The NFL Combine is kind of stupid.
I do say this with love. Because I love the NFL Draft process. Because the fact of the matter is, if the NFL Combine worked, "Hall of Famer" and "Mike Mamula" would be mentioned in the same sentence. I mean, how many offensive lineman are ever going to have to jump or run 40 yards in a straight line?
(An aside: Am I going to have to delete this last sentence based on Ricky Wagner jumping real high? Nah.)
That being said? This is the official job interview portion of the draft process. And Montee Ball did not have the best of combines. Sure, in the individual drills he shone, flashing those oh so underrated hands that were only truly unleashed in his junior season. But he was among the worst at the bench press. And that 40 time?
His first run was hand-timed at 4.62, officially at 4.66. I know what you're thinking. So, he was always supposed to have an average 40 time, right?
See, the Combine is always about managing expectations. This is why you'll see a lot of the top guys skip out on drills. I mean, even Ball didn't run the 60-yard shuttle. And the logline of a scouting report on Ball was that he was a productive player that has average athleticism at best.
For better or worse, the 40 time has been the major key to measuring a player's athleticism vis-a-vis their draft grade. You meet expectations, you'll match your grade. The average 40 time? Something in the 4.5 range. Montee Ball is just a step too slow.
Does three-hundredths of a second matter? I'll answer this with an anecdote that proves how sad, nerdy and how truly long ago my childhood was. I received a fancy Casio watch when I was in second grade. It didn't have a calculator. But guess what it had? A stopwatch.
As I was seven? I would take my watch and test my reaction time. I would start and stop. Four hundredths of a second. Five hundredths of a second. Then I'd forget I was doing it and it would be like 47 minutes because I was a child and things were shiny.
But the click of a thumb is exactly the difference between Montee Ball as a second-round pick, and Montee Ball going into the weekend still looking for a home. This is why the Combine can be something truly stupid.
No less of an authority than Bill Walsh talked about the fact that running backs need two things that will make them successful beyond athleticism: instincts and durability. That's where Ball shines. A consensus of experts praise Ball's vision, and while he was dinged up as a senior (UTEP game, Wisconsin students acting the fools), he's managed to more or less hold up over 28 games in the last two seasons. He's got the also dimensions to be a three-down back.
Does this mean Ball is going to be a professional success? As much as I wish it was so, it doesn't. Injuries, or maybe a Big Ten running back isn't going to be a success in the NFL. Sounds strange, I know. But it's happened before.
That being said? There's a pretty famous running back. Slid in the draft with much worse of an injury history than Ball. Had an official 40-yard time that was of an equal value to his as well. He's lasted eight seasons. Averaged over 1,000 yards rushing per.
His name? Frank Gore. He had a very similar combine. Ended up working out, didn't it?