Medical Exams Are Combine's Cornerstone


For all the talk of 40 times and workouts, no portion of the NFL Scouting Combine has a greater impact on a player's draft value than the medical evaluations.

Drills can be rerun, times lowered, ability proven on game tapes, but none of that means anything if the body is willing, but unable.

So while not everyone at the Combine goes through a full workout, no one misses the physical exam. It's the reason 300-plus players and personnel from all 32 NFL teams get together in Indianapolis in the first place.

But for both athletes and personnel, running the medical gauntlet can be daunting.

According to Packers head trainer Pepper Burruss, it's a process in which cost is no object, and the only limitation is time.

For players, the medical screening unfolds over two days, beginning with an injury history interview to review information gathered by college scouting staffs, and to perhaps uncover new information. From that interview, X-rays or MRIs might be ordered.

Then players have their legs tested on Cybex machines, which provide a computer analysis of the strength and balance of the thigh muscles.

The second day starts with a drug, alcohol and steroid screening. From there, players clad only in shorts are trotted out in front of hundreds of scouts to have their measurables recorded, including height, weight, arm length and hand span.

Internal medicine exams are conducted, as are vision screenings, before athletes move on to orthopedic exams, which resemble an experiment in controlled chaos as athletes have multiple body parts examined simultaneously by different orthopedists.

Led by Dr. Patrick McKenzie, the Packers designate three doctors for this stage, all of whom record their findings into hand-held tape recorders before providing a brief summary to Burruss.

Based on those initial findings, the doctors give each player a preliminary risk assessment grade.

Final grades will be issued much later, after the team returns to Green Bay to review the initial information -- including the dictation transcripts -- and receives results from tests performed at the Combine. The Packers will even 'trade grades' with other NFL teams, although Burruss said "it usually only results with us being more stubborn and confident in our initial evaluation, but it forces us to be introspective."

Roughly 40 players will return to Indianapolis the first weekend in April to have a specific malady re-examined, allowing teams to get updated information on an injured player as the draft nears.

For the medical staff, it's all part of the race against time.

"You're really taking it up to the 11th hour just to feel good about your grades," Burruss said. "But about 90 percent of the time, the initial grade we give them at the Combine is good enough. You might tweak your grades up or down half a grade, but it's pretty rare that you're going to say someone is totally fine and then find out he's a total disaster."

While it has a serious effect, obviously a player's grade of health alone doesn't determine draft status. And that's where the onus is put upon the scouting and coaching personnel.

In terms of draft preparation, Burruss likens the role of the medical staff to that of a mechanic evaluating a used car.

"We try to tell the prospective buyer what it looks like," Burruss said. "The buyer has to decide based on cost and how much work it needs -- if any -- if they want to purchase the vehicle.

"Maybe if they can get the vehicle very, very cheap they'll take more risk. If that vehicle is a high collector value cost and needs a lot of work, they might pass. But that's the buyer's decision.

"We're there as risk assessors. We're not in charge of risk management."

Fans might remember last year's draft when the Packers selected then-injured fullback Najeh Davenport in the fourth round.

The risk was his injured foot, which some doctors felt would require surgery and could force him to miss some or all of the 2002 season. Packers' doctors felt Davenport's foot would heal in time for the season (as it did).

Without the injury, the Packers saw Davenport going as early as the second round. When he was available in the fourth round, he became worth the 'risk.'

"Technically, on draft day Najeh was a risk, because he was still injured," Burruss explained. "But our personnel staff felt that even with the status of his foot, he was money in the bank. We provided them with the risk evaluation and they assumed that risk, and it worked out."

Just like it's supposed to.

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