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Medical Exams Are Cornerstone Of Combine


When the 2004 NFL Scouting Combine opens Wednesday in Indianapolis, news of 40-yard dash times, bench press reps and vertical leap measurements will steal many of the headlines.

But while important to an athlete's draft stock -- especially lesser-known players trying to get noticed -- those tests are just the gravy of the Combine. The real meat and potatoes are the medical examinations, which arguably have a greater effect on the draft than anything else that will come out of the week-long event.

After all, drills can be re-run and times lowered in individual workouts, while ability can be proven on game tapes, but all of those results are worthless if a physical exam shows that an athlete's body is broken or even on the verge of deterioration.

So while some potential draftees at the Combine skip portions of their workouts, almost none of them miss their physical exams. It's the reason 300-plus players and personnel from all 32 NFL teams get together in Indianapolis in the first place.

And so for the Packers' medical staff it makes for a very busy week, in which the only limitation is time.

"At the Combine, cost is no object," head trainer Pepper Burruss said. "If you want a test done, it gets done. The sky is the limit. All we have to worry about is that we move quickly enough to examine more than 300 athletes in a matter of days, but carefully enough that we don't miss a thing."

For players, the medical screening unfolds over two days, beginning with an injury history interview to review information gathered by college scouting staffs. Based on that interview, X-rays or MRIs are often ordered.

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

"It's something you have to see to believe," Burruss said. "You might have doctors from five or six different teams all examining the same player simultaneously. It probably isn't very comfortable to the athlete on the table who has to be pulled all sorts of different directions at once, but it's effective for us."

Led by team physician Patrick McKenzie, the Packers designate three doctors for this stage of examinations, 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 medical 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, which according to Burruss "usually only results with us being more stubborn and confident in our initial evaluation, but forces us to be introspective."

In some cases even that won't be enough. 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 to be ready for the draft in April.

"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."

Of course, a player's degree of health alone doesn't determine draft status; there's talent to consider, and that's where the onus is placed upon scouting and coaching personnel.

But just like people in the market for a new car want something durable, teams are wary of investing in a top model athlete that they don't feel can stand the test of time.

"We try to tell the prospective buyer what it looks like," Burruss said, using the automobile analogy to describe how medical examinations affect the personnel staff's decisions on draft day.

"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 has a high collector value cost and needs a lot of work, they might pass.

"But that's the buyer's decision. (Team physicians) are there as risk assessors. We're not in charge of risk management."

In other words, it's not Burruss' decision to say that a knee injury reduces a player from a second-round pick to a sixth-round pick. That's up to the general manager and members of the personnel department. Burruss and the medical staff simply report the damage and the cost for repairs.

And how much can injuries impact draft status?

Well, one example Packers fans might remember is the 2002 NFL Draft when the Packers selected then-fullback Najeh Davenport in the fourth round.

At the time Davenport was a risk because of a foot injury sustained his senior year at the University of Miami. Without the injury the Packers felt he was second-round talent. With the injury, he was at best a third-round pick.

Thus, when Davenport was available in the fourth round, the Packers saw a good value, despite the risk. And last season that value was proven out on the field when Davenport averaged 5.5 yards per carry as Ahman Green's backup at halfback.

"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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