NFL scouting combine is doing it all wrong
Prospective NFL head coaches are the ones who should be measured and evaluated
The NFL scouting combine has the wrong participants. The people who should be measured, evaluated and scrutinized are not the 300-plus top prospective NFL players. They should be NFL prospects of a different kind:
Prospective NFL head coaches.
The combine, as it is now, is an ancillary part of the player evaluation process. Most NFL decision-makers say they use the combine results to confirm what they’ve seen on film. Player evaluations are based primarily on watching a player play football, not watching him execute drills. That seems logical.
Sadly, that simple logic rarely extends to the hiring process for NFL head coaches. Sometimes teams will hire an experienced head coach who has had success leading another franchise or at the college level, and sometimes they’ll hire Kliff Kingsbury. But what happens most often is they hire a hot coordinator.
The problem with that is the job of a head coach is very different from that of a coordinator. Effective coordinators show an ability to find and exploit the weaknesses of their opponents through immersive film study, creative play design and astute playcalling. But the job of a head coach is predominantly about culture-building, instituting processes and incentives to create an environment that encourages behaviors that will result in success. For example, the head coach is responsible for creating processes that facilitate effective organizational communication. A good game plan is one where the strategies of all three phases complement each other and the players have confidence in it. That only comes to fruition if there’s a reliable communication process.
The game-planning process the head coach instills should also find a healthy balance between encouraging even the most junior member of the staff or team to introduce unorthodox strategies and promoting conformity when it is called for.
Head coaches should also manage the locker room’s psyche and ensure that individual players are in the best frame of mind to perform. They are also required to be the team’s foremost media spokesperson. And on game day, they are called upon to make pivotal in-game decisions.
Those are just a few examples of the management skills a head coach needs but have not been demonstrated or honed before being hired. We need a combine for that very purpose.
Though watching coaches clumsily attempt to do drills would be entertaining, it won’t help unearth the next Bill Belichick. So we would have to change the combine from a test of physical prowess to that of emotional intelligence and judgment.
Here is how I would rework the combine to achieve that:
Currently, the combine is a four-day process for the participants, with staggered start dates for each of four cohorts. It builds to the final and most important day: workout day. Similarly, the final day of the coaches combine, “coaching day,” would be the pinnacle of a four-day process for four cohorts of 24 hopefuls.
At orientation on Day 1, the coaches will be given a tablet that is preloaded with an extensive multimedia case study based on a real coaching situation. In preparation for the comprehensive assessment on “coaching day,” the coaches will be expected to read the case synopsis, which gives an in-depth written description of the team’s situation, player and coach interviews, and game film. By design, the case materials will contain more information than the coach can consume or retain in just a couple of days.
The evening of Day 1 will be devoted to a mandatory dinner and informal conversations with potential employers. Part of the job of a head coach is to schmooze with the wealthy season-ticket holders, team sponsors and political officials. The Day 1 dinner will be a lot like those events.
Day 2 includes physical and psychological exams, as well as evaluations for both intellectual and emotional intelligence.
Then comes Day 3, which is when the prospective coach assumes the role of head coach of the fictional team during a few role-playing exercises. He will be required to conduct a coaches meeting and a team meeting, answer questions from the press and conduct private conversations with select players. Then he’ll take part in a game simulation in which he will need to make several high-pressure decisions, such as what to do on a pivotal fourth down or whether to challenge a play with incomplete information. And finally, after his team has won or lost in the simulation, he’ll address the team and subject himself to the press again.
On the fourth and final day, the prospective coaches will give a self-assessment in which they explain their thinking for each exercise; why they highlighted certain things in their meetings and press interactions; what factors they were considering when crafting their message; and what they expected to get out of the one-on-one meetings. And, of course, the reasoning behind their in-game decisions.
Clearly there is no simulation or combine process that will give a complete understanding of what kind of coach someone will be when he actually has the job. And there is no telling how he’ll react to the real pressure of being a coach. But this process will provide more useful data than is currently available. Even if teams just analyze the time spent on the tablet, they’ll get a better understanding of what a coach prioritizes.
Unfortunately, more data doesn’t always equal better decisions. Since each team’s situation is different, the profile for the best coach would be different. The owner or general manager doing the hiring would need to understand what traits are needed for a coach to succeed with his specific franchise.
So maybe after all this work we would still end up where we were, with some rich guys trying to hire Sean McVay’s cousin.