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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.

Filed in: History and Biography, Science and Medicine Tags: , , , , ,

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