The assignment came in code on a slip of paper that had to be eaten immediately after the message was translated and memorized.

Covering the NFL's annual scouting combine was like being dropped out of an unmarked cargo plane behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s. It was like having your editor send you to do a breezy little feature on life with the local mob boss.

For a week every February, the RCA Dome in downtown Indianapolis became the most secure spot on Earth. The only people allowed inside were the 300 or so college football players invited to work out, plus accredited coaches, scouts and front-office employees of the various NFL teams. That was it.

A media member who penetrated the perimeter was subject to instant vaporization. You had a better chance of getting into the Manhattan Project offices and asking J. Robert Oppenheimer about trigger devices than you had of seeing a senior tailback from New Mexico State run a 40-yard dash in his skivvies inside that dome.

The first combine I covered was 10 years ago. I checked into my hotel and walked over to the hotel connected to the dome. I was glared at by everyone I passed. There wasn't another reporter in sight. All of the chairs had been removed from the lobby because the NFL didn't want to encourage snooping reporters to hang around there. If we had to stand, the league reasoned, we might just go ahead and walk out.

And that's just what the NFL wanted. See, what went on inside that dome - the sprints, the shuttle drills, the interviews, the bench presses - was so important, so secretive that your retinas would burst into flames if you caught so much as a glimpse of it.

At least that's the way the league behaved. Way back in the days before it had its own full-time television network, that is.

And now? Now that the NFL Network is up and running and desperately competing with American Idol and CSI: Wherever for viewers' eyeballs?

In high-def, no less

Voila! Beginning tomorrow, you can watch 27 hours of live combine coverage in high-definition over a four-day period! The NFL is introducing Cablecam, which will hover over the field and move from drill to drill. Graphics will show the "leaders" in each of the league's evaluation drills.

So how does this happen? How does the NFL go from Garbo's "I vant to be alone" to Lady Godiva on high-def horseback? And what does it all mean?

It means two things. It means the NFL was full of baloney before, and it means the NFL is just as full of baloney now.

For a longtime observer of the league, the NFL Network has been a fascinating development. Not for the programming itself, but for what it says about the NFL mind-set. For decades, the league held the media in utter contempt. Practices were closed. Coaches were as likely to break into the Duke's aria from Rigoletto as reveal anything meaningful in a news conference. The media used to have to stand outside Veterans Stadium every day on the off chance the Eagles brought in a free agent.

Now the NFL is its own media outlet. It covers itself on TV and on the Web. Just like that, the doors are wide open. Coaches carry themselves like morning TV hosts. Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson, the kind of player the NFL used to try to fine into submission, now pops up in promos all over the NFL Network. Bad is good. Down is up.

The combine - the sacred, secret combine - is a reality show.

Just think ...

It's too bad this came along so late. It would have been something to watch Mike Mamula turn himself into the seventh pick of the 1995 draft with his legendary combine performance or to see where Rich Kotite was standing when Antone Davis was doing agility drills.

Oh, well. Maybe when NFL Network Classic Combine Channel debuts.

My first exposure to the televised combine came last year, by accident. I was channel surfing and landed on video of young men running sprints, with the elapsed time superimposed on the screen. It took a moment to recognize the NFL-issued shirts that identify players by number and position (example: WR-23 for the 23d wide receiver on the alphabetical list).

It was the combine, and man, was it boring. Not just bad-sitcom boring, but poke-out-your-own-eyes-with-a-pen boring. This is what the league was hiding? The NFL draft, the dullest event on the annual TV sports calendar, looks like Tom Brady's love life compared to the combine.

So this year, I'm going to make sure I'm not tempted to watch any of the coverage. I'm taking all the sofas and chairs out of the living room. The NFL would approve.

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