement within the organization over the past few weeks, and it’s easy to get a bit queasy.
Familiar names are likely to be wearing different helmets and uniforms later this season. But maybe a surprise name or two will come this way, you never know.
Whatever. That uneasy feeling has begun to travel its way into our football consciousness. Like I said before, pass the Pepto.
And get ready for the new season to get started.
John Rooke, an author and award-winning broadcaster, has concluded his 26th season as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for more than 30 years and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio & Television Hall of Fame and RI's Words Unlimited Hall of Fame.