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Training institutes' popularity is off the charts

| Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL Scouting Combine tests players on everything this side of parallel parking.

There are the physical drills that are broadcast live. Aptitude and psychological exams also are administered, as well as interviews with teams — some with a psychologist in the room.

If NFL general managers and coaches look closely at a player's body of work from the Combine, they may determine something else that may not be readily apparent: how well he takes to coaching.

Coaching is precisely what takes place in the months leading up to the Combine, which started last Wednesday and runs through Tuesday.

Most of the Combine participants trained specifically for what they will encounter in Indianapolis — something akin to kids taking classes that prepare them for the SAT, though on a much bigger level.

At one of the many facilities that offers Combine training — the cost for such courses can be more than $10,000 — players often rise before 7 a.m., and their training doesn't end until early evening.

They work with strength and speed coaches. They also are coached on how to best present themselves during the team interviews.

"It is definitely like a full-time job," said Indiana offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, who trained at IMG Performance Institute in Bradenton, Fla.

But how legitimate is the Combine evaluation, considering the players have been studying for it?

"There's this cat-and-mouse game between what we're trying to do and what the players are trying to do in terms of their preparation," Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said. "The interviews used to be a very important part of this process. They're not as important because a lot of these players and their agents have spent a lot of money and a lot of time preparing for every question under the sun."

They also spend more time working on Combine-specific drills, such as the 40-yard dash and the 225-pound bench press. That leads to another question: Does training for the Combine make participants better football players or better prepared for the tests?

"It makes them prepared for a track meet," said Pittsburgh-based agent Ralph Cindrich, who played in the NFL. "You can make a guy look good, but that's it."

Combine's importance

Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert says 90 percent of a player's evaluation is based on how he performed at the college level.

That line is trotted out by many of his peers when asked how much opinions change on players after they enter the draft.

The scope of the NFL Scouting Combine, however, suggests that what happens in Indianapolis accounts for more than a mere fraction of the final grade teams ultimately assign to draft-eligible players.

Players are subject to physical examinations by all of the teams' doctors. They are so thorough that after a day of physicals — one that started before 5 a.m. last Thursday and didn't end until late afternoon — Alabama's Leigh Tiffin said: "One team looked at my shoulder. And I'm a kicker."

No less significant are the drills or the interviews, which can be intimidating simply because of the number of people in the room.

The lengths players go to in preparation for the Combine are in some ways a response to the importance placed on it. Teams, after all, bring almost their entire staff of executives, coaches and scouts to Indianapolis.

Also, the difference between a couple of slots early in the draft can translate into big money, which is another reason it behooves players to be as prepared as possible for the Combine.

"The No. 1 cause for anxiety for anybody is not knowing what to expect, and what I think all of these programs do for athletes is they give them a good understanding of what (the Combine) is all about," said Trevor Moawad, director of performance at IMG Performance Institute.

IMG first started Combine training in 1995, when Mike Mamula essentially aced the Combine tests and improved his stock so much that the Philadelphia Eagles took the Boston College defensive end with the seventh overall pick.

Mamula didn't train at IMG, but the jaw-dropping numbers he registered in the drills helped give flight to IMG and other performance-enhancement centers that now dot the sporting landscape.

IMG has trained a number of first-round picks for the Combine, including top overall selections such as Eli Manning and Alex Smith and Steelers 2005 first-round pick Heath Miller.

At its sprawling multi-sport facility in Bradenton, players training for the Combine — there were close to 20 this year. They have access to 13 strength and conditioning coaches, eight mental-skills coaches, five athletic trainers and six massage therapists, Moawad said.

Athletes Performance Institute, which has four locations in warm-weather locales, offers a comprehensive program. It includes physical and media training and preparation for the Wonderlic, an aptitude test given at the Combine, director Joe Gomes said.

API has trained the past four No. 1 overall picks, and this year, it worked with about 60 players prior to the Combine, Gomes said.

Combine training at API costs up to $12,000. IMG, meanwhile, gets between $15,000 to $20,000 per player.

If what facilities such as API and IMG charge seems like a lot, it's the price agents often have to pay to do business. The promise of sending highly regarded prospects to training facilities prior to the Combine — sessions generally last from six to 10 weeks — has become a part of agents' recruiting pitches to players.

"You almost have to do it now," Cindrich said.

Necessary evil?

Training Sean Lee, an Upper St. Clair and Penn State graduate, for the Combine is something Steve Saunders did reluctantly.

Saunders owns Power Sports Institute, which has training facilities in several cities, including Pittsburgh, and he works with a handful of Steelers, including Miller and outside linebacker James Harrison.

Saunders said his pre-draft training has a limited number of players, so he can give them the attention they need.

In the case of Lee, Saunders worked with the linebacker on overcoming a knee injury he sustained his senior season at Penn State. The two also worked on getting more range of motion in Lee's hips to reduce some of the stress he was putting on his knees.

As for the Combine-related drills he put Lee through, Saunders didn't hide his disdain for them.

"We take an inordinate amount of time preparing for (Combine) drills because the flip side of that is if you look bad, you could hurt yourself as much as you help yourself," Saunders said. "So, if we didn't spend any time on the drills and Sean shows up and runs a lousy (40-yard dash time), all of the sudden, it's: 'Well, he must be slow. There must be something wrong.' Or he shows up and bench presses 225 (pounds) 12 times instead of 28 times: 'He must be real weak'.

"Regardless of what a waste of time I think it is, you still have to prepare for it because they need to look good."

Saunders said if NFL teams want a more accurate evaluation of players based on the what they do at they Combine, they should change the format so that it's more like a pop quiz.

"If they wanted to have a true Combine, they would show up tomorrow and say: 'Hey, sorry guys, we're not running any of the stuff you prepared for. Here are these five drills; we're going to do. Let's see who the athletes are,' " Saunders said.

Players that train for the Combine say their experience isn't limited to getting ready for the event.

Eric Decker, a wide receiver from Minnesota, trained at API in Arizona, and he said he worked on overcoming a foot injury that plagued him for much of his senior season. In addition to training for Combine-specific drills, Decker said he watched film and worked with former NFL wide receiver Roy Green.

"To be with those type of elite athletes and to have those resources just kind of gives you that edge," said Decker, who's expected to be an early round pick.

San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary agreed that Combine training helps players with more than just the week they spend in Indianapolis.

"It does make them a better football player if they can run faster, if they can get stronger," Singletary said. "You just wish they could do a little with some of the other things like the heart and the passion. I wish there were a way to test some of those things."

In some ways, what a player does to get ready for the Combine can give a glimpse into such intangibles.

"What's the Combine about?" Moawad said. "It's about providing teams with information. Your goal is to make sure the information you provide is much more than just a 4.45 40, but that they can count on you and that you can handle adversity as well as success."

Let's get physical

Here are the seven drills in which all players are tested at the NFL Scouting Combine:

40-yard dash: Titans All-Pro running back Chris Johnson ran a 4.24 in 2008, which may have propelled him into the first round of the draft.

225-pound bench press: Arkansas guard Mitch Petrus tied a Combine record Friday with 45 repetitions.

Vertical jump: Wide receivers and defensive backs who excel here can separate themselves from the pack.

Broad jump: Like the vertical jump, it's done from a standing position, and it helps gauge lower-body power.

Three-cone drills: This relates to football as much, if not more, than any other drill, as it simulates stopping and starting.

20-yard shuttle: Also known as the short shuttle, it measures quickness and the ability to change direction.

60-yard shuttle: The equivalent of so-called suicides in basketball measures endurance.

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