IMAGES: Offside Sports Photography
American football, as a sport, is a commodity market. You have designated roles in the game and coaches who are maniacal in finding the right size blocks to fill them. You are cogs; the team is a machine.
Sometimes those decisions are obvious, like a quarterback who looks like Armie Hammer and who can throw the ball all the way through a brick wall, and sometimes they’re not. The margins are wafer thin, like paper or ham. Clubs need to find out what’s what, who can do the Very Specific Things they need to suit their Very Specific Needs in order to meet success.
That’s where the Combine comes in. And... it... is... fucking... nuts.
A smorgasbord of increasingly esoteric events and contests and challenges to determine everything from the fastest sprinter to who is an unblinkable champ when it comes to a stare down. And sometimes they ask you if you want to fuck your mum, just to see what you do.
It’s basically Superstars meets X Factor meets a good ol’ fashion CIA interrogation, replete with brightly lit rooms and borderline mental torture after extreme physical exertion.
We don’t have a draft system in the Premier League. Not yet, anyway. But if it did introduce a Combine featuring every club’s registered player to definitively separate the golden wheat from the brittle-brained chaff and identify the tier’s best athletes, it would be incredible.
Here we take the real challenges from the NFL Combine and attempt to answer the questions you’ve always wondered...
Your run of the mill 40-yard dash. The record is 4.22 seconds (mental) and is held by John Ross who is a Wide Receiver at Cincinnati Bengals.
Adama Traoré wins this ahead of Mo Salah by a clear ten yards, then spoils it by running straight into the Powerade shack. Luminous blue juice everywhere.
Jumping straight up, from a flat-footed position, with your arm outstretched to hit flags on a pole. The record has stood since 2005 when Gerald Sensabaugh launched himself 46 inches higher than his standing/outstretched-arm height.
Harry v Harry. Kane v Maguire. Old friends turned foes, like in the wrestling when Shawn Michaels volleyed Marty Jannetty through a fake barbershop window. The England duo smoke the heats, leaping into the air screaming “MAGS’S!” and “KANESY’S!” over and over. Monotone. Repetitive. Fabinho falls by the wayside, Crouchy can’t be arsed. Matić runs them close, he has the height advantage, but can’t beat the Harrys. It comes to the final and Maguire pinches it. Their friendship will never be the same again.
3 CONE DRILL
An extremely short shuttle challenge in an L shape. Another agility test that checks out how fast the big lads can move. The record, 6.28 seconds, is held by Jordan Thomas.
Built to break ankles, this one, so Gabriel Jesus sits it out. Just sits there with his legs crossed and he’s doing that fun phone-call celebration he does to the cameras but keeps stopping to pour water all over his face to try and mask the tears. But everyone knows he’s crying. Jesus is crying. Sergio Agüero, however, is laughing. Sergio Agüero runs in offside trap-defying L-shapes naturally. In fact, it’s the only way he can run. Like a Knight off of chess. L-shape Agüero wins and laughs once more
This is essentially the long jump but from a standing start. The record is held by Byron Jones and stands at a whopping 12 ft 2 3⁄4 in. Watch it here. It’s mental.
What you need here is a touch of concentration and a shedload of leg. A lot of leg. A couple of legs like a couple of pistons. You ever seen Charlie Daniels run up and down the line for Bournemouth? It’s scary. You ever seen Charlie Daniels put in a mind-thumping tackle from a standing position? It’s scary. You ever seen Charlie Daniels put his foot through the ball without a backlift? It’s scary. Charlie wins the Broad Jump and then runs straight home.
Based on a tennis specific agility test. Self-explanatory, really. It’s the one you really hated at school. The fastest split time was set in 2000 and is 2.4 seconds.
Bleep. Needs a fast start, a fast middle, and a fast end… all in under three seconds. Enter Andrew Robertson: The Twenty Yard Scotsman. Can’t get rid of him on the pitch, wingers. Behind you for the first second, in front of you in space to receive the ball in the next. He does this twenty times a game, every game. Andrew Robertson is The Twenty Yard Scotsman. Bleep.
Lifting 225 pounds (102KG) as many times as possible. Since 1998 only 18 players have managed more than 40 reps.
Virgil van Dijk wins this one, next.
Like your 20-yard fella, only three times as long. 10.71 seconds is the record apparently, which seems impossible.
This is the one they all want to win, really. All the nippy fellas. The fast boys. You’ve got your Willians, you’ve got your Traorés, you’ve got your Sanés, you’ve got your Vinagres, you’ve got your Hazards, you’ve got your Sterlings, you’ve got your Chilwells. Even Héctor’s there, because this is a world where Héctor Bellerín is never injured. And they’re all lined up together, bantering. There is a lot of banter: “I am faster than you,” someone says and someone else replies “No, you are slow. You are far too slow.” Theo Walcott, who many had forgotten were there, rinses everyone and then quietly gets in the car straight back to Finch Farm; his mate’s been outside the whole time with the engine running.
This is where it gets weird. The following are genuine questions that have been asked by NFL Scouts during the interview stage of The Combine: “Do you find your mother attractive?”, “If you were murdering someone, would you use a gun or a knife?”, and “Where are you sitting on a bus speeding on a mountain?”
There’s some odd questions in this bunch, especially for lads with the sort of media training they get over here. It’s difficult to answer “Do you find your mother attractive?” with “I think the lads gave 110% today” and “If you were murdering someone, would you use a gun or a knife?” with “I just want to please the fans, and hopefully we did that today.”
However, David Luiz and Ryan Babel both give decent accounts of themselves, answering each question with the kind of grubby detail usually reserved for midbrow erotic literature. In fact, they’re still there now. They love questions. Dejan Lovren answers each one with a single syllable word. “Gun”. “No”. “Death”. Like Daniel Craig when Bond loses his secret agent license. It’s a lot like that.
Not all teams do this, but the Seattle Seahawks have been known to challenge their prospective players to staring contests. Not sure why they did it, to be honest, but it does sound fun.
Mark Noble might have been in pole position for this one, however on being asked if he fancied his mum in the previous challenge he has broken the leg off a chair and is currently being coaxed down from the test centre roof by Declan Rice. “IF THEY ASK ABOUT MY THE DUCHESS AGAIN, I’LL BURN IT DOWN, RICEY, I SWEAR TO GOD, MATE.” But while all that is going on Phil Jones waltzes it, because he sleeps with his eyes open.
Fortunately, nobody takes drugs in The Premier League, and they all pass! Everyone wins.
THE CYBEX TEST
This is essentially a fitness examination in which the athlete’s flexibility, health, and strength are tested with a hydraulic machine. It spots any lingering injuries on the joints.
Amongst the fun and games of the day, the Year 9 P.E. in the summer vibes of it all, there’s a very sad moment when Jack Wilshere pops the hydraulic mechanism of the Cybex Test onto his body. Jack crumbles. Completely disintegrates. He’s erm, he’s gone forever. “Jack?” the physio calls, “Jack, are you there?” Jack isn’t there. James Milner, however, is there. James brushes the dust of Jack to one side with his feet and pops the Cybex on. The Cybex bursts into a million coins like off a computer game. James will eat tonight.
THE WONDERLIC TEST
A short-form cognitive abilities test where you’re asked questions on analogies, analysis of geometric figures, arithmetic, direction following, disarranged sentences, judgment, logic, proverb matching, similarities, and word definitions.
We thought about Simon Mignolet, who speaks a couple languages and has a degree in Law and Political Sciences and definitely not in Being A Consistently Good Goalkeeper.
But we are giving it to Juan Mata: a thoughtful player on and off the pitch, bilingual, has a degree in Journalism, is the figurehead of Common Goal, a charitable initiative looking to redistribute a small portion of footballers’ wealth for the greater good, and—crucially—is not Simon Mignolet.