INDIANAPOLIS – Every year, there's a nightmare that gets replayed at the NFL scouting combine. A prospective draft pick drops pass after pass or can barely bench press his own weight. Or his arm looks wild or weak, or he runs the 40-yard dash like he's tethered to a fire hydrant. In the memorable cases, maybe things go so terribly that he quits altogether, like a Maurice Clarett.
This is what makes the combine such great theater. We tune in to see dreams made and get an inevitable sideshow of catastrophe. And since the league airs the annual combine on its cable network, we often see it live and uncut. What we don't see are the guys behind the guy, the agents who often see weeks, months or even years of work die in a single drill. They're the ones who are starting or extinguishing fires behind the scenes.
With that in mind, an NFL agent agreed to a combine chat with Yahoo Sports, offering a peek behind the curtain at the nightmarish side of this event. He talks 40-yard dash, and among other subjects, the dirtiest thing NFL teams do at the combine.
His identity has been withheld, but I can say he is in his industry prime and has represented players on almost every NFL team, ranging from Pro Bowlers to journeymen.
Charles Robinson: So give me the nightmare scenario for an agent at the combine.
A: Everyone talks about what at the combine? The 40-yard dash. Every agent's worst nightmare is a client running at the combine and running a horrendous 40 time. And a lot of players think they run faster than they do. Not many players run 4.4 [seconds]. Every agent's worst nightmare is a horrendous 40 time. All these guys who say, "Oh, you're not going get hurt if you run a [subpar] 40 at the combine," it's [expletive].
CR: The combine probably isn't an optimal place to run your best 40, either.
A: For four days, they [the NFL] make it brutal; it's basically a survival of the fittest type of atmosphere. It's like "Survivor". The player's flight [into Indianapolis] leaves at 6 a.m. They get them the earliest possible flight, so the kid's got to get up at 3:30, 4 a.m. to get to his flight. They get the cheapest flight possible, so the kids have to connect at least one time, so [the NFL] can save money.
A lot of times there are weather delays. So the kid gets there and they take them to the hospital. These kids, if they've had a surgery before, they'll sit there for six, seven, sometimes 10 hours and then have to go back the next day because they're waiting to get MRIs. And a lot of times these are on injuries that never happened, just a, "Oh, we just think maybe we need to do one." It's ridiculous. So that's how it starts off.
Then they get these guys up to do piss tests at 4:30, 5 a.m. and then keep them up until midnight doing interviews. The food [for players] is terrible, despite repeated complaints to national scouting. So that all goes on for three days. You go through all that, sleep deprivation, terrible food, the Cybex [fitness] test. Then you're supposed to go and have the best workout of your life [on the fourth day].
CR: All of which leads to your nightmare scenario – a kid tanking the 40.
A: I say all this to get back to [teams] always saying, "Just work out. If you don't do well, you can do well again at your pro day." When you have that many owners, GMs, head coaches, all watching on this big stage, and a guy does poorly at the combine, in a lot of instances, that player is done. Like, literally. They write them off at that moment, and they're done.
A: That's where I get into this [nightmare] story. This player going into his senior year was not very well known. Then he had an unbelievable senior year, to the point where there was a real buzz about this player going into the combine. The player was a defensive back. Obviously if you're a defensive back, your 40-time is very important. There was big question mark about what he would run. The kid chose to work out at his school versus one of these big-name facilities [to prep for the combine]. We would have preferred he work out at a facility.
So, at the combine I run into an NFL executive who loved this kid on film. Loved him as a player.
He says, "What do you think he's going to run?'
I said, "I don't know. He's been training at school and we're talking to the strength coach at the school. He says he's going to run fast, but I have no idea what that guy's stopwatch is like."
[The executive] goes, "I would recommend your client not run at the combine." He said, "Here's the deal. He's a great football player. The guy's film is so good. Let him run at a place where he feels more comfortable. The kid has a buzz right now. If he runs a terrible 40 time here, he'll be done." [The executive is saying] like, they'll just write him off if that happens.
CR: So what did you tell the kid?
A: We talk to the kid, and the kid's like, "I'm going to rely on the strength coach." The strength coach is just adamant, saying, "I've got him ready. He's going to run a great 40 time. You have to trust me."
[As an agent], if you start pushing this too far, the kid starts thinking you don't have confidence in him. And [the strength coach] is hyping the kid up, saying, 'Man, you need to run. You're going to run a great 40 time. Just trust me.'
At the end of the day, the player, it's his decision. So the kid ends up running two 40s. And this is a defensive back. His times were in the high 4.9s and the low 5.0s.
CR: What? How is that even possible?
A: I don't know. Every once in a while, a kid has a bad day. Some kids do well in that type of environment, where you sleep deprive them and feed them nothing for four days. Some kids, that doesn't bother them. Some kids it does.
We've had players at the combine where their roommate couldn't sleep without the TV blaring. And you have to have a roommate. The player even complained to the combine. And they're like, "Sorry. There's only so many rooms."
CR: So this kid in particular, that 40 had to have hurt him.
A: It was over for him. Over. It didn't matter what he ran at his pro day. Because here's what happens: If you have a great workout at the combine, guess who shows up at your pro day? All the position coaches for your position. If you're a big-time player going in and do not have a good workout at the combine, those position coaches are not coming to your pro day. That is 100 percent true.
We've had clients that we didn't think were great football players, but they had a great workout, and all of the sudden all these guys are showing up at their pro day. And we've had the opposite. Any team that tells you that 95 percent of the evaluation is done before the combine, they're lying.
CR: Switching gears a little bit, is there a red flag that will keep you from trying to sign a kid?
A: If it appears a kid has an addiction problem, whether that's with alcohol, drugs, gambling, whatever it is. That typically is not going to end well. If I see two instances, alcohol-related or drug-related instances, where they're in some kind of trouble with some authority – if the kid got into trouble the first time with alcohol or drugs and didn't learn their lesson and basically did the same exact thing again with no remorse or understanding, they're probably going to keep doing it. Especially if you put more money into their pocket.
One thing a lot of people fail to realize is when a kid is in high school, he has to listen to his parents. That's the way that he gets money, food and that's your authority figure, anyway. When you're in high school, you have to rely on these people to exist. When you go to college, you have to rely on your coaches and your professors. If you don't listen, you don't have a scholarship. You can't eat. You can't be successful and you can't exist.
CR: And then that changes when you get to the NFL.
A: As soon as they're done with college, all of the sudden now they have yes-men in their ears, everywhere they look, whether it's a bad agent, a financial adviser, whoever it is, offering them money and telling them how great they are. All the sudden they have no accountability to anybody. Everyone is telling them how great they are, offering them money, getting them a new car, whatever. For the first time in their life they don't have to answer to anyone.
Everyone talks about the money, but really it's the first time that these guys are actually free to do whatever they want without any accountability. When people wonder why, "Well, this guy had it together in college and now he doesn't," it's because a player's coaches did a really good job of keeping them from [expletive] up when they were in school.
CR: From a team standpoint, what's the dirtiest thing you've ever seen?
A: I think the worst thing is teams leaking negative medical information or a failed drug test. That information is protected under the drug policy and under HIPAA laws. That's a serious crime. And they always say, 'We always know ahead of time what the truth is. We just want to see if a guy will lie about it.' Well, now I know why guys lie about it.
CR: What advantage does a team gain from that, someone sliding to them?
A: Yeah, someone sliding to them. Without a doubt.
CR: So teams have undermined guys that they want, guys who would then become their guys, who they would then draft.
A: Yeah. There's no other incentive to do it. There's no other motivation, other than you're just a bad human being who dislikes people and wants people to fail. That's the only other motivation I can think of for someone to do that.
CR: I've heard of agents doing it. This all almost makes the combine a very cloak and dagger thing. You've got agents who will put out negative stuff. You've got teams that will do it. Do you end up hoarding information? It's almost like you have to be insanely secretive about your players, or someone could manipulate it in some way.
A: As an agent, for you not to keep all the information as private as possible, if you're not doing that, you don't understand the business. I run into agents during the college football season, maybe it's insecurity or ego or whatever it is, and as soon as I run into them they start talking about all the players they're recruiting and who they think they're going to sign. Do you know how dumb that is? Whether I use the information myself or give it to someone else, that's the dumbest thing you can do. So, absolutely at the combine the most valuable commodity in our business is information.