Forgive me for sounding like a bourbon-encrusted-cigar-chomping-gangster-hunting city editor straight from the ’30s, but it sure sounds that way when you start talking about the evolution of the NFL scouting combine.
The NFL Incubator in Indianapolis has turned into covering the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the World Series. The media room looks like the Pentagon during an air strike. There are more news conferences than a C-Span marathon. The blanket of security makes the TSA look like frat house bouncers. NFL Network televises everything from three-cone drill to the bench press to the stretch.
It’s been 20 years since I covered my first combine as the Bengals beat reporter for The Cincinnati Post, that genre of afternoon newspapering that is deader than land lines and love letters. The NFL didn’t want you anywhere near the place. You didn’t need a credential, but a flak jacket would have been nice. You had to smuggle out the 40-yard dash times in your left shoe. Now you can check one of the TV monitors.
Now, the prospects’ hotel is cordoned off like a presidential visit. Then, I and the seven other guys that were covering the thing had free run of the place. The lobby. The curtain behind it, where all the teams set up their offices for the week in the rooms lining an indoor courtyard. And if you couldn’t pick off Eric Swann or Huey Richardson or Ted Washington or Alfred Williams or any other highly-rated pass rusher from that ’91 draft, you did what I did in ’92 and got Wisconsin cornerback Troy Vincent on the house phone.
(Not a bad call two months before the draft with the Bengals picking No. 5. Two days before the draft, even defensive coordinator Ron Lynn thought they were going to take Vincent. Then he was informed the pick would be Houston quarterback David Klingler.)
Back then, the problem was hoping the guy from the morning Enquirer didn’t get Vincent because he hit the streets before you did. If he didn’t, you had a nice get. Now, I can immediately tweet LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson’s thoughts. But so can 250 of my closest friends because the only place you’ll be able to get him is that news conference unless you can get his agent. And, besides, NFL Network will have him live as if he’s the secretary of state.
As recently as 1999 (when the lobby was still open), you could still stop Champ Bailey, the best cornerback in his draft, on the way to the restaurant. Hell, even in 2003 you could run across the street and get Carson Palmer as he ever so briefly emerged from the RCA Dome from his workout and got in a car to the airport. But now you might be cut down by a sniper.
It’s all good. It’s just different.
Back when they didn’t want you, they took the chairs out of the lobby and I remember writing on my computer sitting on the edge of a potted plant. Those were the old Radio Shack computers with slits for screens. They were sturdy, though. When I needed a quote from an expert, I jumped up when I saw a GM walk by and the computer fell out of my hands. It bounced back up off the floor like the ball first baseman Pete Rose would slam into the Astroturf after a third out, and I grabbed it. The GM still didn’t want to sign me even though the computer never blinked and the story stayed on the screen.
The media had unfettered access to team officials and coaches up until a few years ago, when they switched up the entrances to the workouts and interviews. But you can still find them at their entrance, in hotel lobbies and on street corners. I still remember a defensive coordinator named Pete Carroll playing a late-night piano solo on a lonely ballroom floor of The Omni. That might have been the same year I chased around San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk at the same place before he offered that, sorry, he didn’t quite know what to think if the Bengals drafted him No. 1.
And you can still get some help from your friends. It had to be 2000, the year Bengals running back Corey Dillon was a restricted free agent and there was a report the Chiefs might sign him. That might have been the first year I had a cell phone. I was walking out of The Westin and an NFL writer called to tell me a Kansas City official was just coming into The Omni as if barking orders into a walkie-talkie. A couple of a sub six-second 40-yard dashes later and I got a no comment.
The combine is still one of the great events. Even if it’s now an event.
Tags: evolution of the nfl combine, NFL Scouting Combine
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