NFL Combine hits prime-time TV, long-term future in Indy remains uncertain

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MARCH 04: Defensive back Blace Brown of Troy gets ready to run the 40-yard dash during day five of the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 4, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Is the NFL Scouting Combine ready for prime time? Or vice versa?

Can Indy maintain its hammerlock on one of the league’s showcase events? Or will it eventually, inevitably relocate to Los Angeles?

We’ll soon find out.

First things first.

In the latest evolution of the ever-growing Combine – think of Frankenstein on steroids, if that visual helps – on-field workouts will unfold for the first time on NFL Network during prime time Feb. 27-29 (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m.) and in the 2 p.m.-7 p.m. slot Sunday, March 1. Players begin flowing into town Sunday.

The increased exposure was inevitable. The NFL knows a good – or great – thing when it sees it. The national fan base seemingly can’t get enough of 337 draft-eligible players zipping through the 40-yard dash, seeing how many times they can bench press 225 pounds, performing in positional drills or playing pitch and catch.

But it’s been complicated getting to this point.

“It’s been a six-month creation, testing, rebuilding process to build the schedule,’’ said Jeff Foster, president of the locally-based NFL Scouting Combine.

One of the beauties of the Combine has been its rigid routine, which includes invaluable and exhaustive medical and psychological exams. Essentially, things happen when they’ve always happened. NFL general managers and coaches love routine, consistency. They abhor sudden change.

The shift to allow prime-time coverage has flipped some things. For instance?

“The first three days, we’ll have interviews at night,’’ Foster said. “The fourth day, we’ll have interviews during the day and at night. The fifth, sixth and seventh days, we’ll have interviews only during the day.’’

Logistics also have been impacted. For the first time, all 337 players will be in town at the same time for two days. Previously, there was a calculated shuffling of groups. A byproduct of that is increased costs.

“We’ve got a 20 percent increase in most things player related . . . lodging, travel, all those things,’’ Foster said.

Let’s get one thing clear: he’s not complaining. Rather, Foster is doing whatever possible to accommodate external requests that seem to come at him annually. Again, the NFL is a master at maximizing an asset.

Foster hopes the latest wrinkle – OK, wave – in his event helps ease the talk of the NFL moving the Combine to Los Angeles. That’s been the speculation for several years, and it’s intensified with the looming presence of SoFi Stadium and entertainment complex. The new home of the Rams and Chargers is expected to open in Inglewood in time for the 2020 season.

One of the reasons for the move was to better accommodate prime-time drills. If next week goes off without a hitch, that might no longer be an issue.

The Combine and Indy have a contract that runs through 2025, but includes a trigger date that determines the site in ’22, ’23, ’24 and ’25. The event is locked into Indy for next year, and a return for ’22 is likely because of the time it would take to organize the massive venture elsewhere.

“I think the league wants to take a look at all the changes we’ve made this year to the schedule and see how that plays out,’’ Foster said. “Obviously my desire is for it to be here for 30 more years.’’

The Combine has called Indy home since 1987. It routinely draws more than 5,000 individuals to town – GMs/coaches, scouts, athletes, fans, etc. – and Visit Indy estimates the event generates approximately $8.4 million in revenue. Roughly 1,400 media credentials are issued.

“I feel more confident that I did a year or two ago with regard to longevity in Indianapolis,’’ Foster said. “We’ll see.’’

More changes

While moving drills to prime time is the most obvious change, Combine officials also have tweaked some of those drills.

“Just trying to make it more applicable to today’s game,’’ Foster said. “We’ve probably eliminated somewhere between seven and 10 drills and added a number in the same neighborhood.’’

New drills include a “screen drill’’ for offensive linemen since screen passes have become such a part of today’s NFL and a “smoke’’ routes for quarterbacks. The latter is the quick-drop-and-throw to combat a blitz, and QBs will be timed.

“The idea is to time it from the time (the football) hits the quarterback’s hands in the shotgun to the time it hits the receiver’s hands,’’ Foster said. “We want to see if two, three, four years down the road if that date means anything to us. We also think it adds competition to the players and more entertainment for the fans that are in the building and fans on TV.’’

One of the Combine’s more popular drills is the gauntlet, which requires receivers and defensive backs to run the width of the field while catching passes from alternate sides.

This year, Foster said, players will be timed and credited with the most catches, or flagged with the most drops.

“Just to try to put some more competitive spirit to it,’’ he said.

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