INDIANAPOLIS – So the scouting combine peters out in all its breathlessly overhyped splendor, a spectacle brought to you in living color by the NFL Network for folks seeking a pro football fix a mere three weeks after Super Sunday.
It's reasonable to accuse those of you who watched some or all of the so-called Underwear Olympics unfold in high-def of having too much time on your hands – but that would be bad for business. Besides, it's possible I'm jealous, given that you had a much better view.
Though I just spent five days in Indy, Robert Griffin III's blazing 40 and Dontari Poe's manly bench-press exhibition are but a rumor to me. Even when I was buzzing around Lucas Oil Stadium with hundreds of my fellow media members, I was on the outside looking nowhere.
So close, and yet so far: For all we got to see, we reporters might as well have been on the Planet Formerly Known As Pluto.
On my sole trip behind the Polian Curtain (that name will make sense shortly), for an NFL Network appearance Thursday on a set stationed behind one of the end zones, I also got no satisfaction. The scenes I did witness were subsequently wiped from my memory, "The Adjustment Bureau" style.
I'm kidding about that last part. At least, I think I am.
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I bring this up not to whine about my very cool job or because I feel deprived – after all, my disdain for the player-inspection component is well-documented; the main focus of my annual combine trip is to schmooze with coaches, general managers and other key NFL insiders, to get acquainted with prospects ushered into the media room and, most momentously, to try to eclipse the 4,000-calorie plateau early each morning at Steak 'n Shake.
No, my true intent is to broach the larger subject of secrecy and restricted access as it pertains to America's most popular sports league, an approach that is not particularly good for business as the fan experience evolves.
Letting my peers and me into the stadium to observe combine drills would be a symbolically progressive statement by a league simultaneously stuck in an outdated mindset of hyper-paranoid concealment and warming to the modern marketing potential of its product. Besides, at this point, we're the last people invited to the party. While I applaud the fact that a select group of fans spent Sunday scoping the proceedings from the stadium seats (witnessing the same set of drills as a small, handpicked group of reporters), I also believe it's a sign that the exclusion of the majority of people with media passes has officially become farcical.
It's high time for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's competition committee to loosen up, let us in and take further advantage of the bizarre fact that our readers, viewers and listeners are captivated by the combine. It's a simple equation: More media exposure equals more (and better) coverage equals more interest.
While I've been known to pitch a fit over restricted access, I assure you I'm not foaming at the mouth this time. These words are offered in the spirit of friendly advice, because as much as I love the sport I cover, I believe it can be better.
The way we consume sports as a society is changing, and I think we can all see where things are heading. As technology gets faster and cooler and more immediate, and competition for the entertainment dollar becomes increasingly fierce, even the NFL must shed its stodgy tendencies to capitalize to the appropriate degree. Some progressive thinkers in the league – and I include Goodell in this group – understand this. The decision to sell tickets to Super Bowl Media Day was a smart one, and you can expect similar revenue opportunities to be explored in the near future.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who had a new stadium constructed in which his players walk to and from battle while passing through an exclusive, field-level club-seating area, is the type of visionary to whom his peers should be listening.
During an NFL Network appearance last Friday, Jones talked about the possibility that cameras could be allowed into the room when team officials interview draft prospects at future combines. As someone who was fortunate enough to be present at a similar encounter last April – a pre-draft dinner at which Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff interviewed future New Orleans Saints first-round pick Cameron Jordan – I think it's an intriguing idea.
If you think it's a radical concept, I'm pretty sure John Elway would disagree. Remember that, as the Denver Broncos' newly hired executive vice president of football operations searched for a head coach in January of 2011, Elway had portions of his interviews with candidates broadcast on the team's website. This approach is in opposition to the mentality of authoritarian, access-averse NFL powerbrokers like recently fired Indianapolis Colts vice chairman Bill Polian and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Partly because of the successful track record of each of those control freaks – and partly because many people are falsely seduced by the allure of secrecy – there's a sense among a majority of fans that revealing as little as possible is a beneficial approach.
Polian and Belichick fielded consistent winners not because they squelched the flow of information but because they're really good at what they do. (Having Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, respectively, didn't hurt, either.)
Consider that Belichick protégés like Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels failed as head coaches who employed similarly domineering methodology, while Polian's equally heavy-handed son, Chris, proved to be a lousy general manager. As The Who told us decades ago, It's the singer, not the song that makes the music move along …
Of course, with the NFL being a competitive enterprise, each of the league's 32 franchises is free to find its own comfort zone when it comes to giving media and fans entrée into its inner workings. League-wide events such as the combine, however, are staged on a level playing field – and it's time to let me and my colleagues in on the action.
Polian, a longtime member of the league's competition committee, almost certainly would have resisted a move to let media members out of their cordoned-off pen at his home stadium with every fiber of his being.
Alas, that was then and this is now: During the current combine, Polian has been present at Lucas Oil Stadium, but in a different role. As a Sirius/XM NFL Radio host, Polian is stationed just outside the media room, as sequestered from the Underwear Olympics as the rest of us.
Next year, I hope Goodell and the competition committee have extended us the freedom of mobility we crave, allowing us to view the proceedings from the sideline, stands or (gasp!) press box.
Come on, guys, make it so. If nothing else, do it for Bill.
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- Bill Polian