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More Measurables! Comprehending the NFL Combine

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Certain people can feel a storm approaching. Their joints ache.


The NFL Scouting Combine sends a similar physical warning for me, but the symptoms are usually migraine-related. I felt it coming a few days before the NFL Network televised the event that ended last week in Indianapolis. ESPN draft expert Todd McShay showed up on TV telling a studio host of the latest measurable he sniffed out concerning one member of the Draft Class of 2011.


“He has an 11-inch hand-span,” McShay said of USC’s Tyron Smith. “And a 36-3/8 arm length.”

Further discussion revealed that to be a good deal above the norm.

The studio host gasped in a way one might upon hearing an astronaut’s harrowing tale of a space walk gone awry.

The segment ended with something understood but left unspoken:

If you are a NFL team in 2011 in need of a big, strong, tough offensive lineman, Tyron Smith could be your man.

The same goes if you are a Dutch farmer in need of a new windmill.

In the ensuing days at the Scouting Combine we heard that Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea benched 225 pounds 49 times for a Scouting Combine record. Three players held the previous record of 45. Unless you are Todd McShay or their parents, you have never heard of them.

So what does that tell us about the importance of Combine “events” such as the bench press, the 40-yard dash, the three-cone agility run, the vertical jump, the broad jump and, I believe, the Double Dutch jump rope competition (though I may have that mistaken with a foggy schoolyard memory)?

ESPN’s Tim Hasselbeck would say it doesn’t tell us much. “It probably means he could also dominate the Shake Weight,” Hasselbeck joked of the bench press record during an on-air Scouting Combine segment.

The NFL knows how to attract an audience. But even the NFL wouldn’t waste money on a scouting combine if it felt it was a waste of time. It’s not.

There are actually two NFL scouting combines. One conducted in the open watched by fans, which gives supporting statistical information. The other, the more important one, behind closed doors where teams try to decide what kind of people the prospects are.

That’s where they try to answer the question: if we give this kid millions, can we be sure he isn’t going to turn into Charlie Sheen, and one day show up on Good Morning America calling himself a warlock?

The conversations between teams and players are the sleuth work that can help save teams from making giant blunders and separates the best organizations from the worst. They’re far more important than the measurables, but the measurables somehow make for good enough TV that NFL Network showed up this year with its first sponsor — Under Armour.

By the way, a special Under Armour workout shirt, the E39, has a built-in sensor (The Bug) that allows for the measuring of breathing rate, heart rate, horse power and a G-force generated as prospects run through all the events.

“More measurables,” as one NFL Network analyst happily said.

Yep, the on-camera scouting combine is the tortured measuring of everything that moves. That one was watched on NFL Network by 5.4 million viewers last year, proving that the NFL is the most brilliant sports league in the history of sports leagues.

NFL.com asked voters to pick their favorite event: the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump, the broad jump, the three-cone agility, the bench press, the shuttle run.

You could not click on “None of the above.” Thousands of people responded.

To me, it’s like C-SPAN asking viewers to name their favorite filibuster. But I’m clearly in the minority.

An online betting service set prop bets. You could bet on whether Tyrod Taylor would run a faster 40 than Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. You could bet on whether Nick Fairley or Da’Quan Bowers would get more reps in the bench press. You could bet on whether A.J. Green or Julio Jones would score higher on the vertical jump. The over-under on the fastest 40 was 4.3, 41.5 on the bench reps.


You could not bet on how many times Newton would refer to himself in the third person during his media interview, but that was reported anyway. Three times in 12 minutes.


It’s not surprising that the NFL Network has made a TV show out the scouting combine. It’s a network. It needs programming. What’s surprising is that so many people watch and seem immersed in the minute details.


“He’s a little bit of a waist bender,” an NFL Network analyst said of Arkansas offensive tackle DeMarcus Love.

Aren’t we all?

It’s more important to know if Cam Newton really did get defensive when an NFL assistant questioned him about why he changed a play in the BCS National Championship Game than it is to know that he led all quarterbacks in the standing broad jump.

Unless he’s going to play “Batman” someday and wants to do his own stunts, we already knew he was the best athlete at his position. It’s more important to know how he takes criticism, whether he thinks it’s his job as a quarterback to go rogue or follow the script.

Behind closed doors, prospects are still given the Wonderlic test to judge intelligence and other psychological traits. But even the late Eldon Wonderlic’s test is being criticized, this time by a woman who doesn’t believe it measures what it’s supposed to measure.

She happens to be Wonderlic’s daughter, 71-year-old Kathy Kolbe, and she also happens to be trying to market her own IQ test, The Kolbe, to supplement her father’s work.

NFL scouts say everything at the Scouting Combine is just a piece of the puzzle and they’re right. The problem is too often team’s see size and speed and strength (or the lack of it) and give those elements emphasis over what game films tell them.

The elementary issue is one that doesn’t necessarily make for good TV and can’t be measured.

Can a player show the maturity, professionalism, instincts, desire and attention to fundamentals to be a valuable part of a championship team?

I mean, except for those waist benders.

[Cam Newton image: © Gene Lower/ZUMA Press/Corbis]

WORKOUT WARRIORS OF FAME AND MISFORTUNE

Mike Mamula. The Boston College defensive end’s workout in 1995 was legendary — 38 inch vertical, reportedly 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic. It vaulted him from possible third-round pick to seventh overall by the Eagles, who traded a first and two seconds to get him. He played just 77 career games with the Eagles.
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Tony Mandarich. Sports Illustrated declared him the best offensive line prospect ever. Ran a 4.65 at 315 pounds. Had a 30-inch vertical jump. And, as we found out, a serious steroid problem.
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Ryan Leaf. Big, strong arm, out of shape. Failed to show up for a meeting with the Colts, who had to “settle” for Peyton Manning. That didn’t stop the Chargers from taking him second and ruing the day they did so. One of the great busts in history.
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Matt Jones. The Jaguars fell in love with his speed and converted him to wide receiver, even though he played quarterback at Arkansas, when he ran a 4.3 in the 40. Drug issues combined with drops on the field have dominated the conversation about him.
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Akili Smith. Oregon quarterback who had scouts raving about his arm. Somehow scored a 37 on the Wonderlic after allegedly scoring 12 first time he took it. Big-time bust for the Bengals with five career TDs and 13 interceptions.
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Joey Harrington. Oregon QB had a great Combine workout despite being sick. The Lions took the bait and picked him third overall. Had only one season with more TD passes than INTs.
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Mike Williams. Strong workout led Lions to take him 10th overall in 2005, third year in a row they drafted a wide receiver. Major disappointment only now on the rebound.
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Darrius Heyward-Bey. Oakland took the bait this time (see, it’s not always the Lions). After Heyward-Bey ran a 4.30 and turned in a 40-inch vertical jump, the Raiders made him the seventh overall pick. He’s had 35 catches in two seasons.
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Kyle Boller. An SI.com Classic Combine Story. Wowed scouts by throwing 50 yard passes. From his knees. First-round pick of the Ravens. Career: 48 TDs, 49 INTs.
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Jarron Gilbert. This isn’t a Combine story as such. But so what. He became a YouTube sensation when he showed his strength and athleticism by jumping out of the shallow end of a pool. Was drafted in the third round of the draft by the Chicago Bears. One career tackle (Not sure whether it was a Dolphin).

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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