Indy's Times, Tests: How I Evaluate Them
By Bill Walsh
PSX Draft Insider Special
Also see: This Year's Indy Results
Every year coaches, scouts and personnel departments from each National Football League team gather at Indianapolis for a pre-draft ritual, of sorts.
They watch the top collegiate draft prospects go through a series of tests. Among other things, the players run 40 yards, jump straight up, jump straight out, run specified patterns, throw, catch and even take a test to measure their intelligence.
Scouts diligently record these marks for posterity. Players are often linked with their Indy results for the rest of their careers.
I believe the astute evaluator must perceive these marks not as final answers, but rather as guidelines that may be used only as a reference.
A player's speed in the 40 doesn't really tell you how fast he is in a game. His vertical jump may only reveal he is out of shape. And even the intelligence test may have little to do with innate instincts that make him a virtual genius on the field.
Still, there is value in this process, if you know how to utilize the results.
The key thing to remember is that functionality is the most important evaluation of a player's ability to perform. No matter how fast he runs, how high he jumps or how well he scores on a test, his value can only be related to how functional he is on the field. And that is often something that cannot be precisely measured anyplace except on the practice field or, in some cases, in a game situation.
Many people may be surprised to find out that the most important test is not one that has a precise mark, but rather one that is evaluated with a great deal of subjectivity.
That test is the personal interview. It seems ironic that, after going through all these intricate procedures, we often reach our final judgment on a player based on a good, old fashioned face to face discussion.
So here is my guideline on how to relate to marks from a scouting combine workout, and my thoughts on other ways to evaluate a player.
TEST: 40 YARD SPRINT
This is considered the universal measurable. It is the obvious measuring stick and the utility tool that everyone uses. When you refer to an athlete you typically refer to his 40-yard dash time. So often the conditions can make a difference in the times. Jerry Rice timed in 4.59 and was considered to have marginal speed for a starting NFL wide receiver by virtually everyone in the NFL. There were three or four teams -- including the Jets and the Cowboys along with the 49ers -- who rated him very highly. Other than that, I'm not sure anybody did, simply because of a 4.59 time.
So in a sense it is a crutch for an evaluator and it has been a crutch for scouts for many years because that's the one measurable that everyone acknowledges.
But the problem with the 40 is the game of football requires functional speed, not pure track speed. So functional speed is related to playing the game and responses to another moving object. Jerry Rice's functional speed is probably the very best in the history of football. But if you timed him in the 40, he would be over 4.5
Each year we hear about 4.1s, 4.2s, 4.3s and yet often these men are out of football in a year or two. So it's a universal utility measuring stick. At either extreme it is a viable measuring tool. A 4.4 is a viable tool because you know he is very fast. A 5.4 means that the man is very, very immobile. But a lot of the times that fit into the general mainstream can be deceiving.
If a person is looking for a 40 time out of an offensive lineman, they have to calibrate in a different way. What is good is to see how smoothly they run and what kind of body control and mechanics they have as they run 40 yards. But as far as the time itself, you can be deceived and confused because it is counterproductive in many ways.
We need to run the 40, but we must remind ourselves when we are talking about less than a tenth of a second in differentials, we are talking about the conditions of the track and how much training the athlete has with a track start. When you look at the 40s of 15 or 20 years ago, the times are slow. A big part was they were not on an ideal surface. They just ran if anybody asked them, on any length of grass or any form of field. They had not practiced the start. They would get into their football stance and start. And they had not rehearsed this as if they were preparing to run indoor sprints.
So in some ways the times get better and better, but they are less and less reliable in terms of functional playing speed.
TEST: VERTICAL JUMP
(This requires a player to show how high he can elevate by measuring the distance between his reach while standing flat-footed and the highest point he can touch when he jumps straight up. No running starts, just one explosive jump upwards).
The vertical jump clearly demonstrates the explosiveness and extension and coordination. I think that is an excellent tool for anybody.
But an overweight athlete, or an athlete who has not prepared himself won't do nearly as well. An athlete can have a markedly improved vertical jump if he is finely tuned and prepared for the vertical jump. And the vertical jump changes dramatically as people mature. So an offensive lineman who jumps 23 inches at 260 pounds, then goes to 310 pounds, well don't worry about his vertical jump.
But that is an excellent measurable that can be applicable to explosion and movement that is so necessary in football.
TEST: BENCH PRESS
(At Indy, the bench press is done with 225 pounds and the number of repetitions during one set is the mark that is recorded).
In every athlete there is a certain amount of tensile strength. His upper body strength is a factor in football. Again, I think the extremes, especially the lower marks, might give you something to be concerned with.
If an athlete manages only half as many reps as another otherwise comparable athlete, then you have to investigate to see if he had been on a major weight training program. Most often he hasn't been. And most often those who aren't in heavy, weight work are naturally weaker and a little embarrassed to get in it. So it sort of feeds on itself. The weaker guy is more inclined not to do it.
Consequently, there could be a shortfall there for a team that is looking for an athlete who is on the lower end of the scale.
At the upper end, where the athlete does extremely well in the bench press, there is still the question as to whether this is functional football strength. There is a danger in being overly impressed with what is really the result of extensive weight-room training.
This, of course, is rated within positions.
However, the offensive lineman's bone girth is probably more important than the number of repetitions he manages with 225 pounds. That girth gives you ballast to keep your balance. That ballast is what sort of makes you difficult to move out of the way, or once you get moving it makes it difficult to stop you. So you could be a man with ballast and heavy bone girth and not bench pressing as much as somebody else, but you still could be a much more effective football player. We are, again, talking functional strength.
So you may have a man who has dedicated himself to the weight room and broken records. But if he has a small skeletal structure, he would be vulnerable to being picked up off the ground and tossed aside by another lineman. And we see that all the time.
Jesse Sapolu with the 49ers has bone girth. Regardless of his performances in the weight room, he's going to naturally be adaptable to the game of football. That was a great example.
TEST: THE WUNDERLICH
(This is a written test to show innate intelligence or ability to reason. Technically, this is not an IQ test. Maximum score = 50)
Again the keyword is functional. There is functional intelligence.
Steve Young is extremely bright and has a law degree. But there have been Hall of Fame quarterbacks who would have been 20 points lower in one of these tests for I guess what is a measure of mental capacity. But they were just as good a football player, competitor and decision processor on the field.
Again, if you go to the lower end of the scale on the result of these things, then you might have something you must consider. If somebody were entirely out of the norm, in the single digit area, then you probably have to take notice.
Phil Simms had only an average score on this test, but anybody who dealt with him knows that his intelligence, especially as it relates to football, is far above average. There certainly is not a thing that you would question about his intelligence. But he scored poorly after coming out of Morehead State.
These tests are more interesting in relation to certain positions. I would expect more from offensive linemen.
(This is an area that is also made available, in varying degrees, at the Indy workouts. In the 1990s, medical history is of major importance and anything unusual should be scrutinized).
It's important to do extensive research on a player's health or past injuries. It is not uncommon for a college to mask the history of injury. The trainer and others are so loyal to the player that they are not going to do anything that might damage him. So they are not going to give a complete medical history.
On another vein, I had a player we were interested in but who was surrounded by strong rumors that he had a problem with alcohol, that he was an alcoholic and drug user. In every part of our investigation on the campus, the situation was white-washed, showing he had absolutely no problems whatsoever. We took that player only to find out within months that we had a chronic alcoholic with some other drug problems as well.
So there is a systematic approach by the schools to protect the player and you have to understand that.
But if a player has been in and out of the training room, even with minor injuries, and been unable to practice on given days and missing parts of games and missing a whole game here and there, that has to be a serious factor when you are thinking about committing a high draft pick. It wouldn't eliminate a player, certainly, but it is definitely a consideration.
And joint injuries are going to re-occur, generally, and then develop arthritic problems. So you have to watch for those types of things.
I think the most valuable tool at Indy is the personal interview. The better organizations in the NFL go through the tedious and laborious process of interviewing virtually every player. Certainly they interview players where there might be interest.
It's interesting how you get the best information or perspective on a player from these interviews.
Basically, you talk long enough that the player will reveal a lot about himself. Eventually you learn some personality traits. Some might not be attractive or desirable. You learn of a history of problems socially. Or you learn of the player's relationship with coaches and absorbing coaching, teaching and a willingness, desire or ability to learn.
No matter how their college transcript might look ... all you have to do is cross through some serious subjects the athlete might have taken in college and you get an idea of how serious this student was or what he might have learned and retained.
This part of the process has become more and more important. It has become much more personalized than it once was. Character has become a distinctive factor in the process. There isn't going to be the networking and leadership and the continuity in the locker room that there once was. So what you bring to the team overall is critical because this will be a key factor, especially if you are picking in the higher part of rounds. That player will be expected to make the team and play in the first year.
You might ask -- what was the toughest class you took in college. If the guy says the History of Sports IV, then you ask why it was a problem. You ask him why he got a C instead of an A. You are able to flush them out very quickly.
Again, in the 1990s, it is dangerous to wait too long to find out a player has recurring or chronic problems with studying, learning or relating to coaches and teammates.