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Sacco Sez: The past, present and future of the NFL Scouting Combine


This is a relatively quiet period in the NFL calendar year, with free agency and the draft just around the corner, but it's not quiet here.

Broncos fans are eagerly awaiting word on everything from owner to quarterback, but those items are not the next ones on the table. 

Next up for the NFL and its legions of fans is the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, when Lucas Oil Stadium will be taken over by personnel people, coaches, media and fans. They will all gather there to watch the top NFL prospects be tested physically and mentally, with the 32 member clubs prodding, poking, watching and interviewing to decide which players best fit their needs in advance of the draft.

This is the final year of the contract between the NFL and Indianapolis, which means that next year — and in future years — the Combine might again be in Indianapolis, or it might not.

As reported in 2021, Indianapolis, Dallas and Los Angeles will bid for the 2023 event.

Every aspect of pro football is of great interest to fans and their respective cities, so there is every reason to think that member communities would love to put the Combine on, paying big bucks to the NFL and creating a solid week in which every pro football eye is tuned into that franchise city.

But once upon a time, scouting was less sophisticated than it is now, and there was no Combine. As with a lot of things, NFL pioneers and visionaries were at the forefront of its creation.

Stories abound of scouting based on someone who recommended a player they had seen, with this recommendation going up the most primitive of ladders.

It is well documented that in the first American Football League player draft the Denver Broncos made their selections with the assistance of the popular Street and Smith's football magazine. This was an entire scouting department reduced to a magazine that cost less than a dollar.

But at virtually the same time as the Broncos began, so did the Dallas Cowboys.

Their general manager was future Pro Football Hall of Fame member Tex Schramm, who wanted the NFL to hold a centralized player evaluation process instead of each team conducting prospect workouts individually at great cost and inconvenience for all teams and for the college players, who had to schedule individual times for every team.

So the National Invitational Camp (NIC) was born in 1982. That was the year in which National Football Scouting Inc. held its first NIC.

But it was not an immediate hit. Only 163 players attended, and it was only for members of teams of the National Football Scouting service.

The organizations that represented the remaining teams held two other independent scouting camps, so it still involved players attending as many as three camps to be evaluated by all the teams. That continued in 1983 and 1984, but in 1985, the 28 NFL teams (before the most recent expansions) agreed to host a centralized NFL Combine. This would provide better organization to the process of scouting and reduce the costs involved.

Typically, and continuing to this day, about 330 invites are sent for the NFL Combine. Most of those are sent prior to that year's vast number of bowl games.

I was talking to Brian Olson of KUSA/Channel 9 here in Denver, and he said they would once again attend and videotape everything they are allowed to. But once upon a time, no one was allowed to cover the event.

That did not come until 2004, about two decades into Combine history and following the 2003 launch of NFL Network. As one might imagine, it became a media event almost immediately. The 2004 Combine was the first to be televised in the event's history — a far cry from selecting players from the pages of a football magazine — with NFL Network showing six daily one-hour programs.

In the ensuing years, this coverage increased. It has become virtually unimaginable for pro football writers to not descend on the Combine to report on the event to an eager national fan base. NFL Network coverage has gotten ever bigger, and in 2019, ESPN also joined in on the fun.

In the last decade, the NFL began hosting "regional" combines for prospects not invited to Indianapolis. This, too, has expanded over the years. Players come from everywhere, and NFL teams are mindful of that and try to adjust accordingly.

In its four-decade history, the NFL Combine has had only four official locations: Tampa, Florida (1982-83); New Orleans (1984,'86); Tempe, Arizona (1985); and, for the last 35 years, Indianapolis (excluding 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Whether it returns for 2023 will soon be determined following a bidding process, as previously mentioned. Of course, it makes sense that warm-weather cities and those with a dome will lead the way. 

No matter what happens, though, play will continue, and scouting will continue as it has from the start.  

Personnel people and coaches will be assigned position groups and individuals to evaluate, and the only big difference will be which NFL city the group descends upon.

But for now, it is still Indianapolis, and we can expect daily stories from that dateline for the next week or so, with many of those names to be heard from again when the NFL Draft takes place in late April.

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