How to Survive the NFL Combine

With the NFL Scouting Combine coming up next week in Indianapolis, we’re preparing for weeks of 40-yard-dash clips and endless hype. So we wanted to know what it’s like to go through the stressful process first-hand — not as a glory-boy wide receiver, but as a grunt. We asked Geoff Schwartz, New York Giants offensive guard and former seventh-round pick from the University of Oregon, to write up a helpful guide. Take it away, Geoff.

Rule 1: They’re going to mess with you
When the average fan thinks about the NFL Combine, they probably think about the 40-yard-dash or the bench press. For you, rookie, that part of the process is no big deal. You’ve been working out your whole life. In reality, the real game at the Combine is mental.

NFL teams want to see how you’re going to handle the stress of a three-day job interview that also requires you to perform physically at the highest level, usually with very little sleep. The entire schedule is set up to mess with your equilibrium. They purposely make you work out at the end of the process because that’s when you’re the most stressed out and tired. During my Combine, they sent all of the O-linemen to do a quad test on a Cybex machine as soon as we arrived. That was even before we checked in and dropped our bags. The first two days, they wake you up early to do your medical, take your mental tests and meet with teams. At around 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. on the second day, they wake you up for a drug test. Then you have six or seven hours of medical exams. They poke and prod you. I know some guys who had to take six MRIs on six different body parts.

Later on that day, it’s time for the “meat market.” This is when you have to walk up on stage without your shirt on in front of every single scout and coach in the NFL and weigh in. There are like 300 people looking at your body and silently taking notes. I don’t know if I’d call it embarrassing, but it’s pretty weird.

By the time you actually get to what everybody sees on TV — the 40, the shuttle run, and position drills — you’re mentally exhausted because you spent the last two days being “on.” When you run your 40, they don’t tell you your time. You have no idea how fast or slow you ran.

Why would they do this? They do it because playing in the NFL is very stressful. You don’t ever play in a vacuum under perfect conditions. A family member is going to call you with an emergency at 1 a.m. the night before a game. Your kid is going to interrupt your precious sleep time at 7 a.m. demanding that you put his favorite game on the iPad. Teams want to see how you handle the pressure. The best-run franchises aren’t just looking for physical upside, they’re looking for a player who can be consistent. A true pro. Which brings me to my next point …

Rule 2: Don’t screw up your interviews
As a player, you’re allowed to have up to 15 private interviews with teams during which you meet with the GM, head coach, position coach, and maybe a few other coaches. When you arrive, they give you an index card with all your meeting times on it. It gives you an indication of the level of interest in you. If you have all 15, you’re probably going in the first round. I had one.

If you don’t have an interview, you go into this big conference hall where teams are standing around. It’s like a bizarre college job fair. You kind of walk around with a big smile on your face like, “Hello sir, I’d like to be your new left guard!” and representatives from teams literally grab you by the arm and start asking you questions on the spot. Then a horn blows after five minutes and another team grabs you.

My only private interview was with the Seattle Seahawks. This is where things can get intense and you can field some unusual questions. I personally wasn’t asked anything weird, but I remember that Mike Holmgren pulled up one of my game clips from Oregon. It was a game against a lesser team and he said, “It doesn’t look like you’re trying as hard here.”

He was absolutely right. It wasn’t like I was getting beat, but I wasn’t going 100 percent. It was right there on the tape. I couldn’t say anything except, “You’re right.” I didn’t think they would notice stuff like that, but even if you’re a lower-round pick, they have guys who are watching all your clips. They remember your college games better than you do. It was a hell of a lesson.

Rule 3: You are who you are (on tape)
I have no idea why the the media puts so much emphasis on the 40-yard-dash, especially for offensive linemen. It seems like every single year, people can’t wait to post videos poking fun at us. Look, we jiggle. We’re 330-plus pounds. What do you want from us? We still probably run the 40 faster than most 175-pound IT managers can.

In my opinion, being strong and fluid on the field is much more important than how fast you can run 40 yards. I ran a 40 at the Combine and I haven’t run a 40 since. It’s not a great representation of what offensive linemen need to do. A five-yard burst, a 10-yard burst, lateral quickness — that’s what we do.

This is also why the one-on-one O-line vs. D-line drills at the Senior Bowl can be misleading. The drill is pretty much rigged for O-linemen to fail. A lot of the D-linemen aren’t playing in their normal position, so their footwork and positioning is different. As an O-lineman, there’s no context. You don’t know what type of pass rush you’re going to get. Most importantly, the defensive lineman doesn’t have to worry about getting his head taken off on either side of him, so he can try all kinds of crazy moves. Based on what you hear on TV, that drill gets a lot of hype. I don’t think it’s a great indication of what happens on a Sunday.

Fortunately, the best teams don’t overreact to what happens at the Senior Bowl or the Combine. They trust what they see on film. In fact, I kind of feel bad for guys who are Combine stars who shoot up the draft board because of their raw athleticism, because they come into the league with all this extra pressure.

Most of the top level guys are very good on film, but talent becomes much harder to project at the bottom of the draft. When you get into the mid-to late rounds, you’re probably not going to see guys lighting up the tape and pancaking opponents. It becomes all about consistency and how you finish plays. You just need to prove that you’re a reliable pro. Which brings me to my next point …

Rule 4: Film is your best friend
Here’s one line everyone at the Combine is going to use on GMs and coaches: “I’m a hard worker.”

Guess what? In the NFL, (mostly) everybody works hard. I think mental preparation is what stands in the way of making “the leap.” If you really want to impress teams, talk about your film study and preparation. I try to learn the game not just at my position but all over the field. When I watch film, I actually watch for two different things. The first time I’ll concentrate on the defensive schemes. The second time I’ll zoom in and concentrate on the one or two defensive linemen who I’ll be up against.

I start on Tuesday and I’m usually prepared by Friday. A common rookie mistake is that a lot of guys procrastinate their film study and are still cramming late on Saturday night or even Sunday morning. By Sunday morning, I need my mind to be totally clear. I’m not a guy who plays well when I’m all stressed out and anxious.

The process isn’t terribly labor-intensive. I kind of get an idea of what a guy can do or can’t do after watching a few games. I like to see what they’re going to do in certain situations, like the two-minute drill when they know we’re going to be passing, or on 3rd and 1 when they need to clog the middle. Guys tend to have patterns. You can start to figure out, “Oh okay, if it’s a short-yardage situation he’s going to come across my face and he’s going to use this exact move to do it.”

People sometimes ask me if linemen have “tells” like poker players. Most good D-linemen don’t, because they can do a lot of different moves from the same stance. But there definitely are times when you can anticipate what’s going to happen. Maybe it’s the way a linebacker is shaded over a guy or the way a defensive tackle is leaning or what hand they have down. You are not going to pick up that stuff on TV. There was a game this year where the defense kept making the same call, and I kind of figured out what the call was after a while and I relayed it to the sideline.

Did it change the entire game? Not especially. The thing about the NFL is, you might know exactly what they’re doing, and they might know exactly what you’re doing, but you still have to make the plays. I might know that Julius Peppers is going to bullrush me, but I still have to stop him (*prayer hands emoji*). If it was that easy, guys would do it all the time.

Rule 5: Get ready to suck
If and when you get drafted, it’s going to be a big party. You’re going to think you’ve made it. Well, enjoy that feeling for about three days. Winter is coming.

Your relationship with failure will be very important. Even if you’re a sixth or seventh round draft pick, you’re used to kicking ass. You were the man on your college team. You got this! Then you’ll show up to your first NFL practice and realize that things are very different. Guys always say it’s the speed that’s so shocking. The speed is ramped up a bit for sure, but the real difference is that everybody is good now. In college, you’re up against maybe one defensive lineman that will get drafted. In the NFL, the dude on the practice squad will hand you your ass if you’re not prepared (I know, because I was that practice squad guy).

You have to bring your A-Game not just every Sunday, but at every practice, or you will get embarrassed. In college, you might get away with going 90 percent in some games. In the NFL, if you go 90 percent, you will get destroyed. You will get hurt, or you will get someone else hurt.

Am I bumming you out, rook? Well, here’s the good news. My beloved brother Mitchell had a terrible Combine. He had the second worst broad jump, one of the slowest 40s and I think he might have even failed one of the stretching tests (do some yoga, bro). I totally kicked his butt at the Combine stuff. But guess what? He was great on film and the Browns were smart enough to draft him high in the second round. A bad Combine isn’t the end of the world.

Fact is, you can make it in this league if you do the extra homework. A lot of people never thought I’d make it one year and I’ve made it through seven. I even touched the ball once on a kick return. It was awesome.

Rule 6: Choose wisely
This life is going to take a toll on your family. You’re going to break a lot of promises because of travel or injury or other circumstances. If you have children already, you better have a great wife. When you have those little moments of free time after practice and before film study, don’t waste it googling yourself or playing Xbox. You have to spend that time with your family. If you’re lucky, this ride will last three or four years. Your life lasts a hell of a lot longer. Remember your other teammates.