Every winter legions of NFL prospects dedicate their winter months to training for the combine. Every year NFL coaches, execs and pundits grumble about the applicability of the combine’s drills to the players’ future pursuits. (This is Bill Belichick, in July 2015, dismissing the utility of “those February drills”: “In the end, [players are] going to make their career playing football.”) Then every year some obscure player rips off a lightning-fast 40-yard dash in Indianapolis. At which point, we all seem to forget about those reservations.
There are, however, at least a few technology-fueled changes afoot. When a runner competes in the 40 today, the NFL Network also shares his split from the first 10 yards, a distance far more relevant to most football positions. At the 2011 combine Under Armour introduced workout shirts featuring built-in sensors that measured heart rate, breathing and acceleration—data that can be used to quantify fitness rather than just raw performance. Last year National Football Scouting Inc., which runs the combine, even established a committee to review the entire event, raising the possibility of further innovations. Just don’t expect any soon. According to its president, Jeff Foster, NFS’s focus over the last 12 months has been on introducing new fan activities. He declined to comment on any future changes for athletes.
So here we are, in 2017, staging the Underwear Olympics in its current form for a 33rd straight year while technology zooms by, creating a “kind of discrepancy,” according to Timothy Roberts, an exercise scientist at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. And it’s not just the tech community leaving the combine in its dust; teams have embraced cutting-edge developments behind the scenes. The 49ers, for example, are investors in PUSH, a tech company that uses accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure performance in the weight room—not just the number of reps of an exercise, but the power and speed an athlete brings to bear. “Teams are ahead of it; they’re doing their own thing,” says Roberts. “Now the NFL has to catch up.”