INDIANAPOLIS -- Move over Sochi. Look out Winter Olympics. The 2014 NFL Combine, third biggest event on the league's annual calendar, begins here this week as 335 pro football hopefuls go for the gold as they obediently genuflect to impress discerning decision-makers from every team.
This provocative preamble to the annual player draft has propelled itself into a lofty attraction that trails only the Super Bowl and the draft itself among the NFL's glitzy array of productions that inevitably become must-see-TV for fans who pretend to be in the know.
Each year expectations are heightened by a new set of combine subplots.
This year the list includes curiosity about:
--The insane athleticism of South Carolina 6-foot-5, 274-pound defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
--The ability of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam to cope with the pressure associated with his coming out as gay two weeks ago.
--The size and strength of Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, rated in this year's quarterback class by NFLDraftScout.com ahead of Central Florida's Blake Bortles and Texas A&M's dynamic and controversial Johnny Manziel, who said this week he will not throw at the event.
The list is as long as curiosity is deep, and with more than 500 media outlets attending the event in addition to wall-to-wall coverage by NFL Network, curiosity will be significant.
This is more than even the NFL ever dreamed it would be.
Ironically, this is all an unintended consequence of an event originally created to address real needs in an efficient manner. Back in the 1980s, coaches and scouts wanted to streamline the cost and process of medical exams for hundreds of draft-worthy college football players.
"In 1981, we invited 125 players to Tampa Bay to take medicals," recalled Ken Herock, who was then in personnel with the Buccaneers, one of the teams working with National Scouting, an early version of today's National Football Scouting co-op.
"But my Tampa Bay staff put it together, from picking up the players, setting up hotels, exams, everything," he said. "The next year we thought as long as we had the players there for medical exams, let's put them through some workouts. But I saw right away this was getting big -- although I never dreamed how big it would get -- and I didn't want our staff responsible for that every year. So we found an initial home in New Orleans and National Scouting took control of the whole thing."
And Herock admits the "whole thing" has become so massive, replete with a cottage industry of experts who prepare players, that the combine has become a mocking caricature of itself. Players appear better, sometimes much better, than they should in every task thanks to focused training. So results are somewhat devalued.
Herock should know. As founder of ProPrep in 2002, Herock personally coaches 80 athletes a year. His specialty is the interview, where athletes, many rough-around-the edges players with a history of felonies or drug problems, are taught how to handle themselves when discussing these difficult issues.
"My goal is to get a player drafted higher than he might be otherwise by getting him ready for everything from a handshake, to drawing a play on the board, to answering a tough question about drugs or legal problems," Herock said. "I helped get kids drafted higher than they otherwise would. Really, some maybe shouldn't have been drafted. When teams first realized what was happening they were upset. But they have adjusted."
Herock is only one of many experts tutoring players in all aspects of the combine, including running, jumping and even psychological tests.
So, against that background, with about 80 percent of them expertly trained, players begin arriving Wednesday and will undergo thorough medical evaluations, psychological exams, intense eyeball-to-eyeball interrogations, and then go through a series of physical tasks designed to quantify their athletic prowess in running, jumping and lifting.
The stated goal is to somehow use the results of all this to determine the proper order in which to select these recent college stars in the 79th annual NFL Draft May 8-10. Or to see how certain players may best fit certain franchises, or not, despite the fact most coaches and scouts from those franchises insist they learned all they needed to know about these players by watching them ply their craft in college.
"The combine is not meant to totally evaluate the athlete as a player, but rather just get more data on him," Herock says. "Still, although coaches and scouts say they know all they need to know by watching guys play the game in college, you can see every year that some minds are changed by a 40 time or a vertical jump or something."
Something like an interview.