To an avid National Football League fan, the term "change of seasons" has a different meaning than the annual progression from birds chirping to leaves turning to snowflakes falling.
The four seasons of the NFL are the preseason, the regular season, the playoffs, and the NFL draft. And tucked between the Super Bowl and the draft, sort of a mini-season, is the week-long NFL Scouting Combine, currently underway at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
Some 330 college athletes are taking part in this year's Combine, and the part that the public sees and digests, courtesy of NFL Network cameras inside the Dome and a never-ending stream of media interview sessions, is actually the least important aspect of the Combine to the league's 32 teams.
Fans will get caught up in 40-yard dash times, vertical and broad jumps, agility drills and the bench press. How important is all that? Well, no Combine participant has ever posted more than the 45 bench press reps at 225 pounds turned in by former Ohio State defensive end Mike Kudla. But he went undrafted in 2006.
No, most important to the teams is what the fans never see. The physical exam, complete with X-Rays and MRIs and drug testing, is No. 1 to the general managers and coaches, especially when dealing with players who suffered injuries in college. A close second is the 15-minute private interview each team can have with as many as 60 players. It is during those sessions that a team's scouts can measure character, mental toughness and football sense.
The latter is different than what the Wonderlic IQ test measures. Every participant will take that test and the teams will review each report. But, face it, plenty of guys who couldn't spell cat if you spotted them the "c" and the "a" have been drafted through the years.
NFL teams know Glenn Dorsey, the defensive tackle from LSU, can spell cat and that he can dominate a game at full strength and that he has the resolve to play hurt, but what do they really know about ankle injury that sidelined him for several games in 2007? So, the no-stone-unturned physical exam at the Combine might well determine if Dorsey remains a top-3 draft pick or actually falls behind USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.
It is the only question about Dorsey out there, according to ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., who recently held a conference call with reporters.
"He is so energized and football is all that matters," Kiper said of Dorsey. "Everybody around him becomes better when he's on the field. You saw him play through injuries he went out there when most guys would have been in street clothes watching. Dorsey is special in that sense."
We all make a little fun of Kiper, partly because of the earthquake-proof hair and mostly because he can deliver a five-minute monologue, sans notes, on a center drafted in the fifth round from Montana State. That's sort of scary.
But when he says his current top five consists of Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, Dorsey, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, Michigan tackle Jake Long, and Virginia defensive end Chris Long, we take notice.
The Combine gives a guy like Ryan the chance to move up to No. 1, considering Miami, with quarterback issues, is on the clock. And it gives Fred Davis, the USC tight end from Toledo, a shot at improving his prospects. He's currently No. 22 overall on Kiper's board.
Yes, a change of seasons is afoot for NFL fanatics. The Combine is a harbinger that the draft is just around the corner.