The term “Indy” has commonly been used amongst creatives as a reference to “independent” filmmaking. Directors and filmmakers would find efficient and effective ways to get out from underneath large studio executives in an effort to create their own vision without interference or creative differences. In NFL circles, “going to Indy” in the new year has meant traveling to Indianapolis for the annual NFL Combine event to assess potential draft picks for the upcoming season.
With the news that the 2021 version of the NFL Combine will be exceptionally different due to COVID-19 precautions—with Indianapolis being ruled out as a central gathering site for evaluations—an excursion to “Indy” this year will inevitably mean that “individual” assessments will be much harder to accomplish, and prospective players (and their agents) will have to work harder “independently” to cultivate interest from general managers and scouts. While the NFL works this week to come up with alternative plans to the traditional scouting event, combine preparation groups, agents, and players are trying to get a better idea of how to navigate the next few months.For the 2021 NFL Combine, as with everything related to the global pandemic, adaptability, flexibility, patience, determination, and precise execution will win the day, says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
A recent article published by Sports Illustrated outlines some general thoughts discussed by the NFL and teams on alternative arrangements to date, but nothing has been officially laid out by the League at the time of the writing of this article. I thought that I would outline some general issues and concepts for a revised approach to the 2021 NFL Combine, as well as identify some pivoting points for players, agents, and combine preparation professionals. As with everything related to the global pandemic, adaptability, flexibility, patience, determination, and precise execution will win the day when it comes to putting your best foot forward.
One of the more difficult processes to duplicate in a non-centralized environment will be the medical evaluations. I have had the privilege of sitting in on the orthopedic evaluations for a number of teams at the NFL Combine and was impressed at the thoroughness and efficiency of these sessions. When I attended, eight meeting rooms in the convention center were dedicated to player evaluations, with medical staff from four teams assigned to each room to collectively assess individual athletes. They had access to recent imaging visuals and reports and supplemented this information with hands-on physical examinations. Large semi-trailers containing MRI machines and other imaging technology were also on-site if team physicians require additional information.
It’s quite a sight to see, resembling something along the lines of a high-tech livestock evaluation prior to auction. Team physicians also conduct internal medical examinations to collect information on cardiovascular, kidney, liver, and pulmonary health. Needless to say, there is a lot of close-proximity, hands-on involvement throughout the day, with more than 300 athletes being examined by 32 teams and associated doctors and medical staff. Everyone is exhausted at the end of these examinations.
As you can understand, seeing the individual players in-person is a significant requirement of this process. Since the traditional centralized Indy version of this process cannot be carried out under the current COVID-19 circumstances, it has been suggested that regional versions of this setup be established in close proximity to players to minimize travel. Because many prospects currently conduct their training in warm-weather parts of the country, there has been talk of having the majority of regional medical exams in places like Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Such an arrangement could limit the air travel required for athletes, NFL officials, and team staff, with only a minority of prospects required to fly to their in-person medical examination.
Since this would be one of the only official close-proximity in-person requirements for the prospects, it may have to be accompanied by COVID-19 testing protocols to help minimize the possibility of viral transmission and infection. Medical staff could conceivably have received their vaccinations for COVID-19 by the time of the regional examinations, but it is doubtful that young prospects would have received theirs.
I anticipate that teams would view this element of the traditional Combine evaluations to be of the highest priority and, therefore, would invest the most time and resources to ensure that it could be carried out in person in the most efficient, most effective, and safest manner. A bubble scenario might be possible during the duration of these examinations, but it would depend on the number of athletes attending each site and the length of time required to complete the assessments. Teams will be happy to get these sessions in the books, as they certainly help to determine the health and potential longevity of their draft picks.
Zoom and Video-Conferencing Interviews
I know this may come as a surprise to many physical preparation and strength professionals, but many NFL teams view the prospect interviews to be the next most important element of the NFL Combine event after the medical exams. These give teams a practical opportunity to see how individual prospects handle themselves in an interview scenario, responding to questions about their football knowledge and their personal life, as well as evaluate the players in a stressful situation that demands effective communication and thinking on their feet. It also helps them determine whether a given player will fit into the culture of the organization and has the right chemistry to gel with other key existing players in the locker room. Regardless of an athlete’s physical performance and medical status, if a player is not the right fit, it must be determined sooner rather than later so as not to create disruptions and future headaches.
While an in-person interview conveys all sorts of valuable information around body language and physical communication, we have now all become more accustomed to and accepting of video-conferencing scenarios. This may be one of the easier NFL Combine elements to replace with technology.Video calls do not require the same distancing and shielding requirements, with high-definition video providing as much facial detail as you need to assess anxiety or calm, says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
Teams could easily schedule the necessary interviews with players at their convenience, recording the sessions for review by all pertinent staff. And, as I have discovered with any in-person exchanges as of late, face masks can impair the speech audibility and the luxury of seeing a person’s facial expressions and mouth movements when interacting with team staff. Video calls do not require the same distancing and shielding requirements, with high-definition video providing as much facial detail as you need to assess anxiety or calm. I would even encourage teams to conduct video interviews where you can see the prospect’s whole body to assess their level of comfort or anxiety in their body language.
Regional Combine Events for Performance and Skill Evaluations
While it might seem like combining the in-person medical evaluations with the performance and football-specific skill evaluations at a number of key regional sites is a commonsense solution, we have to remember that these additional contacts will not only extend the duration of the event, but also introduce a greater number of close-proximity exchanges among prospects, evaluators, and other staff. Longer contact exposures and a longer-duration event will only increase the probability of infection unless strict bubbles are established for these regional centers with quarantine periods leading up to such events.
I cannot see the NFL agreeing to combine the activities, particularly when medical tests are deemed significantly higher priority for their decision-making. Increasing the risk of infection with a longer event will only jeopardize the integrity of the main reason for meeting in person in the first place. Every positive test further delays the process and creates a risk of closing down the entire effort.
This does not mean that satellite performance and skill-testing sessions could not be carried out at a separate date—well after the medical evaluations have been concluded—with smaller groups meeting at select locations. Teams would be given the option to send a limited number of scouts to keep the numbers manageable, and a video feed of the evaluations would be made available to all pertinent scouts, coaching staff, and medical staff. As with any in-person evaluation, it simply gives teams an additional look at the prospects in controlled scenarios.
Prospects would still be required to prove their fitness and perform under pressure, albeit at a smaller scale and with less fanfare. And, if any positive COVID-19 cases are detected, the event has not jeopardized the other key elements of the Combine evaluation (medicals and interviews), with other opportunities available to showcase their physical talents (pro days).
Pro Day Events
Depending on the local lockdown and event restriction guidelines established in each state, county, and university around COVID-19, college pro day events may still be a viable means of evaluating prospects. However, if infection cases continue at the current pace, it will significantly impact the desire of scouts to travel to as many events as they may have done pre-COVID-19. Local university staff may still be able to run an event with all of the physical tests and football skill drills, but it may be necessary to provide comprehensive video streaming or, at the very least, a detailed video recording of the event to distribute to NFL teams.
If a specific state, county, or institution does not permit gathering for a pro day event, it will be up to individual prospects to inquire about gaining access to another pro day event at another school or within a different state. The name of the game at this time of year is getting your performances in front of NFL teams by any means necessary. The job of the prospects and their agents is to make it easy for scouts and teams to see the athletes at their best. If that means hiring a camera crew to take the video for themselves, then do whatever it takes to get it done. This may be their only chance to be seen.It will be interesting to see how programs innovate and hustle to get their players recognized during this time while also holding a safe event on their campuses says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
College programs also have a vested interest to get their players drafted and on an NFL roster. Hence, it will be interesting to see how programs innovate and hustle to get their players recognized during this time while also holding a safe event on their campuses.
Private Sector Facility Showcases
There is no shortage of private sector coaches and professionals preparing athletes for pro day and football combine events, even during a global pandemic. In fact, I would assume that private sector operations have experienced more business over the last year due to the pandemic closing down pro and collegiate facilities during the various surges of the pandemic. The role of these private facilities will continue to loom large as both pro organizations and college campuses may not be able to assemble large groups of athletes for formal training for the foreseeable future.
In the last few weeks, private combine preparation operations have been waiting anxiously to determine when they can showcase the results of their hard work over the past six to eight weeks. If there is no formal centralized NFL Combine event, private coaches have to figure out when and where the key alternative events may happen and then adjust their training schedules as required. These events may be scaled down and dispensed in greater numbers in an effort to piece together a semblance of a combine experience.
In some cases, combine preparation coaches may be afforded more time than in previous years, as organizations take more time to organize safe and efficient events for prospects and staff. The onus is on the combine prep specialists to give their clients the best possible opportunity to be ready at a moment’s notice and produce their best performances, sometimes on several occasions.
“Given the information we currently have about the NFL Combine, we will still be preparing our athletes to be ready for any scaled-down version of the Combine such as regional combines. This includes not only the physical prep, but the mental prep, interview prep, and getting guys healthy. This really isn’t much different from our normal process. Typically, the dates of pro days are not announced until after the start of our NFL Draft Prep Program. For us, being fluid has always been a vital component to the success of our program.” – Augustine Agyei, Landow Performance, Centennial, Colorado
Another benefit of having additional time to prepare for combine events is that prospects with any injuries from the previous season are afforded more time to undertake the necessary rehabilitation work. In some cases, having an additional two to four weeks can make a significant difference for athletes hoping to showcase their talents. Feeling rushed during a return to play effort is never a confidence-building process. Simply knowing you have a few more weeks to prepare can make all the difference for a prospect’s confidence and ultimate performance.
I also believe the individual combine prep facilities could run their own showcase events with their own cohort of prospects. Although some people may think that these could be biased evaluations that do not represent the true stresses of a Combine-like scenario, I truly believe that providing more exposures and information about your prospects can only benefit their chances. As I suggested previously, make it as easy as possible for NFL scouts to view your clients in a positive light. We live in a world where prolific repetition of sensational images and video clips carry tremendous influence, and they can be the difference between getting a second look or finding a new line of work.
Standardization of Performance Assessment Methods
If remote testing and evaluation of prospects becomes a more common method of implementing the combine experience, standardization of testing methods and technology has to be an integral part of the process. I remember watching American Idol 10 months ago, in the early stages of the global pandemic (just the beginning of my unscrupulous COVID-19-influenced television binge-watching habits), and the show was very good at pivoting to finish out the competition. Because contestants had to be sent home in early March 2020, American Idol staff had to come up with a reasonable method of displaying the performances of singers on a level playing field. As such, each contestant was sent a remote performance kit including a brand-new iPhone 11 Pro, tripod, ring light, and microphone to ensure that all performances were captured and presented using the same equipment. Zoom sessions were conducted with contestants by American Idol technical staff to ensure that the equipment was set up optimally for all 40 participants across the country.If remote testing/evaluation of prospects becomes a more common method of implementing the combine experience, standardization of testing methods & technology must be integral to the process. Click To Tweet
Any NFL-affiliated physical testing events should be evaluated using the same equipment and technology, as well as the same protocols for implementation of the tests. Standardization will only add credibility to any remote or satellite event used to evaluate prospect performance. In addition, this equipment, technology, and protocol standard should be shared with each and every college and private sector event evaluating and showcasing talent. If the performance tests used in the NFL Combine are deemed valuable, more effort should be made to solidify the integrity of the results.
Relying on colleges and private sector facilities to use different timing technologies and protocols only introduces more doubt into the results. Even providing these groups with protocols around filming at higher frame rates (e.g., 100-120 frames per second) and identifying key vantage points for filming and extracting accurate times from the footage would be useful. High-quality digital video footage at no less than 100 frames per second can be more than accurate for identifying first movement by a prospect and finishing a run. The company Dartfish already works with the NFL; standardizing it with the inclusion of GoPro or similar hardware would make the process easier to scale.
This is also a great opportunity for equipment and technology companies to get involved to help with standardization of technology and associated settings, as well as distribution of this equipment to various regions of the country to make sure everyone is evaluated on the same level playing field. Although we cannot control weather and other environmental factors, scouts can still see the athlete performing via high-quality video using standardized equipment, and determine relative abilities based on temperature and testing conditions. If all of the necessary steps are taken to ensure the integrity of the evaluations are preserved, viewing a performance “in-person” may not carry the same value as it once did.
Staff Professional Development Sessions
My own personal experience with the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in recent years has been through my presentations to Athletic Training (PFATS) and Strength & Conditioning (PFSCCA) staff at their professional development events held as part of Combine festivities. It was an opportunity for staff from all teams to confer and participate in continuing education activities outside of a normally hectic season. Experts were brought in to speak to both groups, and everyone was able to collect continuing education credits for the sessions too. These events were accompanied by trade show exhibits that gave vendors an opportunity to connect with staff from all teams in one central venue.
I hope that both of these organizations continue to offer virtual continuing education sessions during this off-season period for all members, as it has been a valuable time for all professionals to connect and further their knowledge. I do know that a number of teams are taking the initiative and holding their own internal virtual continuing education sessions in February and March in anticipation of a modified Combine strategy. This approach provides greater flexibility with the experts that a team chooses to put in front of their staff who may fit better with their overall philosophy and culture, as opposed to watching the same presentation in the same room as 31 other teams.
The Possibility of COVID-19 Obsolescence
Like any convention held regularly prior to COVID-19, there will be the chance to accelerate change and move on to new ways of doing business. If you were a provider of office space for technology companies prior to the pandemic, you are obviously facing a new landscape of market demand and have had to pivot quickly or find a new line of work. We have all heard about the plight of Blockbuster Video and the rise of Netflix, but how can that scenario help us prepare differently for post-COVID-19 realities? The next few months of athlete evaluations will have a big impact on how all sports view their talent evaluation methods moving forward. If we can derive useful information from a less-is-more approach using technology and remote evaluations, who is to say that this will not continue for the foreseeable future?If we can derive useful information from a less-is-more approach using technology & remote evaluations, who’s to say that this won’t continue for the foreseeable future?, asks @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
The city of Indianapolis might take the biggest hit after all is said and done. The NFL Combine was an annual event that ensured that hotels, restaurants, and the convention center were all fully booked for over a week. Television coverage of the event also helped to put the city in the spotlight every February. If the NFL decides to scrap a centralized event and replace it with smaller regional events, it would mean the end of the traditional NFL Combine in Indianapolis. I know that there would be some relief on the part of team staff, as it would mean one less trip on their typically busy schedules. It also makes me wonder if a re-evaluation of testing methods would be warranted moving forward as part of the 2021 experience, providing a more streamlined approach to physical testing.
Embracing a New Paradigm
While it is very easy to throw your hands in the air and wish for a return to the good old days of off-season preparation and evaluation for professional sports, the brutal reality is that we are further reminded of the need to continue to adapt our methods to fit the circumstances. We could argue as to the efficacy of one method versus another, but those who are determined to succeed will continue to find the best ways to conduct their daily routines.
Most teams likely have a good idea of who they want to put on their wish list for the draft based on game film and statistics. A good medical evaluation will allay any fears of fragility and risk, and the remote interviews will give a better indication of knowledge, communication skills, and character. But most teams’ efforts in 2021 may go into re-evaluating the tests and drills that they use to assess the talent that could change their fortunes in the future. Coaches and staff come and go, but games are decided by players in the final analysis.Those who are determined to succeed will continue to find the best ways to conduct their daily routines, says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
I do believe that 2021 will represent a move toward greater independence and individuality on many levels. Professional teams will be pushed to become more proprietary and independent with their own evaluations of talent. Prospects, agents, and private facilities will be pressed to develop methods and approaches to differentiate their abilities from the competition in more innovative ways using all sorts of technology and marketing methods. Moving out of high-density and close-proximity scenarios and into more home-based, dispersed methods of developing, evaluating, and promoting talent will be the norm moving forward. It is a brave and exciting time for individuals who are switched-on and comfortable with embracing change and making opportunities out of perceived setbacks. On which side of history will you place yourself?
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