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How the National Football League shops for players

I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew. Source image: Kyler Murray at the N.F.L. Scouting Combine, in Indianapolis, March 2, 2019 © Todd Rosenberg/AP Photo

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew. Source images: Kyler Murray (center) at the N.F.L. Scouting Combine, in Indianapolis, March 2, 2019 © Todd Rosenberg/AP Photo; Isaiah Johnson (left) © Michael Conroy/AP Photo; Mark McLaurin (upper right) © Darron Cummings/AP Photo; Marquise Blair (lower right) © Perry Knotts/AP Photo; stadium seating © Primeimages; football eld © Alex Stokes/Alamy

The combine is an annual showcase, beginning in late February, where around three hundred top college football players, each carefully screened and invited, participate in a battery of tests, weigh-­ins, exams, interviews, contests—­of speed, strength, athleticism, agility—­before an audience of N.F.L. scouts, coaches, general managers, and owners. It’s where N.F.L. teams gather the information they’ll use in the upcoming N.F.L. Draft, which will take place over three days in Nashville, Tennessee, at the end of April. At the combine, players run, catch, and weave through cones—­“the gauntlet”—­on the artificial turf of Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts—­70,000 seats beneath a retractable roof. They then head to the convention center, where, with its 83 meeting rooms and 566,000 feet of exhibition space, they meet would-­be employers and coaches, then stand before members of the press—­hundreds of reporters who cover them the way reporters on the ag beat cover hogs at the Des Moines Pork Convention.

Only a handful of writers showed up for the first combines in the 1980s. There were ten times as many when I arrived in Indianapolis last winter, reporters from every N.F.L. city as well as from TV and radio, a sea of cameras and recorders. Several national roundtable shows (on ­ESPN, ­Fox Sports, N.F.L. Network) broadcast live from the convention center, using the trading floor as a backdrop. If you’re a football fan—and, let’s face it, in a nation where more than 100 million people watch the Super Bowl, who isn’t?—­your future is mapped in this room: future stars and future busts, future two-­minute drives and future fourth-­quarter collapses, future ­D.U.I.s and future cases of spousal abuse, future concussed being taken away on future stretchers, future Hall of Famers and future mediocrities. Most of us live in the past. That’s human nature. They say you can’t live life backward, but you can and do. The N.F.L. Combine is one of the few places I’ve been—­the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is another—­that’s all about what’s coming, not what’s been. Being here means you believe, Trump or no Trump, in the continued existence of America and American football, because American football is the sport of American exceptionalism and American greatness.

I’d been at the combine for not quite five hours and already seen a dozen things I’d categorize as surreal. I’d seen an agent tell a player to go back to the room and put on the shoes with the heels. I’d heard a young man, a huge man nearly six and a half feet tall, addressed, by a tiny reporter, as “Big Baby.” I’d listened to an expert dismiss a twenty-­two-­year-­old known as Lil’Jordan Humphrey, a receiver from Texas, as slow because it took him 4.75 seconds to run 40 yards. “Top teams are looking for something in the four-­point-­five range,” the expert explained.

I was eager to see future stars of the game tested and judged, and to see how the teams operate at their great merchandise convention. I believed that seeing this strange event, which, with its spectacle of young men made to perform for old men, resembles a Detroit Auto Show—­you check out the engine, run your hand along the body, then slide behind the wheel to get an even better sense—­would let me understand my country in a new way. Tom Wolfe published an essay in this magazine thirty years ago. In it, he criticized the novelists of his day, whom, lost in the minutiae of their cosseted lives, he believed were missing the weird realities of modern America. He called on them to leave their sinecures, to leave their heads, and go to the stadiums and convention centers where they could see what the hell America was really about. That essay was called “Stalking the Billion-­Footed Beast.” I suppose that’s what I was doing at the combine. I was stalking the billion-­footed beast.

The convention center is connected, via sky bridge and tunnel, to nearly a dozen hotels, which, like arteries servicing a heart, pumped it full of football players, reporters, fans. I got the last room in the most distant hotel in the circulatory system, a handicapped room beside an elevator. People came and went, talking draft picks all night. At breakfast, the buffet area was filled with members of the media. Most print reporters are kept out of the stadium during drills, but cameramen are let in, because the camera does not post, Instagram, or judge. One of these guys was talking about just how much he could get away with. “I’ll fly a fucking drone right over the field till they stop me,” he said. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

I did not have to go outside to reach the convention center—­a good thing because it was nasty out, sunny but cold. Yet it was a long walk: down a hall into an elevator, down an elevator into a lobby, through a lobby into a hall, down another hall into another elevator, down that elevator into a parking garage, across the parking garage into another hall, up another elevator into another hotel lobby—­this one much nicer than mine—­through the fancy lobby into a skyway that took me over streets and past buildings—­I could see the football stadium from here—­into the convention center, down the escalator, through a wide hall lined with kiosks where salesmen demonstrated high-­tech football helmets, up another escalator, down another wide hall, and into the line where reporters were waiting for credentials. Each of us was given a lanyard with an I.D. stating affiliation and where we could and could not go. Once you’ve got lanyards, you’ve got a class system. I was immediately aware of my status. Like those of most of the other print reporters, mine was marked no stadium access. Stadium access was for the upper orders only—­N.F.L. execs, coaches, TV anchors, and TV cameramen.

I sat down with a fact sheet and schedule and tried to get the lay of the land. There were a handful of players I’d been told to look for, the big prospects. A good showing by a player might secure him a place at the top of the draft. A blown gasket or punk interview might drop him into the second, third, or even fourth round, which would mean a loss of millions at contract time. Almost all of these guys had been stars in college, high school, grammar school. They’d always been bigger, better, faster than everyone around them. Life in the N.F.L. would mean playing against players just as big or bigger, just as fast or faster, for the first time. Many had gotten by on size alone; it would take something else from here on, impossible-­to-­measure intangibles.

Even among the participants, the best of the best, a few names stood out:

D. K. Metcalf, a six-­foot-­three, 228-­pound wide receiver from Ole Miss. Like a lot of prospects, his father played in the N.F.L., which brings up nature vs. nurture. Terrence Metcalf (father) played for the Chicago Bears before settling in Mississippi, where he was a large presence on the sideline at his son’s games. D. K. is as big as a tight end but has the quickness of a flanker, a player who stands wide of the formation slightly behind the line of scrimmage as a pass receiver. And: great hands. But that’s not what reporters noticed about Metcalf. It was his body. He’d supposedly come in with 1.6 percent body fat, which was later dismissed as impossible. I don’t even know what any of that means, but apparently he was in great shape. He had his picture taken with fellow prospects in the weight room. You can pick him out right away. He’s half a head ­taller than the others, bigger, stronger. He looks less like a receiver than a bodybuilder. Imagine Arnold Schwarzen­egger running in the secondary. He’d be impossible to tackle.

Dexter Lawrence, a six-­foot-­four, 342-­pound defensive lineman from Clemson, where he’d been part of a national championship team. He was best at nose tackle, lined up across from the center. During Clemson games, as soon as the opposing center hiked the ball Lawrence was on him, driving him back into the quarterback—­they call that move a bull rush—­or making a fake, or spin, then bang, he’s got the quarterback on the grass.

Isaac Nauta, a six-­foot-­four, 244-­pound tight end from Georgia. Everyone was looking for a player in the mold of New En­gland’s Rob Gronkowski. Tight end, which had been a nondescript position before the 1960s, has become essential. If you want to win, you need a bruiser who can block or catch a pass downfield, then turn and smash his way to the end zone. Nauta, from Buford, Georgia, was part of one of the best tight end classes in years.

And the quarterbacks: Dwayne Haskins from Ohio State, who’s big and likes to run and can really throw. His passes have a jump that can’t be measured, and because it can’t be measured, it’s as if it does not exist, but anyone who’s watched him play on a Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, can tell you that it does. Drew Lock started four years at Missouri, which, in a time when many top players leave college after two seasons, makes him an anomaly. Tyree Jackson, six-­foot-­seven, tall even in this age of mammoth quarterbacks, played college ball off the radar in Buffalo, which might make him a sleeper, a steal. When it comes to a quarterback, height matters.

Which brings up the big story of the 2019 combine, Kyler Murray, the nation’s best college quarterback. Murray, who won the Heisman Trophy, threw for 4,361 yards at Oklahoma in 2018. His forty-­two touchdowns came against seven interceptions, which is the stat that really matters. It’s about efficiency. But Murray is the sort of quarterback who might not have even been drafted two decades ago, because he’s short. No one knew exactly how short, but terrifying numbers were being whispered: five foot nine, five foot eight, five foot seven, 190 pounds, 175 pounds in full equipment! Traditionalists are wary of short quarterbacks. Even when they succeed, most general managers remain skeptical. The career of Doug Flutie, a five-­foot-­ten quarterback taken in the eleventh round in 1985, is a case study in such distrust. He bounced from team to team and spent years in the Canadian league, and was now and then benched after a stellar performance. The coaches didn’t seem to believe in his continued success. It was as if an inner voice was telling them, “He can’t keep doing what he’s been doing. He’s just too damn short.”

John Elway, a six-­foot-­three, 215-­pound Hall of Fame quarterback who now runs the Broncos, made the case for height at the combine. In college, he explained, the average offensive lineman is six foot two, six foot three. A five-­foot-­ten quarterback can see over such men, though it might mean getting on his toes. The average size of an N.F.L. line­man is closer to six foot six. No way a short quarterback sees over that line.

But thinking has changed on football’s cutting edge, or been changed by the stellar work of a handful of shorter men: Drew Brees, a six-­foot-­nothing quarterback who, in the course of an eighteen-­season N.F.L. career, has set records and won a Super Bowl; Russell Wilson, a five-­foot-­eleven quarterback who seems to prefigure Kyler Murray. Coming out of college, Wilson was seen as too short and too reliant on his legs to last; many thought Wilson would opt for baseball. (He’d been drafted by the major league Colo­rado Rockies.) In the spring of 2012, Chris Weinke, a retired N.F.L. quarterback, said, “If Wilson was six foot five, he’d probably be the number one pick.” He went seventy-­five instead, taken by the Sea­hawks in the third round. He accepted the offer, won the starting job, and went on to become one of the league’s premier throwers. If someone at the combine questioned Murray’s height, someone else brought up Wilson.

The first pick of the 2019 draft belonged to the Arizona Cardinals. They’d been in a good spot the previous year too—­tenth. They’d taken a quarterback with that pick, Josh Rosen from U.C.L.A., a six-­foot-­four pocket passer—­he stands tall and immobile, operating from inside the pocket of calm his blockers create amid the rush of tacklers—­in a classic mold. But the Cardinals had a new head coach, thirty-­nine-­year-­old Kliff Kingsbury, in his first N.F.L. job. Kingsbury, who’d been a quarterback guru at Texas Tech, intended to install a new scheme in Arizona, a college-­style offense that called for a mobile quarterback in the manner of Kyler Murray. What’s more, Kingsbury had known Murray since Murray was in high school. He’d tried to recruit him and failed, then coached against him in college and was impressed. He’d said that if he ever got another shot at Murray, he wouldn’t blow it. But there was still this issue of stature. Murray was ­listed at five foot eleven, but no one believed it. And what about his hand size? At least as important as height, hand size is measured, with the hand flexed, from the tip of the pinky to the tip of the thumb. Wilson has big hands, disproportionate to his height. Brees, too. That’s the reason, some say, they could thrive at the N.F.L. level. The ball is like an Advil in their hands. But how big are Murray’s hands? We’d have to wait for the measurement.

I passed Murray in the convention center. He was laughing at something said by a member of his entourage. I tried to examine his hands, but he was using them to talk, and I couldn’t get a good look.

Source images: Zedrick Woods and Rock Ya-Sin. Photographs © Michael Conroy/AP Photo

If left to the free market, the N.F.L. would have collapsed shortly after it was formed. The league, which began with a handful of teams scattered around the industrial Midwest, was organized by, among others, George Halas, who played for and later owned the Decatur Staleys, the factory team of the Staley Manufacturing Company in Decatur, Illinois, which became the Chicago Bears. There had been no real professional football league before that, just college and semi­pro, where players made a hundred bucks a game. Halas wanted to prove he was the best. To do that, he needed a fixed schedule and quality opponents. That’s why he wanted to start the league, and his competitive energy still drives it.

Halas soon recognized a problem. The best recruits coming out of college tended to go to the best teams or the teams with the most money. In this way, the strong got stronger and the weak became a kind of permanent N.F.L. underclass of franchises that did not draw fans and tended to fold. Halas operated on two levels in these years. As the owner of the Bears, he wanted to beat the Packers every time they played. As a founder of the N.F.L., he knew the Packers had to occasionally beat the Bears if the league was going to survive. He needed parity. It was accomplished in a few ways, perhaps most importantly with the draft. Rookies would no longer be purchased on the open market; instead they’d be selected playground-­style, the first pick going to the team with the worst record, the last pick going to the reigning champion.

The inaugural draft was held in a ballroom at the Ritz-­Carlton in Philadelphia in 1936. Each owner put together a list of college players, and these lists were then combined into a master, the names written on a blackboard. There was no scouting, no meaningful stats, just guys you’d read about in the paper or seen one Saturday in Champaign-­Urbana or Baton Rouge. The Eagles, being the worst team in the league and whose owner, Bert Bell, had really agitated for a draft, had the first pick. Bell took Jay Berwanger, who, like Kyler Murray, had won the Heisman. He’d been a star halfback at the Univer­sity of Chicago, which was then, though it’s now hard to believe, a football powerhouse. Berwanger chose not to play pro—­as did many early N.F.L. picks, life in the league being brutish, poorly compensated, and short.

In other words, the draft had created a need for something else fairly new to the league: intel­ligence information. Shouldn’t someone have talked to Berwanger before we picked him and asked if he’d even play? And why not figure out each prospect’s size and speed? At first, each team did its own scouting. You’d see an old man in a trench coat in the bleachers taking notes. In the 1940s and ’50s, teams began to invite top prospects to come out to the home field and practice, meet the owners, get a feel for the place. Maybe they’d run a few drills, someone holding a stopwatch. In the 1970s, several teams banded together to host a camp where prospects could be put through their paces together, saving time and money and allowing for side-­by-­side comparison. A rival camp was formed by other owners. A few years later, Tex ­Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, suggested the next logical step, especially in a league dedicated to parity: one event, a few weeks before the draft, at which every team could get a look at the incoming class.

The first combine was held in Tampa, Florida, in 1982—­a little thing, a seed that grew and grew. By the time the combine established permanent residence in Indianapolis, it had become a great spectacle. The qualities that seem to make for a good N.F.L. player, as opposed to someone who excelled in college, had been boiled down to a handful of traits: speed, strength, athleticism, intelligence, poise. Yes, he can run, but can he jump? Yes, he can jump, but can he catch? Yes, he can catch, but can he understand the playbook? Yes, he can understand the playbook, but will he remember it when fifty thousand people are screaming in his face?

Tests were designed to identify particular traits: a measurement for height and weight, an interview with coaches, an examination by doctors. Then come the drills: the forty-yard dash, the high jump and long jump, the twenty-­yard shuttle (in which players move between cones set up on the field—­dash right, touch the ten-­yard line, dash left, touch the twenty-­yard line), which is meant to test quickness as opposed to speed, the sixty-yard shuttle (same as the ­twenty, just more), and position play—­quarterbacks throw, wide receivers catch, linemen block. Some players move up in the draft as a result, others move down. Some players, whom no one had paid much attention to, become hot properties. People call them “combine stars.” They seem like a product of the combine itself. Over time, with so much at stake, players have remade themselves to fit the tests: bigger and faster, though not necessarily better. In this way, the combine has altered the aesthetics of the game. Size and speed, the look of the modern N.F.L.—­it all comes out of Indianapolis.

Diehards can list the greatest combine stars, members of an All-­Combine team: Robert Griffin III—­RGIII—­would be quarterback. He excelled in everything at the 2012 combine, was taken second overall by the Redskins, and had a transcendent rookie season right into the playoffs, where all that running caught up with him. He was injured, played injured, and never really recovered. In RGIII, you see the N.F.L. as a wood chipper into which we feed magnificent athletes. Chris Johnson would be at running back. In 2008, Johnson, out of East Carolina, ran the forty in 4.24 seconds, then a record. Johnson had been projected to go in the third round that year, but the combine made him a star. He went in the first round, then he made three Pro Bowls. The offensive line would include Mitch Petrus of Arkansas, who set a combine bench-press record at his position—­45 reps of 225 pounds, or until his face turned purple and his heart whispered to his brain, “Please stop.” The Giants took him in the fifth round, but he was soon out of the league. He currently plays bass in a band called Vikings of the North Atlantic. Justin Ernest would be on defense. As a prospect out of Eastern Kentucky in 1999, he was even better than Mitch Petrus on the bench press. Ernest still holds the combine ­record: 51 reps. Undrafted, he walked on for a single season with the Saints. Jamie Collins of Southern Miss set the record for the broad jump in 2013—­he’d be at linebacker. Byron Jones of UConn not only beat Collins’s record but set a world record in the broad jump (12 feet and 3 inches)—­he’d be another linebacker.

But such an All-­Combine team would probably not do very well on the field, because it lacks a certain kind of athlete, the type who vanishes at the combine because you can’t test for what you can neither define nor record, which turns out to include many of the intangibles that make a great player. For this reason, a lot of N.F.L. standouts did poorly at the combine, were drafted late or not at all. The most famous example is Tom Brady, who went in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. In 2017, in the midst of a career that includes four Super Bowl M.V.P.s and three league M.V.P.s, Brady quoted from his combine report card:

—­Poor build
—­Lacks great physical stature and strength
—­Lacks mobility and ability to avoid the rush
—­Lacks a really strong arm
—­Can’t drive the ball downfield
—­Does not throw a really tight spiral
—­System-­type player who can get exposed if forced to ad lib
—­Gets knocked down easily

Julian Edelman, another Patriots standout, small and slow and great, went in the seventh round in 2009. Trent Cole, a linebacker who was considered too small for the pros, went in the fifth round in 2005. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler. Marques Colston, another “slow” receiver, was taken in the seventh round in 2006 and has since set Saints records in catches and receiving yards. It does not hurt that he was catching those passes from Drew Brees—­short, weak arm—­who was taken in the second round in 2001.

My favorite example of a player who could not be properly measured is quarterback Jim ­McMahon, who was taken by the Bears in the first round in 1982 despite his lack of quantifiable skills. ­McMahon was chubby and slow and did not throw hard, and his passes were wounded ducks, and he was a smart-­ass and drank too much and made the wrong kind of headlines and changed plays at the line of scrimmage and was short. He was also half-­blind in one eye. In fact, the only thing Jim ­McMahon was ever good at was winning football games. He might have played like garbage all day but would score when points were absolutely needed, often in a way that made little statistical impact. He’d dive through the line, throw a shovel pass, or pitch to Walter Payton, and head into the end zone and catch the ball himself. ­McMahon was living proof of those words credited to the Green Bay wide receiver Max ­McGee: “When it’s third and ten, you can take the milk drinkers and I’ll take the whiskey drinkers every time.” At one point ­McMahon had an astonishing win percentage in games he started. The stat guys will tell you that there’s no such thing as a clutch player. If you look at the numbers in a certain way, you can make anything disappear. And yet, just because something can’t be measured, does not mean it doesn’t exist. George Halas had a name for this unmeasurable quality. Maybe that’s why he drafted ­McMahon—­because he recognized something he’d seen in Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. He called it “the old zipperoo,” that extra spark that keeps a player going when everyone else has quit.

One test at the combine is more interesting and says more about how we judge than all the others put together. It’s called the Wonderlic, and it was created by a Northwestern University graduate student in 1936. His name was E. F. Wonderlic. It was an I.Q. test meant to measure cognitive ability—math, language, basic reasoning. It consisted of fifty questions, with each correct answer yielding a point, fifty being a perfect score.

You can find sample Wonderlic questions on the internet:

Six cooks can boil 12 pots of water in four minutes. How many cooks are needed to boil 48 pots of water in four minutes?

A girl is 18 years old and her brother is a third her age. When the girl is 36, what will be the age of her brother?

What is the 18th letter of the English alphabet?

You have 12 minutes to take the test, 50 questions in 720 seconds. That was the innovation: the pressure of the ticking clock, the deadline looming. Wonderlic meant it to measure poise, not just how a person performs but how he performs under fire. It was designed for employers. He figured they’d use it to separate the execs from the mop pushers, but it was the armed forces that took it up first, especially the air forces—Army, Navy—­whose recruiters saw in it a way to find pilots. The ticking clock was thought to mimic the pressure a flier feels in combat, under the canopy when the ­MiGs close in. Fifty seconds till contact. Ten seconds. Three. Only around 2 percent of test takers even finished.

Tom Landry, the iconic leader of the Dallas Cowboys, was one of the first N.F.L. coaches to use the Wonderlic. Born in Mission, Texas, in 1924, Landry joined the Army Air Corps soon after his brother was killed in action over the North Atlantic in 1944. Landry flew thirty sorties in a B-­17 bomber and survived a crash landing. After the war, he played football at the University of Texas. A defensive back, he was elusive and fast and hit with the sort of force that wide receivers remembered years later.

Landry was taken by the Giants in the seventh round in the 1946 draft. He played seven professional seasons, the last two as a player/coach. He ran the defense opposite the offensive coordinator and future Hall of Famer Vince Lombardi. Most people remember Landry as the taciturn Texan who coached the Cowboys for 29 seasons, had 2 Super Bowl championships and 270 wins—­the face of the franchise. Though he looked as stolid as Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name,” Landry, in sport coat and fedora, was in fact an innovator. It was Landry who perfected the 4–­3 defense, which football fans will recognize as a standard alignment of the game: it starts with four “down” linemen, so-­called because these huge men begin each play in a three-­point stance (fingers in the turf, asses in the air), backed by three linebackers—­hence, 4–3. And Landry was one of the first N.F.L. coaches to realize the need for intelligence testing.

The game had become so complicated by the mid-­1970s—­so many formations, each requiring a read by the quarterback, which called for a series of adjustments made at the line of scrimmage, just the sort of improvisation known to combat pilots—­that Landry wanted a better way to scout for smarts. Not just speed and strength, but can a player think as he’s getting punched in the face, or concussed, or when Dick Butkus is biting his ankle at the bottom of the pile? That’s why he remembered the . . . wait . . . what’s that test they had us take during the war?

The Wonderlic had been in circulation long enough to generate a sea of data, the sort in which experts can read patterns. Via the test, they could tell you which professions attracted the smartest (and dumbest) people. ­Twenty was said to be the average score. Above forty, you’re a genius. Below ten . . . well. The highest average scores went first to systems analysts (32), then to chemists (31), and electrical engineers (30). These are your elites. Below that come the middle class, the multitude. Accountant (28). Copywriter (27). Bank teller (22). Firefighter (21), welder (17), janitor (14). Landry began giving the test to his players in the late 1970s. The rest of the league followed. It’s been a combine staple from the start, hated and feared.

Based on the Wonderlic, we know which positions are, on average, staffed by the smartest people on a football field, and which by the stupidest. You’d probably think that quarterbacks are the smartest players—­they have to run the offense, read defensive formations, and then make necessary changes—­but you’d be wrong. Offensive tackles have the top score, 26. Then centers (25), then quarterbacks (24). Running backs are said to be the dumbest, scoring an average of 16 on the Wonderlic. It would be interesting to give players the test before and after their careers; all those head blows must have an effect.

Of course, there are exceptions, outliers. Mario Manningham, a Michigan receiver, after failing multiple drug tests, lying about it, then admitting he’d lied, scored a 6 on the Wonderlic. (The scores are supposed to be confidential, but the numbers leak.) Running back Frank Gore, a probable Hall of Famer taken in the third round in 2005, scored a 6 as well. Jeff George, a physically gifted thrower who could never get it together, got a 10 on the Wonderlic, which is about as low as it gets for a quarterback. Aaron Rodgers, considered one of the smartest players because he looks brainy and played at U.C. Berkeley, scored a 35. Eli Manning, who took the Giants to two Super Bowls, scored a 39. Eric Decker, a receiver who did not compete at the combine because of an in­jury, scored an entirely unnecessary 43 on the Wonderlic (receivers average 17). Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played quarterback at Harvard, got a 48. He went to the Rams in the seventh round in 2005. Despite his nickname (Fitzmagic) and the length of his career (he’s played fourteen N.F.L. seasons), he’s been mostly mediocre, a fact that some use to discount the importance of the Wonderlic—­Fitzpatrick got a 48 and still sucks—­but that others use to prove its relevance—­If he weren’t a genius, the guy wouldn’t have lasted ten games in the N.F.L.

Linebacker Mike Mamula scored an amazing 49 on the Wonderlic (linebackers average 19). He broke or nearly broke several records at the 1995 combine, which bumped him way up in the draft. He went from a probable third rounder to a first rounder; he was taken seventh overall by the Eagles, just behind Steve ­McNair and just ahead of Warren Sapp, but lasted a mere handful of seasons and was never better than okay. Mamula is held up as an example of all that is wrong with the combine. Great in the weight room, great on the test, shitty on the field. The guy could do everything but play.

Only one prospect has ever gotten a perfect Wonderlic score: Pat ­­McInally, a Harvard wide receiver and punter who went in the fifth round in 1975 to Cincinnati, where he played ten seasons, which brings up an interesting question: Is it bad to overachieve on the Wonderlic?

General managers tend to steer clear of those who do poorly on the test and also of those who do well. Given a choice between too smart and too dumb, they’d choose too dumb every time. (Frank Gore, 6.) Anything over a 40 tends to be seen as a potential problem. Will too smart on the test mean too much thinking on the field and too much questioning in the locker room? If you’re looking at a 45, you’re looking at a guy who knows he’s smarter than the coach and who just might lead an insurrection. Some people speak of a Wonderlic sweet spot: 30 to 38, a range that would net most elite pro quarterbacks, including Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, and Colin Kaeper­nick. You want just enough intelligence to get up and down the field. Anything more is unnecessary or even a liability.

Most of the action at the combine takes place in a convention center ballroom, the sort of featureless space that seems to have a low ceiling only because it goes on forever. It’s broken by dividers, bleachers, and velvet ropes, deployed and removed throughout the day into separate spaces for, in ascending order of importance, print media, football fans, electronic media, N.F.L. employees, prospects, coaches, general managers, owners. There are eight podiums, each the site of a press conference—­now it’s running backs, now offensive tackles. There’s a stage for the bench press fronted by bleachers that fill with fans who are not allowed to take photos but are encouraged to cheer. The bench itself, topped with a weight-­loaded bar, sits invitingly inert between rounds, the sword in the stone. You want to go up there, try it, get noticed, and possibly signed.

Source images: Photographs of the 1966 Green Bay Packers’ N.F.L. Championship ring and the Super Bowl rings of the 1968 New York Jets, 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, 1984 San Francisco 49ers, 1993 Dallas Cowboys, 2009 New Orleans Saints, and 2016 New England Patriots. Super Bowl rings courtesy the N.F.L. Photograph of Marvell Tell III © Darron Cummings/AP Photo

Source images: Photographs of the 1966 Green Bay Packers’ N.F.L. Championship ring and the Super Bowl rings of the 1968 New York Jets, 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, 1984 San Francisco 49ers, 1993 Dallas Cowboys, 2009 New Orleans Saints, and 2016 New England Patriots. Super Bowl rings courtesy the N.F.L. Photograph of Marvell Tell III © Darron Cummings/AP Photo

Near the entrance, just beyond an X-­ray machine and a metal detector, there is a display set off with ropes to control the crowd, but there is no crowd. It’s just me and a security guard who trails behind, asking me questions. He wants to know what the display shows. I tell him it contains every Super Bowl ring, a variation of which is given out to members of each championship team, players and coaches, but also trainers and accountants, the guy who does the Instagram, the guy who, with his Wonderlic 17, mops the sweat off the weight-­room floor. The display starts at year one—­1967—­and continues up to last winter, when the Patriots beat the Rams for their sixth Super Bowl title. In the A.F.C. title game, the Patriots had beaten the Chiefs, the team that lost the first Super Bowl to Vince Lombardi’s Packers. That game was not yet called the Super Bowl. It was called the A.F.L.–N.F.L.­ World Championship, since that’s what it was: the best teams from rival leagues playing after the regular season, a game that, at first, was seen less as competition—­the N.F.L. was so much better—­than exhibition, akin to a funny-­car race. Joe Namath and the A.F.L.’s Jets changed that by upsetting the N.F.L.’s Colts in 1969; the leagues merged soon after. The championship was rebranded the Super Bowl by Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, whose kids wouldn’t stop talking about their super ball. (The big college games were called bowls—­Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl—­because that’s what their stadiums looked like.) It was a joke that everyone took seriously.

N.F.L. owners had been giving out championship rings since the 1930s. It was a way to remember, to save something from the experience. For players, it’s often the only valuable thing they have left when it all falls apart. Dave Meggett, who played for the Giants, put his Super Bowl ring up for sale on eBay, but he apparently did not go through with the sale. Green Bay’s Steve Wright did, selling his Super Bowl ring for $73,000. Ray Guy, the Hall of Fame Oakland punter, auctioned off three Super Bowl rings for $100,000. Lawrence Taylor, maybe the greatest Giant ever, gave his Super Bowl ring to his son, who sold it for $230,000. Walter Payton, the great running back known as Sweetness, loaned his ring to a high-­school kid—­he wanted to show the kid he trusted him—­who lost it in a couch. It turned up later, but by then Payton was dead. Patriots owner Robert Kraft showed off one of his rings to Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Putin tried it on, then walked away. Kraft never saw it again. There was a kerfuffle; people wanted answers. Kraft released a statement. He said Putin had not stolen the ring—­stealing a Super Bowl ring would be as crazy as stealing a presidential election. Kraft later described the statement as bullshit. He said he’d been pressured to release it by the White House, which did not want an incident. The ring is now on display in the Kremlin.

A Super Bowl ring is like the statue of a saint that people kneel before in church. It’s supposed to represent something but, over time, becomes the thing it’s supposed to represent. In the 1980s, when the Steelers were going for their fifth championship, they did not speak of winning another title but of getting “one for the thumb.” The metaphysical power of the ring was best captured in the movie Kicking and Screaming, in which Mike Ditka, the coach of the 1985 Bears, raises his hand to a heckler, saying, “I couldn’t really hear you—my Super Bowl ring was making too much noise.”

There have been fifty-­three Super Bowls, fifty-­three rings. The first dozen were modest, just the name of the winning team and year, gold filigree, a diamond or two. Over time, though, the owners—­the league kicks in $5,000 per ring, and anything beyond that is paid for by the team—­went into competition not just with other franchises but with other rings. The result has been an evolution that mimics the evolution of the Super Bowl, which went from tasteful to immense, the biggest thing in sports. By the mid-­’90s, rings were being made to carry messages. The Steelers’ Super Bowl XLIII ring has six big diamonds (amid fifty-seven smaller ones), each of the six representing one of the team’s Super Bowl victories. The Packers logo on the Super Bowl XLV ring is made of thirteen diamonds, one for each of the team’s championships going back to 1929. The Bears’ Super Bowl XX ring was said by some veterans of the team to be the cheapest ever, thus an unintentional symbol for an owner who refused to pay top talent and so watched his players drift away. After Super Bowl LI, the Patriots designed a ring with 283 diamonds, which stands for the lowest moment of that game. The Patriots were down 28–3 when they began their comeback.

“What about that?” asked the security guard, pointing across the room.

He meant the Lombardi Trophy, the prize given to the owner of the Super Bowl champion on the field after the game. It was on a podium, a kind of altar, where fans could pose with it or just get close. The trophy was first awarded in 1967; it was later named for the game’s iconic coach, who died of cancer at age fifty-seven. A silver football designed by Tiffany, it spends its days dreaming of the kicker who will finally blast it through golden uprights. No one went near it in Indianapolis—­neither fans, nor reporters, nor players. They tried to act cool around it instead, as if they’d been in its presence many times, the way you might behave around a celebrity.

As I stood there, looking at the trophy, reporters began moving to the far side of the room, beyond the velvet ropes, where fans could not follow. It was day three of the combine, and coaches and general managers were taking their places behind the podiums. They spoke two or three at a time, side by side but each in his own area, fielding questions mostly from local reporters. You heard the same words and phrases: “upside,” “gamer,” “working his way back from . . . ” “From” usually meant an injury that had ended a player’s previous season.

Vic Fangio, the newly hired head coach of the Broncos, called on reporters by name. He’s been in the league over ­thirty years and knows everyone. Unlike most N.F.L. coaches, he never played football beyond the twelfth grade. He is a former high school coach who climbed all the way to the top. Though he’s reached the pinnacle, he still has something of third period about him. His voice is gruff. You half expect him to yell, “Drop and give me ­twenty.” In a league that’s gone for ever-­younger coaches—Sean McVay, who took the Rams to the Super Bowl, is younger than some of his players—Fangio, at sixty, is a comforting presence.

Eric ­DeCosta spoke in a whisper from his podium, as if he’d taken a course on power: when you speak softly, the other guy has to lean in close; once that happens, you’ve already won. ­DeCosta had just taken over as general manager of the Ravens. He was talking about the team’s 2018 first-­round pick, quarterback Lamar Jackson, a Heisman winner who went thirty-second overall. Like Kyler Murray, Jackson does not fit the classic quarterback mold. He likes to run, and in this league, when a quarterback runs he gets into trouble. Quarterbacks, the stars of the game, are protected in all kinds of ways: you can’t hit them low, you can’t hit them high, you can’t hit them late, and if they slide, you can’t hit them at all. But once he starts running, he becomes a running back, and a running back is meat and you can basically do what you want to him. As Mike Ditka once said of quarterbacks who tuck the ball and head up the field, “If you act like a running back, we’re going to treat you like one.”

Jason Licht, the general manager of the Buccaneers—­a big guy in team attire—­was talking about “cap space.” The N.F.L. has a salary cap. Each team is limited in how much it can spend per season on ­players—­$188.2 million in 2019, a nearly $11 million jump from 2018. If you go over the cap, you’ll be fined and lose contracts or draft picks. There’s a minimum too. Each player must make at least $495,000 a year. An N.F.L. roster consists of fifty-­three players. So to put it in the way of the Wonderlic: If a team pays each player the minimum, how much room will that team have left under the salary cap? But there’s another rule. A team must spend at least 89 percent of its cap over a four-­year period. Part of the job of general managers is the unloading of bad contracts so that, when opportunity arises, they will have cap room to deal. It’s the game inside the game and a reason many franchises employ economists. Licht is explaining why the cap does not concern him. “I think this is a deep draft,” he says. Tampa Bay has the fifth overall pick. Rookies are typically signed to four-year contracts, making the draft the best way to hire cheap talent. “I think we’re going to get good players in the second, third, fourth, fifth rounds.”

Jason Garrett, head coach in Dallas, agrees. “Look at our situation,” he said from another podium, meaning Dak Prescott, whom the Cowboys took in the fourth round in 2016. Prescott came in as a third stringer, moved to second string, then replaced All-­Pro Tony Romo to become a star. “There’s how you look in the combine, then how you play in the games, and they’re not the same,” says Garrett. “Dak is a perfect example.”

Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers’ head coach, was asked to name the single hardest thing to teach a quarterback. At first, I thought his answer—­“Throwing”—­was a joke, then I realized he was serious. “If a guy throws a certain way and you think, ‘We’re going to teach him at twenty-­three to throw it differently,’ he might do it in practice, he might do it in drills, but you throw him into an N.F.L. game in the heat of battle, and he’s going to resort to who he is and what he’s always done,” he said. “So, if they’re not one of the best throwers on the planet, they better be extremely fast. They better be able to run. . . . Because that’s something you really can’t teach.”

“I don’t care about mechanics,” ­Andy Reid, head coach of the Chiefs, said from another podium. “If a guy can throw it to me and throw it to you and put it where he wants, good enough. I don’t try to remake him into something he’s not. I go back and look at film on him from college and high school, and build an offense around what he’s already good at. I don’t want the guy who throws pretty. I want the guy who wants the ball more than anyone else.”

Then came a cheer followed by an ­emcee shouting over a P.A. system: “All right, baby! Lock it out! Lock it out! Push it! Lock it out!”

It was the bench-­press competition. The bleachers, which had been empty, were now packed with fans. Every eye was focused on the kid who, lying on his back, face squeezed tight and projected on a screen beside his name and college, lifted and lifted, paused, breathed, and lifted. Once a participant passed twenty-­two reps, the cheering became intense. Everyone wanted to see either abject failure and the resulting walk of shame, or a record. No one is sure what the bench press means for performance, or how it carries over onto a football field. In the end, though, you judge by what you can rate, which turns out to be not very much.

A murmur went through the crowd of reporters watching the bench press. Kyler Murray had been measured, and he’d come out of the room smiling. We got the numbers soon after. Five foot ten is said to be the cutoff for a quarterback. At or below that, you’re Doug Flutie. Above that, you’re possibly Russell Wilson. Murray is five foot ten and one eighth of an inch, that extra point being lagniappe thrown in by the football gods. What’s more, he’s 207 pounds. At 190, he would have been a rag doll, but 207 makes him substantial. And his hands! They measured 9.5 inches from pinky to thumb, which put him in league with Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, whose hands each measure 10.25 inches. Jared Goff, who went to last year’s Super Bowl, has small hands in comparison, 9 inches pinky to thumb.

Murray’s good news shifted the focus to Josh Rosen, who had been Arizona’s starting quarterback up to that moment. Rosen struggled in 2018, throwing eleven touchdowns against fourteen interceptions, but in a way not uncommon to first year quarterbacks who go on to excellence. It’s a huge jump from college to pro, and there’s often a difficult period of apprenticeship, of failure that leads to success. Aaron Rodgers sat on the bench for three seasons before he started a meaningful game. Jared Goff failed in 2016 before catching a wave in 2017. Rosen seemed to be on the same sort of trajectory until Murray made height and weight and hand size. Just like that, the big question at the combine went from “How tall is Kyler Murray really?” to “What the hell is going to happen to Josh Rosen?”

The on-­field trials began the next day, though, with my second-­rate press credential, I could not get in to see them in person but instead stood with other reporters watching the N.F.L. broadcast and waiting for the participants to appear behind the podiums. There are a half dozen drills, but for a viewer the most interesting are the forty-­yard dash, because it’s raw speed, and the passing, because quarterbacks at this level throw so well, so smoothly and easily, with such accuracy.

For the forty, participants get set at the end zone, then, at the sound of an electric bell, head up the sideline, running in shorts and jerseys. It’s not like track and field. That sort of runner tends to be lithe, elegant. These are big people, running extraordinarily fast for their size. You can’t see them going full out without imagining the one thing missing from this drill, the most important thing of all—­the collision that will come at the end of just about every actual play. That fact, the car wreck these men will suffer again and again in the course of a season, does not make their speed irrelevant, but it does qualify everything. You can’t know how they will perform until it’s real, and by then it will be too late.

D. K. Metcalf was said to be the big winner in the forty. He ran it in 4.33 seconds, wildly fast for a man his size—­six foot three, 228. He overachieved in the vertical leap and bench press too, improving his draft status. Eleven players have broken 4.3 seconds in the forty since 2013. They’ve all been running backs, wide receivers, or cornerbacks. Robert Griffin III did it in 4.38 seconds, which made him one of the fastest quarterbacks in combine history. I say “made him” because all that speed was trashed in the course of a single N.F.L. season.

Quarterbacks are tested for throwing accuracy and arm strength. In one drill, the passer, in shorts and tank top, number and position on his chest, simulates a snap, drops back three steps, then hits a receiver running a pattern we’d all recognize as a down-­and-­out. He leads the receiver so that he never has to adjust or slow down. In another drill, the passer fakes a snap, then drops back five steps as a receiver races toward the end zone. This pattern is called a post, as in “run straight to the goal post.” The passer waits, waits, waits, then throws, stepping into it, heaving the ball. The best throwers can send a ball sixty yards downfield, hitting a sprinting receiver in full stride.

Kyler Murray did not compete in any of these drills. Everyone understood his reasoning, or that of his agent: standing on a field beside quarterbacks six or seven inches ­taller than he, some with stronger arms, could only be diminishing. He was already expected to be drafted number one; the only place to go was down.

I was in the convention center when Dexter Williams, a Notre Dame running back, spoke to reporters. His words mimicked the internal monologue of just about every player at the combine: “I just look forward to the chance to be Dexter Williams,” he said, “and to play like Dexter Williams can play.”

The draft was held over three days in late April in Nashville. Each team got ten minutes to make its first-round picks—­“The Arizona Cardinals are now on the clock,” announced N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell—­which it did from a podium, before a sea of people that filled a closed city street. These were fans anxious to learn the shape of their future. It was like the crowd that waits outside the Vatican as the cardinals elect a pope.

Source images: Player in helmet © Alberto Chagas; stopwatch © George Dolgikh/Alamy

The television stations—the draft was shown live on three networks, as if it were a presidential election—zoomed in on the faces of fans. In some faces, you saw joy; in others, distress. Each team knew who it wanted coming in, but all that shifted as teams did the unexpected. What do the Steelers do when the Giants take the player they’d planned to pick first? There are two minds about drafting. Some teams draft for a certain position, which they might consider the only piece missing from a championship team—­All we need is a left tackle and we can win a Super Bowl. Others draft for talent—­Let’s take the best player on the board, regardless of position. There were close-­ups of prospects sitting with their families, waiting nervously—­that classic playground stress. When a player was picked, he’d hug everyone, then walk through a tunnel, where he was handed a hat with the logo of his new team, then sent out to the stage to be congratulated by Roger Goodell. As on the playground, pathos settled around players who’d expected to go high but remained unchosen. That’s where the cameras lingered, because that’s what sports can show you—­the innards of the machine. You can see exactly how expectation turns into confusion, how confusion turns into concern, how concern turns into doubt, how doubt turns into anger.

Aaron Rodgers expected to be taken first by San Francisco in 2005. That’s what the draft experts said would happen. The 49ers took quarterback Alex Smith instead. Rodgers sat in a back room—­cameramen moving in—­for over an hour as player after player was selected ahead of him. When the Packers finally took Rodgers with the twenty-­fourth pick, it was not because they needed a quarterback—­they had Brett Favre—­but because he was the best player still on the board. Some say it was this experience that gave Rodgers the edge, “the chip on his shoulder,” that’s made him so incredibly ambitious.

Kyler Murray did indeed go first—­the number-­one pick of the Arizona Cardinals. He was handed a Cardinals jersey with his name and number, which he raised to the cheering crowd. Quinnen Williams (“Big Baby”) was taken third overall by the Jets. The Giants had two first-­round picks. They used the second to take Dexter Lawrence, the nose tackle from Clemson. Dwayne Haskins, the Ohio State quarterback, went fifteenth overall to the Redskins, a team owned by the father of Haskins’s high school classmate from Potomac, Maryland. Drew Lock, outstanding at the combine as a quarterback, went to the Broncos in the second round, twenty-­two picks ahead of D. K. Metcalf, who, despite his incredibly low body fat, did not go until the very end of the second round. Isaac Nauta, the Gronk-­size tight end, had to wait until the seventh round. Tyree Jackson, the six-­foot-­seven quarterback from Buffalo, was not drafted, though he later signed with the Buffalo Bills.

By then, all attention had turned to Josh Rosen, who’d stopped following the Cardinals on social media soon after they drafted Kyler Murray. This in itself became a story. Steve Smith, who’d been a volatile wide receiver in his day, called out Rosen on the N.F.L. Network in a diatribe that went viral:

So now you’re mad because they brought some competition in here, so you’re gonna try to take your ball? Well first of all son, it ain’t your damn ball to take anyway. So you just keep playing with your phone, and you keep showing us what the stigma of you and who you were was at U.C.L.A. Now you brought it to the professional level and showed us, when things don’t go your way, you’re gonna cry in a corner. But guess what? They’re gonna ship your ass home somewhere else, and you’re gonna go cry and be their problem. Listen: this is a man’s game! Be a man, and go against that man one-­on-­one! He gets ten plays, you get ten plays! Do your deal! Ain’t nobody giving you nothing! The only thing you can get on this stage right now is a free ass-whooping! Everything else you’ve got to work hard for.

Rosen was traded to the Dolphins a few days later, occasioning many jokes about Jews and South Beach.

The draft, which opened with Kyler Murray at number one and ended with U.C.L.A. tight end Caleb Wilson at number 254, was analyzed for winners and losers in the days that followed. There were winners and losers, but it’ll take years to figure out which was which.

There’s a story I used to read to my son. It’s in a book called Zen Shorts, by Jon J. Muth. It goes like this:

There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years.

One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.

“Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses.

“Such good luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the farmer.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg.

Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Such bad luck,” they said.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight a war. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.

“Such good luck!” cried the neighbors.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

That’s how it is with the N.F.L. Draft. With all we know about the condition of retired players and the long-­term effects of concussions, maybe the real winners are those who didn’t get picked at all.

 is the author of Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football. His most recent book is The Last Pirate of New York.

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June 2002

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