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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 23, 2010

NFL: Raiders’ Davis must resist speed’s siren song at combine

By Monte Poole
The Oakland Tribune

OAKLAND, Calif. — With the NFL Scouting Combine beginning Wednesday, Al Davis once again confronts perhaps his most irresistible temptation.

Speed, as determined by the 40-yard sprint.
Davis always was attracted to speed. Some say the Raiders boss is obsessed with it. Truth told, speed has delivered such wondrous gifts as Cliff Branch and Bo Jackson and Willie Gault and Napoleon Kaufman. Speed occasionally has been good to Al.
Nowadays, though, he too often is susceptible to its seduction. It’s as if speed blinds him from parts of the equation he once understood so well. You know, um, the parts about playing effective football.
That brings us back to the combine, where representatives from all 32 teams will spend the next week in Indianapolis watching and testing and drilling and evaluating hundreds of draft prospects. It is the unofficial start of the 2010 season.
The combine has become one of Oakland’s lethal enemies. Along with its equally deceptive twin, Pro Day, the combine lately has betrayed the Raiders, inflicting more damage upon them than the Broncos, Chargers and Chiefs combined.
Misuse of combine analysis has hastened the decline of this once-proud organization. Davis gets so starry-eyed over marvelous athletes masquerading as football players that he falls for such productivity-challenged speedsters as Fabian Washington, Stanford Routt and, most recently, Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Speed is, you see, not as good to Al as it used to be.
Yet the Indy meat market still has Davis in its thrall, regardless of whether he shows. He buys into bigger, stronger, faster. The Raiders might lose three of every four games but, hey, the boss can lay claim to having the quarterback who throws farthest, the wide receiver who runs fastest and two guys who kick farther than anybody else.
All these athletic “measurables” are on exhibit at the combine, and all teams observe the running and lifting and jumping. They check the test scores of the Wonderlic, alleged to be indicative of intellect.
But the 40-yard sprint warms Al’s heart like nothing else. It tugs at him, haunts him, leads him astray.
Heyward-Bey was an underachieving wideout projected to be drafted no higher than late in the first round. He was one of the stars of the 2009 combine, with a 38 ›-inch vertical leap and a 4.30 40-yard sprint that was faster than that of anyone else. He repeated his act during his Pro Day last March at Maryland.
When Davis decided DHB was worthy of the seventh overall pick, executives and talent evaluators around the NFL gasped. The crueler sorts giggled and continued to do so throughout the season.
Washington, the fastest man at the 2005 combine, went to Oakland with the 27th overall pick. Oakland then made Routt, the second fastest in ’05, the 38th overall pick. The Raiders then kissed themselves, for they had discovered their cornerback tandem for the next decade.
They have concluded they are better without Washington and that Routt can’t crack the starting lineup. That both players struggle is not because they can’t run.
As for Heyward-Bey, well, having more starts (11) than catches (nine) speaks for itself, even as he runs like the autumn wind.
There was a time when the Raiders operated a complete personnel staff, where a variety of opinions were valued. Though he couldn’t always be talked out of the occasional Richard Sligh, if Al got too carried away with speed-size-strength components, someone would mention such additional indicators as passion, will, adaptability and, above all, playmaking.
Insofar as these factors are not accounted for at the combine — there are no football games — it’s wildly overrated as a place to judge talent.
Would an NBA executive go to an AND1 dunk competition to find his next star? Would a major league exec use any batting practice on earth to draft his next slugger?
Successful NFL teams rely almost entirely on video and scouting, where they can accurately judge game speed and see which defenders find the ball, which receivers make plays and which runners break tackles.
The Raiders’ pick in the April draft is the eighth overall, the sixth time in seven drafts they’ve held a top-10 selection. Smart and lucky use of the draft could have pulled them out of this seven-year root canal.
Weeks away from Pro Days, where NFL representatives go to college campuses to evaluate potential draft picks, the combine is the home of first impressions.
The combine also is, Davis has shown, where a great stopwatch can grab an 80-year-old talent connoisseur by the hand and take him for a ride.