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Watching the NFL Scouting Combine (part 2)…

This is the second of a two-part column.  The first part can be read HERE.

The combine needs to be a way to look at raw physical skills and athletic potential.  Rarely will someone need to run a 40-yard dash in a straight line during a game.  Or make a vertical leap from a standing position.  Or perform consecutive reps on a bench press with weights equaling 225 pounds.

What NFL teams should want are football players.  Athletes that have tremendous track records with great film of them playing exceptional football.  The graveyard of draft busts is littered with guys who had great combine performances.

College performance and film footage should be the first thing steams look at prior to drafting players.  The next thing to look at is character, followed by the combine results, which should just solidify the front office’s thoughts on a player, not create them.

Let’s take a look at a few players who are considered top picks in April’s draft.  C.J. Spiller (Clemson RB) was one of the best all-around offensive players in college football, tearing up an underrated ACC this year.  His ability to catch passes and return kicks in addition to run the ball effectively makes him a niche player in the mold of a Reggie Bush without the #1 pick price tag and with a better knack for finding holes as a runner.  He is considered the top rated running back by Scouts, Inc. and falls somewhere in the top 15 of most everyone’s big board.  Spiller goes out to the combine and turns in 4.28 40-yard dash to impress scouts.  This should solidify to NFL teams that he has the raw skills to connect to his exceptional performance at Clemson.  Should it vault him to the number one pick?  Probably not.  It probably shouldn’t vault him anywhere.  Where he goes will depend on team need and with a lot of teams not looking at running backs early because of the amount available through other means and how of all positions in the NFL, backs break down faster, somewhere in the top 15 is still where he will go.

Now let’s check out Joe Haden, a cornerback from the University of Florida.  Haden was a lock down corner for the Gators, a team that was atop the toughest conference in college football, the SEC, while he was in school.  He was always matched up against the other team’s best receiver and produced with great ball skills and exceptional tackling ability for a corner.  He even blitzes off the corner well for his position.  He was widely considered by Scouts, Inc. and others as the best cornerback in a defensive back-heavy draft.  He grades out as the next Darrelle Revis and has been projected as a top 10 pick, a top 5 pick by others and should be the first corner off the board in April.  Then he comes out to the combine and whiffs on his 40 times, running a 4.57 and a 4.60, not the typical speed of your NFL shutdown corner.  So now all the scouts are curious about whether Haden can be what everyone thought he would be in the NFL.  Questions of if he may slip down in the draft have been asked and anyone who is anyone says that he must have a good 40 time when Florida hosts scouts on its pro day later this month.  Like Spiller, however, the truth about Joe Haden can be seen when watching his film.  Haden comes as advertised when you watch him cover the best wideouts in the SEC and it is my belief that he should still be the first corner off the board.

And then there’s Bruce Campbell.  No, not the guy from Evil Dead, the offensive lineman from the University of Maryland.  Campbell was a mediocre lineman at College Park who wasn’t a full-fledged starter until halfway into the 2008 season, only started 17 games in his college career (only 9 last season), received one vote for the All-ACC Conference team, missed multiple games due to turf toe, underwent minor brain surgery to drain fluid in 2008 and was described by head coach Ralph Friedgen as a player who would go to study hall as opposed to taking the field when spring practices begin.  Campbell went to Indy for the combine and tore things up, having the best 40-yard dash time (4.85) amongst offensive lineman, finished sixth in bench press repetitions (34) and fifth in the vertical jump (32 inches).  Now he is the buzz name as his physical traits have shot him up the board where Scouts, Inc. currently has him listed at 30th with a grade of 91 out of 100 (remember, the top prospect Suh is a 97).  How does this happen?  A guy who has an injury history, hasn’t started that long, has not been honored with any collegiate awards, shows a lack of quality work ethic and is slammed by his head coach is a first round pick because of his combine numbers?  If my Dolphins take this guy, I’ll be furious.

The combine does way too much in determining the viability of these players.  They shouldn’t downgrade athletes who had great college careers like Haden nor upgrade those who had mediocre seasons in school but had great combine workouts like Campbell.  Picks should be made based on the team’s needs and how the organization feels a certain player will fit into a system, along with his viability as a contributor.

If Tim Tebow is drafted it will be because someone believes he will make a good NFL player at the quarterback position or somewhere else.  Will it be because he had a ridiculous vertical leap for a QB (38.5 inches) or a solid 40-yard dash time (4.7 seconds) at a non-speed position?  Hopefully not.  Hopefully it will be because someone loved the fire he showed and the desire he has to make it.  If a team has faith that he will succeed and if the general manager and coach have job security enough to develop him at the next level, then he will be picked higher and have a job somewhere next year.

Did his combine performance change any of that?

What we need to do is to stop relying on this exhibition of track competitions as a tool for evaluating players who have three or four seasons of work to break down.  The NFL and its network have done a great job of having the combine and the free agent period bridge the gap between the Super Bowl and the draft, making it so that we never stop talking about pro football (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

But shouldn’t the best way to judge football player’s value be how he plays. . .I don’t know -FOOTBALL?  Let’s judge players based upon on-the-field performance, not on-the-track performance.

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Watching the NFL Scouting Combine (part 1)…

Texting is cool. When it first became mainstream in the last half decade, an appropriate question to ask a potential texting buddy was “Do you text?” Well the guys at ESPN working the NFL Draft certainly do. In the past five days, I have received eight text messages from ESPN on results from the NFL scouting combine.

These text messages contained 40-yard dash times and other physical measurements as opposed numbers that should matter such as yards-per-carry averages, sacks allowed or passer rating figures.

While I acknowledge the reason for the combine and the value gained by seeing these hundreds of athletes work out, it has evolved from a behind-the-scenes part of the league into an event put on the forefront, televised and analyzed beyond what is needed. Imagine if contract negotiations were televised and broken down by analysts and financial advisers and that is what the combine has become.

I used to be perfectly fine watching Mel Kiper, Jr. or Todd McShay tell me the week before the draft that Larry Johnson had a great workout during the combine or that Vince Young had trouble answering questions and scored low on the Wonderlic Test. I don’t need a nightly report from the combine, interviews throughout the week and text message updates when someone breaks 4.3 on the 40. Imagine if an NFL practice were covered like this. We’d have reports from Ed Werder that Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne were out of sync for two consecutive plays in practice. Then I’d have to get my iPhone out of my pocket to be told in a text message from Adam Schefter that Manning and Wayne were struggling.

Speaking of my iPhone, it had to come out of my pocket twice in one hour for the same player this week. USC safety Taylor Mays reportedly tied the combine record in the 40, running a 4.24. So on March 2nd at 9:18 AM, ESPN sent out a text that his unofficial time had tied the record according to “The Buzz,” one of the Worldwide Leader’s blogs from the combine. However, his official time ended up being a non-superhuman 4.43. The Buzz then corrected this on the live blog and ESPN sent out a second text at 10:17 AM, correcting the time to reflect the official reading. My disappointment was evident as I had to stop my Taylor-Mays-Broke-The-Forty-Yard-Dash-Record-Party which had been raging since 9:19. My guests were furious when I dismissed them, sent the strippers home and returned the keg to Lee’s Discount Liquor. It was the best 58 minutes of my life and now they are just as ordinary as any others.

How necessary are these updates? What good are they to the casual fan? Any fan? Do we actually think that University of Tennessee fans are sitting at home, watching the NFL Network to see Eric Berry wow scouts with a 43-inch vertical leap? Picture 20 inebriated Vols fans in a living room with high def TVs, beer, orange sweatshirts and plates of nachos. It’s not happening. Nobody cares.

What we should start doing is to hold viewing parties where a player does a workout in Indianapolis and then they cut to a packed stadium of fans from his university cheering when he has a sub-4.3 40-yard-dash time.

While the media saturation of the combine is objectionable, (I guess the NFL Network, which airs the combine, has to put some on their channel to avoid letting Rich Eisen talk anymore) what’s worse is that there is so much weight put on the workouts these athletes have when dictating where they are drafted.

I truly hope that guys like Trindon Holliday, whom ESPN texted me about when he ran the 40 in 4.27 seconds, doesn’t see his draft stock rise too much because of that performance. Holliday was LSU’s return specialist and had only 126 rushing yards last season but averaged over 18 yards per punt return and 24. 4 yards per kickoff returned. ESPN has him listed has the third best return specialist in the draft and Scouts, Inc. scores him as a prospect with a grade of 30 out of 100, (Ndamukong Suh is a 97).

When it comes to the NFL Draft, I like to track and watch it as much as anyone, but I want to recognize a player based on what he did in college not because McShay texted me that he ran a 4.34 in the 40. If Holliday gets drafted, I will only know him because of ESPN’s text and while that’s better than not knowing him at all, you won’t catch me jumping up at a draft party saying “Wow. Holliday had a heck of a 40 time. He should be a great fit for the Chiefs.”

This is part one of a two-part column.  Check out part 2 HERE.

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Filed under College Football, ESPN, Football, Journalism, NFL, NFL Draft, NFL Draft Combine, NFL Network

Watching ESPN’s college basketball bias…

Last night I watched SportsCenter on ESPN at 8 PM as my pregnant wife snoozed away (I wrenched the remote away stealthily and changed it from some housewife show).  Midway through the show, Scott Van Pelt and Steve Levy were rattling through highlights of college basketball games.  Following a Maryland basketball package where Van Pelt showed how much of a homer he is, they transitioned to show 90 or so seconds of footage from last night’s University of North Carolina vs. North Carolina State game.  I immediately thought to myself, “Self, why is UNC getting this much press on SportsCenter?  Didn’t they just drop WAY out of the top 25 in both polls?”

So I did some research.  Carolina got a combined one vote in both poll.  That one vote came in the ESPN/Coaches Poll, meaning not a single Associated Press writer voted the Tar Heels into the top 25 this week.  I wonder what coach voted for UNC?  Do you think he collects paychecks from an ACC school?

North Carolina, a school that has unmistakable ties to ESPN seeing that the network broadcasts ACC games and the annual ACC tournament, happened to win their game over NC State, a team they usually pummel.  UNC has reeled since the turn of the new year, going 2-4 since 2009 passed.  They had been 11-3.  They’ve started 2-3 in the ACC and are 13-7 overall.  They don’t deserve a top 25 spot and seeing that ESPN rarely shows highlights of games that feature no top 25 teams, they don’t deserve the coverage they received on SportsCenter last night.

But what will Dick Vitale have to talk about if North Carolina isn’t in the top 25?  Who will he get to promote?

Well, let’s look at some other schools that Dickie V can take a look at.  There is a litany of schools that have received votes or are in the top 25 that get little to no press and certainly aren’t given two minutes of coverage on SportsCenter.

How about Northern Iowa?  That squad is currently 17-2 and ranked 25th in the ESPN poll.  

Or what about Baylor?  They are from a big conference where their up-tempo play has led them to a 15-3 record and a number 24 ranking in the AP poll.  

Looking for someone a little more stable?  How about BYU?  The Cougars have one loss this year and are ranked tenth in the ESPN poll out of the impressive Mountain West Conference (more on the MWC later).  

Or maybe UAB catches your fancy.  They’re number 25 in the AP poll, sporting a 17-2 record.

So why don’t we hear about these great stories?  Who is reporting on these teams?  There are so many amazing seasons underway for schools that are impressing a lot more voting writers and coaches than UNC.  The following teams from big conferences are outside the top 25, but got more votes than Carolina in the most recent polls: Florida State, Clemson, Wake Forest, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia, Northwestern, Cal and Notre Dame.

And how about the little guys?  College basketball is built on the backs of the small schools that make March so exciting.  Where are their stories?  The following small conference schools are outside of the top 25 and have drawn more votes than the Heels: Butler (#18 in coaches poll, not ranked in AP), Cornell, Old Dominion, Xavier, UNLV, Siena, Saint Mary’s, Louisiana Tech, and Harvard.  Coastal Carolina has the same number of votes as UNC, which is one.

That’s right, Coastal Carolina has as many votes as UNC, and Cornell, Harvard and Old Dominion have significantly more ballots cast.  So where are the 90-second highlight packages on their seasons?  Oh that’s right, ESPN needs to make sure everyone knows the Tar Heel players so they are more recognizable when they have their first matchup with Duke on February 10th.  Duh.

ESPN’s alliance with the ACC and other big conferences runs deep.  Jay Bilas went to Duke.  Hubert Davis went to North Carolina.  So did Stuart Scott.  Dick Vitale praises anything that has to do with ACC basketball, especially if it takes place on Tobacco Road.  The network carries their games and the tournament, as previously mentioned.  Unfortunately, ESPN has such an effect on the landscape of college basketball that poll results may be swayed by their coverage.

Take the Mountain West Conference.  Home to the likes of BYU, Utah, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico, the conference has continually made strides, but seems to stay out of the national conscience.  MWC teams consistently downed big conference powers in pre-conference play.  Arizona lost to three Mountain West teams (BYU, UNLV and SDSU).  BYU also beat Arizona State.  Louisville lost to UNLV.  Utah took down Illinois, Michigan and LSU.  New Mexico defeated Cal, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

The conference currently boasts two teams in the top 25 (BYU and New Mexico), with a third (UNLV) having spent time there and still receiving votes.  The MWC also boasts big name coaches like Steve Alford (UNM), Lon Kruger (UNLV) and Steve Fisher (SDSU).  So what’s keeping them from getting more attention?  Could it be partially because of ESPN’s lack of coverage while they are too busy giving time to ACC teams that are well out of the top 25?

UNLV only has four losses and two are to teams currently ranked in the top 15 (BYU and Kansas State).  The others are to USC in a Christmas tournament championship and Utah in a tough MWC matchup.  There are eight other teams currently in the top 25 that have four or more losses.  The Rebels have only two conference losses and one is at BYU.   The Cougars come to the Thomas & Mack center for the Vegas rematch on February 6th.

The MWC has television contracts with CBS College Sports and The Mountain, a network created by the conference.  ESPN has no vested interest to show their highlights, promote their games or make fans (and potential voters) aware of the brand of basketball being played in the conference.  One could laugh at ESPN for their fair and balanced coverage the way the general public does when someone talks about Fox News Channel.

The Mountain West is not the only conference being slighted as there is plenty of great basketball being played that the majority of the viewing (and voting) public knows little to nothing about.

The “Mothership” owes the legions of sports fans better than this.  Let’s drop the coverage of a floundering UNC team just a tad (you can still report on it and promote their games) and up the ante by talking up the big games in other conferences that have teams receiving significantly more top 25 votes, regardless of who their TV contract is with.

Let’s start with this: Cornell hosts Harvard on Saturday night.  Let’s cover that like you did the two unranked teams you gave pub to last night when UNC vs. NC State was pushed upon us.  At least Cornell and Harvard have more combined poll votes (18) than the Heels do (1).

Let’s all hope for a Big Red win over the Crimson to push them over the edge in the ESPN/Coaches Poll.  They are ranked number 27 now.  A top 25 berth would make ESPN cover them.  One can only wish…

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Filed under ACC, Basketball, BYU, College Basketball, ESPN, Journalism, Mountain West Conference, University of North Carolina, UNLV

Watching superstars go head-to-head…

Tonight, television sets will be going back-and-forth between the two major showdowns in the NBA and NHL, featuring the two biggest stars in each sport.  

Scratch that, only televisions in Pittsburgh and Washington will have that opportunity.

Tonight, the NBA pits two of the marquee names in the sport against each other as LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers host Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.  Kobe and LeBron renewed their acquaintances earlier in the season when they met at the Staples Center in LA on Christmas Day.  In that game, LeBron and Shaquille O’Neal took home a win in Shaq’s old stomping grounds.

The Cavs didn’t just beat LA in their place, they won by 15 and never relinquished control throughout.  James led a balanced attack with 26 points and 9 assists and Shaq scored in double digits.  

This sets up tonight’s match-up in Cleveland.  Can Kobe take one in LeBron’s crib?  Will a win by the Cavs give them a sizable advantage in the eye’s critics if the two happen to meet in say the NBA Finals?  Will Kobe and LeBron agree to take part in Shaq’s idea for a dunk contest to support Haiti?  (See yesterday’s column for more on that HERE.)

Lucky for us, tonight’s game is nationally televised on TNT.  We will get to see the rematch between of the world’s best in full high-definition.  Additionally, the NBA has only one other scheduled game tonight, the Clippers at the Nuggets, allowing us to focus solely on this can’t miss match-up between Bryant and James.  Tomorrow morning, SportsCenter will show highlight after highlight and of LeBron-Kobe II and have plenty of analysis because once you show the 25 seconds of footage from Clips vs. Nugs, what else is ESPN going to do with the time they normally slot for NBA coverage?

Now on to the NHL, whose main attraction tonight is the Washington Capitals at the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Alexander Ovechkin brings the Caps north to face Sidney Crosby and the Pens.  Clearly, the two most exciting players in hockey facing off against one another.  Sid the Kid is fresh off his Stanley Cup win and Ovechkin, the most prolific goal scorer in the league, has an improved overall game and a fiery mean streak that has come out more than once this year.  Great drama for a league that needs all the attention it can get.

This will be the first of four meetings this year.  All four meetings will occur in the second half of the season and two will happen in the span of just over two weeks (the teams play again on February 7th in DC).  What a great way to showcase the two hottest players right before the Olympic break where hockey takes the world’s stage.  Man, the NHL is really doing this right.  Or so it would seem.

The NHL has 26 teams in action tonight, that’s 13 games.  The only teams not playing tonight are Montreal, New Jersey, Colorado and Edmonton.  Talk about a loaded schedule.  Wouldn’t it have made sense that when Gary Bettman and the rest of the NHL’s brass were reviewing the schedule that they would want that game showcased on a stage it didn’t have to share?  Maybe they could have done something like the NBA did.  You know, like having Kobe and LeBron square off on a night with no other major games so all basketball fans’ attention is affixed square on that duel.

Beyond that, very little time is dedicated to hockey coverage on sports news shows like ESPN’s SportsCenter these days because of the popularity of the league being driven down in the post-strike reality of the NHL.  The fact that ESPN no longer has the contract to broadcast NHL games doesn’t help either.  Money always talks and “The Mothership” doesn’t seem to have any problems finding time in their shows to spotlight leagues and sports they do have contracts for like the NBA, NFL, MLB and even World Cup soccer.  Look, I’m sorry to all the soccer fans out there, but I’m pretty sure the NHL is more popular in the states than “football” and I know it deserves more than two segments a week with Barry Melrose and his fantastic hair.  But, I digress…

The NHL’s blunders do not end with the number of games scheduled.  There is no legitimate  national television available for tonight’s featuring Sid the Kid and Ovi.  The NHL Network (NHLN) will carry the feed from Fox Sports Pittsburgh.  NHLN is not readily available on cable plans.  Where I live in Las Vegas, the network is a part of the sports package for our local cable company’s digital cable option, meaning you would have to pay the monthly fees for the digital service and then add-on that package for another monthly fee.

Make no mistake about it, I’m sure that David Stern and his legion of executives ensures that they have marquee games on television and the schedule supports that.  I’m positive that they sit down with TNT, ESPN and ABC to make sure that LeBron-Kobe is on TV and has top billing.  Can the NHL not do the same with Versus and NBC?  Is Bettman that far removed from working for the NBA (which he did from 1981 until 1993 when he took the job as the NHL’s first commissioner)? 

Why couldn’t the NHL get that game on Versus (and all three Ovechkin-Crosby rematches) and on a night when action was limited?  I mentioned that 12 other NHL games are on the schedule for tonight.  Last night there were three games played and the same number is on tap for tomorrow night.  Would it have been that hard to cater the schedule to get Caps-Pens on one of those two nights, even if it meant back-to-backs for either Washington or Pittsburgh?  It’s almost shocking that a league with such a declining fan base would not look at things like this especially after their seven-game playoff battle last May.

Interestingly enough, the Caps-Pens game starts at 7:30 EST, 30-45 minutes before the Cavs and Lakers tip.  What if the game were on national television and Ovechkin and Crosby lit it up the first period of the game?  LeBron and Kobe may not get all the viewers they were probably expecting as fans settled their way in to a comfort zone, watching the artistry of two of the NHL’s best offensive players.

What it all comes down to is Bettman.  For a commissioner who was essentially brought in to expand the game, end labor unrest and modernize the United States’ view of hockey, he has consistently fallen below expectations.  After a period of over-expansion that resulted in a diluted talent pool and franchises in several smaller markets with a lack of support for a pro hockey team, the NHL suffered through two labor disputes.

The first lockout during the 1994-95 season resulted in a 48-game season.  One of the main issues in that lockout was a plan to aid smaller market teams.  Yes, the small market teams that Bettman had just finished expanding to.

The subsequent lockout, ten years later in 2004-05, led to the cancellation of the entire NHL season, a decision whose reverberations are still being felt and that the league has never recovered from.  It should be noted, though, that Bettman was lauded for bringing the lockout to end with a hard salary cap based on league revenues and a rollback on player salaries.  But was the loss of a season worth that bounty?

Since the lockout of 04-05, television dollars have dwindled to nearly nothing.  ESPN and ABC declined to renew their option to broadcast the league’s game in 2005-06, stating that the cost was overvalued.  My guess is that it takes a lot to get ESPN to turn your sport down since they collect broadcast rights like Alex Rodriguez collects girls’ phone numbers.  

NBC would only sign a limited deal with no money up front.  Bettman was able to cajole the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) to sign a deal with the NHL.  Outdoor life?  It’s a good thing they play NHL games is cozy arenas.  The network changed its name to Versus down the road.  Bettman has been heavily criticized by this move and it’s evident that the league has lost numerous fans for this decision, though can you blame ESPN for dropping a league that gave them zero games a season prior?

Pro hockey’s follies only accentuate the fact that the NBA seems to do everything right.  Stern has run the league since 1984 and was originally hired by the NBA as its General Counsel in 1978 (the year I was born).  The league knows how to market its stars and has conducted its business without many sidesteps, while recovering quickly from the ones they have made (like 1999’s lockout). 

The NHL, meanwhile, can’t seem to get out of its own way.

So…tonight, while we should be flipping back and forth between Ovi vs. Sid the Kid and LeBron vs. Kobe, viewers will be fixated on the drama in Cleveland. 

At least the can look forward to Melrose’s two minutes of coverage and perfect hair on SportsCenter later that night.

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