Len Pasquarelli

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Friday, March 1
Physical exam most dreaded part of combine

By Len Pasquarelli

INDIANAPOLIS -- A behemoth in blue jeans, clad in a T-shirt that bore only his position and official combine identification number and shivering against a biting wind that whipped through the downtown corridors here Friday morning, former University of Mississippi offensive lineman Terrence Metcalf warily eyed the approaching van.

"That the one going to the hospital for the physicals?" Metcalf queried a team official directing a herd of beefy blockers toward their transportation.

The official nodded affirmatively and Metcalf rolled his tired-looking eyes.

Clearly he had heard all the horror stories about the NFL combine workouts, more specifically about the grueling physical examination, a meticulously thorough going-over by the team doctors for all 32 franchises and easily the most dreaded element of the three-day visit here.

Any looseness in the knee joint, even from an injury that goes back to freshman year, and the orthopedists can order up an MRI exam. You say you haven't had measles yet? They're going to find out why. If a player has a broken bone in his medical history, it's going to translate into a trip to the X-ray room. That funny-looking mole on one lineman's hand is likely to be sectioned and then examined under a microscope.

Every time you walk past one of (the doctors), you hold your breath. So you kind of walk faster than they want, hoping they won't stop you and ask to inspect something. Man, it's a trip.
Levi Jones, Arizona State offensive tackle

If a player is lucky, really lucky, he'll walk out of the physical exam in three to four hours.

The routine, in which draft prospects are poked and prodded and pulled by the army of doctors and trainers assembled in a long gantlet, can be an arduous test of survival even for a player confident of being in optimum shape. Certainly there isn't a player among the league-record 333 prospects invited to the combine this weekend who relishes the physical exam.

To the players, who undergo the physical even if they don't intend to participate in any of the on-field workouts, it is an ordeal. To the draft junkies who hover in the lobby of the hotel where all the prospects are bivouacked, seeking autographs or just a glance at tomorrow's heroes, it is the least-known element of the combine battery. To the teams about to invest millions on their draft choices, however, the physical exam is a necessary part of the process.

In fact, with only about 70 percent of the players participating in all phases of the combine, the physical is regarded by many scouts as the weekend's most critical benefit.

"We know we're going back onto campuses in a week or two to start working these guys out," said St. Louis Rams general manager Charley Armey. "So things like a 40-yard time or getting a time in the shuttle drill, we can get those things on a player. What you can't be doing, though, is dragging your whole medical team all over the country for individual workouts. So this is the one shot to get everything checked out. With the money we're paying, it just makes sense. We want to make sure players get the seal of approval stamped onto their rear ends."

General managers and personnel directors, who have come to accept with no small frustration that most top-shelf players are not going to run or jump here, increasingly agree with Armey. Very few players ever fail the exam, and each franchise has its own subjective standards for determining that, but an old injury caught now can save a team a lot of trouble down the road.

One reason the combine remains in Indianapolis, in fact, is because nearby Methodist Hospital provides such solid service. The hospital, only a few blocks north of the RCA Dome, keeps its X-ray department open 24 hours a day through Monday, when the combine concludes. Officials in some other venues, which have attempted to lure the combine to the south or southeast, face a tough battle when it comes to offering the kind of medical facilities located in Indianapolis.

That doesn't make the torture any more palatable, of course, for the players.

"Every time you walk past one of (the doctors)," said Arizona State offensive tackle Levi Jones, "you hold your breath. So you kind of walk faster than they want, hoping they won't stop you and ask to inspect something. Man, it's a trip."

What players sometimes don't understand is that it's a trip that can be worth millions if a player comes here and dramatically improves his draft standing.

This is not, personnel directors stress to the players, the be-all and end-all in what is an ongoing evaluation process. The league spin doctors -- the same ones who keep writing about how the surface at the RCA Dome isn't as notoriously slow as everyone really knows it is -- aren't just shoveling manure when they insist that few players hurt their draft status working at the combine. Conversely, there is a litany of past prospects who caught the eyes of scouts during the combine weekend.

This year won't be any different.

Some offensive guard who came here projected as a fifth-round selection will bench press the standard 225-pound weight 35 times and get chosen in the third round seven weeks from now. A wide receiver viewed as just a speed guy will flash surprisingly good hands. A quarterback, like maybe Josh McCowen of Sam Houston State, will convince some team his solid performance at the Senior Bowl all-star game wasn't a fluke.

"We like to say it's like a job interview, with 300-some sets of eyes watching you at the same time," said Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo. "And in a sense, it really is, to be truthful. It's just that some people don't complete the interview, you know?"

Despite a letter sent to all agents by NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw urging them to have their clients run, as many as 100 players will skip at least one drill. Scouts have come to grudgingly accept that they will head out, stopwatches in hand, as early as next Wednesday for individual workout days at some of the major colleges.

At least, they acknowledge, having an updated medical dossier on every prospect at the combine is a head start, one less thing to be concerned about.

"I know (the players) hate it," said the personnel director for one NFC West franchise. "But it's the one thing they've got to do. You know what I say when I hear all that bitching about taking the physical? Nothing. I just laugh, that's all."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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