How Mike Mamula Crashed the Combine

Fairly or unfairly, Mike Mamula is remembered as the guy who exploded our perception of the NFL Scouting Combine.  His performance (which today might be considered routine) was so phenomenal that it may have advanced the Boston College DE’s landing place in the 1995 NFL Draft by several rounds.

Coach Mike Boyle.

There’s some conflicting background on whether BC strength and conditioning coach Jerry Palmieri (now with the New York Giants) or another local S&C coach, Mike Boyle, were more influential.  Both are excellent coaches who no doubt had major roles in Mamula’s performance; it seems most likely that Boyle was responsible for Mamula’s gaudiest performances, since that degree of specialized training would fall outside the range of normal activities for a college S&C coach.  Boyle is credited by some as the inventor of combine training, which lends more weight to this theory.

Boyle’s background in both powerlifting and athletic training informs his methods, and over the years he’s worked for most of the major sporting organizations in the Boston area, including the Bruins, Red Sox, and Boston University, moving from full-time jobs to consulting roles that supplement the much more stable and lucrative profession of running major training facilities.  These days he’s a known-enough figure in the S&C world to where his opinions are news makers; his argument against bilateral lower-body strength-training movements (especially the squat) kicked off a long-running debate not too long ago.

The set-up for Mike Mamula was perfect.  First of all, despite his post-NFL reputation, Mamula was a good player who’d been noticed by scouts. The LB/DE ‘tweener followed a solid junior year by capping his college career with an explosive senior season aided by BC’s switch to a 4-3 front, finishing with 13 regular-season sacks, an All-Big East nod at defensive end, and a four-sack bowl game.  Though not ranked highly at the time, he had the stats and situation that would corroborate a strong combine performance.  You can imagine a coach saying, “Well, if he’d played for a higher-profile school and had been in a defense that fit his skills, he’d be on everyone’s radar.”  In retrospect, it was also a weak class for defensive linemen, with only a few name players to come out that year.

That same hypothetical coach could also have said, “And he probably wasn’t coached well, either.”  It’s a common line of reasoning in the NFL, born of a big-brother mentality the league carries.  Some of it’s reasonable—get a guy full-time and with a paycheck on the line, and he might be a little more motivated than he was in college.  Other times, though, it’s simple arrogance.  Add to this that the 90’s were a renaissance for the 4-3 defense where speed became paramount, and the league would be easily excited by an athletic pass rusher.

The final ingredient was the insertion of a savvy coach into a combine milieu that was old-fashioned at best.  The NFL Scouting Combine was about a decade old in 1995, and was still seen more as a replacement for in-person visits to the Senior Bowl and private invites to NFL facilities.  It was about watching routes, releases, and footwork, and about interviews and giving players the eyeball test.  Not as appreciated was the fact that the combine was the only way of creating an even playing field for comparing athletic talents of so many players.  Rather than looking hard at what drills meant, they were treated as a “pass-fail” series of tests…and the players knew it.  In fact, the entire football system—from high school to the pros—was largely in an anachronistic mindset when it came to valuing strength and conditioning: it was assumed talents of speed and strength were largely uninfluenced by training.

Boyle’s strategy seems so simple that today it’s almost hard to believe he made people rethink the combine: he focused Mamula on the gaudiest raw-athleticism events (vertical jump, 40-yard dash, and bench press, in particular), and then trained him to be good at the events.  If Mamula could stand among his peers, coaches would reevaluate his film and see him not as someone taking advantage of weak competition in low-stakes games, but as a hidden gem.

The catch is that all the tests had little do with success on the football field.  The bench press test is the most egregious example: for a 400 or 500-pound bencher (which is common for college linemen), the combine bench test is an endurance event akin to judging a sprinter based on his 5k speed.  Players have to pace themselves, build-up tolerance to pain and fatigue, and learn techniques to make the motion as easier as possible.  Being overweight and having short arms is essential to a great bench performance; neither characteristic is exactly desired on the field.  And as you’d expect, most of the techniques for excelling at the bench press test have limited usefulness in improving football performance, and push the rules of the combine to their limits.

The strategy worked.  Mamula ran a 4.58 40, hit 28 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press tests, and had a 38.5” vertical jump.  He was faster than linebackers, had better jumping abilities than some corners, and out-benched much bigger offensive and defensive linemen.  It was an eye-catching performance.  When the Eagles selected him with the 7th overall pick, Hugh Douglas and Warren Sapp were still on the board.  In fact, Head Coach Ray Rhodes and company traded picks with Tampa Bay in order to move up and get Mamula.

Philadelphia got themselves a decent player, a solid guy who never cracked double-digit sacks in a season (but came close) and who struggled with injuries.  Some argue that starting three years for a top-shelf Eagles defense speaks to his abilities, though I feel it speaks more to the money invested in him.  I remember him getting engulfed by bigger tackles, especially when rushing the passer.  He never looked agile enough, either, to make the transition to 4-3 ‘backer, which might’ve extended his career (though it’s a very rare transition for the NFL.)  He was out of the league by 2000.  While it certainly wasn’t the career expected of a single-digit first-rounder, he wasn’t a Ryan Leaf, either.

Meanwhile, Warren Sapp and Hugh Douglas became forces on the field.  Despite his gifts, Sapp had a reputation as a wild card from his days with the Hurricanes, so the Eagles might be forgiven for missing a player who would’ve been a perfect fit for their system.  The Bucs took the risk, and ended up getting him and Derrick Brooks, the two players who would become the cogs of their dominating defense.  Missing Hugh Douglas was more of a head-slapper, at least in hindsight.  While he was drafted by the Jets, they ended up trading him for draft picks a few years later…to the Eagles.  He earned a few All Pro nods in Philadelphia, and helped provide the pass rush they never got from Mamula.

Out of all the parties in the Mike Mamula story, Mike Boyle probably came out best.  He’s an S&C star who’s regularly lauded in mainstream news, sports, and health publications.  While he opened the floodgates for combine prep, he managed to stay ahead of (or at least with) the leading wave.  And he’ll forever be remembered as a sort of gym-rat jester who pantsed the NFL at their own event.

Gridiron and the Silver Screen: Alex Karras

By any account, Alex Karras was a character: raconteur, salesman, entrepreneur, author, broadcaster, and actor.  Karras, who passed away just a few months ago, was also one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in the 60’s, though his talents on the field were somewhat overshadowed by the poor Lions squads he played for.  Nicknamed “Mad Duck,” Karras was a stumpy bulldog of a player who was so near-sighted he played by feel, and was renowned for his speed and violence.  A telling anecdote from a league game involved his mauling of a hapless second string guard; the opposing lineman turned out to be one of Karras’ older brothers (all three Karras boys played professional football.)  In recalling the story, Karras wondered aloud if he had subconsciously recognized his brother despite being unable to make out his face, and if he had taken out an adolescence’s worth of anger on a former bully.

Alex Karras as “Mongo” in Blazing Saddles.

Karras had a stream of oddball enterprises and hobbies.  He sold “personal massage devices” that he would demonstrate on the shoulders of unsuspecting passersby.  He hosted a celebrity golf tournament in Detroit that was essentially a day-long practical joke: the course could feature free-roaming zoo animals (he called a 300-pound tortoise let loose on the green a “moveable hazard”), holes so deep that sunk putts were almost irretrievable, loudspeakers blaring machine-gun noises, roving Mariachi bands, or a parade of armored vehicles led by a little person in Gen. George S. Patton regalia.  During a year where he was suspended from the league for gambling on other teams, Karras became a professional wrestler and once held a match alongside Bronco Nagurski.

Despite his talents on the field and exploits off it, Karras is probably best known in his far more mundane jobs as on-air commentator and actor.  He got a taste of the acting bug when journalist George Plimpton’s short stint as a benchwarming-quarterback was turned into the feature film Paper Lion; for the sake of verisimilitude, the actual Detroit team was called in to play themselves on screen, and Karras featured prominently in the final cut.  After leaving the NFL, Karras appeared in a dozen episodes of The Tonight Show and spent three years in the booth for Monday Night Football.  He had guest spots and supporting roles on a handful of shows and TV movies, and an extended role in the Centennial miniseries, though his two most famous gigs were distinctly different.

Karras, Emmanuel Lewis, and Susan Clark pose for a Webster promo.

The first was as the menacing Mongo in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.  The film is considered a comedy classic, and Karras’ role as a hulking force of nature with a surprising philosophical bent is popular even today.  Fans of the film might interested to know that Mongo’s horse-punching was reportedly inspired by a real-life incident witnessed by Mel Brooks in which comic actor Sid Caesar knocked-out a troublesome steed.

On the other end of the spectrum is his role as oafish father George Papadapolis on the long-running series Webster.  On the air from 1983 to 1989, the family comedy was produced by Alex Karras and his co-star/actual wife Susan Clark; the pair conceived of the show as a family ensemble piece about the life of an oafish former football player (naturally played by Karras), though rising child star Emmanuel Lewis was grafted onto the production by the network.  After a few stormy years (and a particularly rough first season fomented by ABC forcing Lewis-focused episodes) the show settled into the ensemble format originally envisioned by Karras.  Thanks to Webster’s long initial run and subsequent syndication (as well as his other acts), Karras might be the most visually recognizable player to come from an era that included Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, and Johnny Unitas.

NFL Evolution: The League Plays Defense

Any fans watching this year’s Super Bowl saw at least a few of the five ads for “NFL Evolution,” (NFLE) the NFL’s public relations answer to the growing concern over football and head injuries.  Between insurance issues, lawsuits, and even the erosion of the league’s foundation of K-12 players, the worst-case scenarios for how football fares during this era of concussion awareness are plentiful. Less clear is the likelihood any of these scenarios will come to pass.

While brain injury as public topic is a new hurdle, the league has overcome many difficulties and developed an approach that’s informed NFLE.  Before concussions and CTE became buzzwords, the NFL’s two main concerns were public visibility and maintaining a cheap talent pool.  It ably handled the former thanks to decades of promotional work that almost paradoxically managed to make the NFL be both a titan of tradition and the “next big thing” in sports; and an iron grip that was kept clenched on licensing partners and rivals alike.  Even missteps like the European leagues were contained failures that never tarnished the brand.

NFL owners have handled the talent issue more discretely.  Most important in their cause was building an alliance with college football programs that allowed the NFL to avoid the hindrance of running a farm system.  The system is mutually beneficial–schools have greater access to the game’s best players in the most financially rewarding sport, while the NFL’s future talent is developed at no cost to the league–though the NFL has exerted its influence of late by encroaching on traditional college game nights as much as antitrust statutes will allow.  Compared to the MLB’s massive farm system and the NBA’s mix of an expensive developmental league and uncontrollable foreign leagues, the NFL gets quite a bargain.

The NFL works further down the supply chain, too.  Football is an almost prohibitively expensive sport for many K-12 schools and youth leagues, and it was viewed with a wary eye by parents even before there was much awareness of head trauma risk.  Coupled with more recent concerns that the population of sporting youths is dwindling thanks to electronic enticements, and it’s conceivable football could see both future talent and viewers siphoned off to other forms of entertainment.  The league’s reaction has been to place a greater focus on reaching children through digital media, providing funding for youth programs through the NFL Youth Football Fund, and beginning an array of child-friendly health/wellness ventures such as NFL Youth Education Town to the more recent NFL Play 60.

The NFL Evolution campaign takes all these lessons and condenses them into a more aggressive package.  “Forever Forward Forever Football” (sic) is the motto.  The emphasis on “forever” isn’t an accident: with so much uncertainty on the health front, the league has doubled-down on portraying the game as an integral part of American life.  While earlier NFLE ads focused on the history of the league and its growth into the modern game (and clumsily including in the ads imagery of players involved in concussion lawsuits), the latest batch courts families more than fans. Three of the five new Super Bowl spots focused on youth players, including one that was just footage of Internet celebrity Samantha Gordon ripping off a long run.  Regarding the remaining two, one showed a mother and small child (the latter in a Raiders helmet) as they ostensibly watched a game, and the other was nothing more than home movie footage of the Kennedy family chucking the ball around a backyard in Camelot.

The NFL Evolution web page takes a more direct approach.  As I write this, the featured items on the home page include:

  • A piece on how football has “enriched” Mike Tomlin’s life
  • Three articles questioning the concussion practices of the NHL, NBA, and NCAA
  • A post on the NFL’s safety summit
  • An entire side panel on the league’s funding for research on player safety
  • And two posts that cast doubt on our understanding of concussion risk (in ways both favorable and unfavorable to the sport)

It’s a shotgun effort that simultaneously declares the game safe and modern, then shrugs and says “but we’re still making sure” and “the other guys are even worse.” The ads are especially divergent as they now target every demographic, with women factoring far more heavily than any PR campaign I can remember. It seems an unsophisticated approach for the NFL to craft something that relies on wooing moms (or at least stereotypical moms), but the tonal shift and its presence in the most important advertising window of the year only reinforces that this is indeed intentional.  Compare the NFLE spots to Chrysler’s much-discussed “God Made a Farmer” ad, which featured the raw imagery and stentorian narration we associate with the typical NFL’s promotional efforts–I’m surprised a fog-breathing Dick Butkus didn’t climb into a Ram at the end.

As for the NFLE website, I see little reason for the league to have a hands-off enough approach with the project to let an independent management team try to present the issue fairly.  There’s just no business sense in doing so, not when the league’s taking body blows.  NFLE is a promotional tool that pairs facts with feel-good advertising and deflects attention to other sports. It’d take a legal intervention (as happened to the cigarette industry) to expect anything different.

While it might be fun to argue just how manipulative the NLFE effort is, the campaign will ultimately play a small role the game’s future.  Though some were quick to equate the Super Bowl’s power outage as bit of symbolism befitting a falling sport, the end isn’t so clear or inevitable.  The league can thrive with just this level of uncertainty.  Lawsuits can be weathered, the promise of dollars will always lure risk-takers to the game, and an uncertain public won’t pull their children from the field en masse without better evidence.

Things like NFL Evolution can work in such an uncertain environment.  Provided technology keeps advancing, however, the uncertainty will disappear and we’ll have a truer understanding of football’s future.  Along the way, we’ll learn if NFLE was a savvy move that helped the game get through a rough patch, or a tactic that only delayed fundamental changes to the sport, its stature, or both.