Just as Thanksgiving marks the traditional start of the end-of-year holiday season, the NFL Scouting Combine marks the start of draft season. And just as retailers like to jump the gun and put the Christmas decorations out on Sept. 8, draftniks like to get an early start. Some of them are already preparing for 2016. Saner minds are preparing for a week of press conferences, weigh-ins and drills starting on Feb. 21 and -- thanks to the reruns on NFL Network -- continuing throughout Lent.
Every combine has unique elements, but most are pretty much the same. You can set your watch by the Rex Ryan press conference stampede. Famous college players will give press conferences from podiums, less famous ones will sit at roundtables with reporters and kickers will stare wide-eyed from darkened corners until someone interviews them for the pool report, which is the journalistic equivalent of a pity dance. At night, players warily eat chicken Caesar salads at Indianapolis restaurants, knowing that the table to their left consists of beat writers and the table to their right is full of Harbaughs, and everyone will notice a second helping of fried pickles.
Combines are so predictable that there are archetypes that we can count on meeting each and every year. The names change, but these players and coaches are as reliable a part of February as the groundhog. Here are the Five People You Meet in Indy at each combine, and what they will look like this year.
Person One: The defender with great workout numbers who "takes downs off."
This young man shows up at the combine weighing 340 pounds, runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and bench presses 225-pounds until the solar calculator used to count his reps runs out of juice. He becomes the talk of the combine, and everyone wonders how he managed just half a sack in 36 college starts. Almost instinctively, all draft experts write the same scouting report. "Big and strong. Occupies double teams. Takes downs off." Then the Chiefs draft him in the first round.
Actually, the Chiefs don't always draft Person One, though they did last year, taking Dontari Poe. Poe managed zero sacks and three tackles for a loss in 16 starts. The boilerplate scouting report, meanwhile, is 100 percent accurate every time. At 340 pounds, Person One is big, and of course he is strong. Every big defensive lineman in history has been asked to occupy double teams, and has had some measure of success (assuming he kept his starting job). And everyone asked to occupy double-teams regularly "takes downs off," because it is physically impossible to remain intense for 60 snaps per game while fighting off two men only slightly smaller than you. Still, we use the "takes downs off" to suggest laziness, which is ironic when using shorthand catchphrases to quickly categorize someone.
Person One's major problem is usually not a lack of stamina or motivation, but the simple fact that it takes more than size and strength to be a first-round draft choice. The workout warrior with no collegiate sack production is often just a huge blocking sled with minimal quickness or refinement, the kind who can help plug the run but winds up on the bench during passing downs, which in the NFL are becoming most downs.
John Jenkins of Georgia is the most interesting huge defender in this draft, and his workout results will get a long look. Jenkins may not be the best fit as Person One, however, because his college tape and reputation are pretty impressive. The true Person One only shows up on the national radar after he drops the barbell. Someone like Montori Hughes of Tennessee-Martin is a better fit, and Hughes fought off a foot injury to perform well at the Senior Bowl, which will make him extra buzzy if he benches a few tons. Person One often starts off as someone you least expect. Too often, he ends up someone who makes you pull your hair out when drafted.
Person One also has an entourage: the tiny cornerback who is "scrappy" (Leon McFadden of San Diego State fits the bill this year), the tall receiver who runs a slow 40 but only shallow people worry about 40 times (Cobi Hamilton of Arkansas may fill that role this year), and so on. If no one fits a particular slot in a given draft class, we take some poor prospect and cram him in.
Person Two: The coach who trusts The Process.
The official word of the combine is "process." Most coaches say the word seven or eight times in a 20-minute press conference. The more a coach says it, the less he feels like speaking to the media, and since none of them (except Rex perhaps) want to speak to the media, the word becomes a meditative mantra.
"The Process" sounds like a self-help scam, but in reality it is the grueling player evaluation, acquisition and development cycle. It involves breaking down hundreds of hours of tape, conducting dozens of interviews, coordinating among scouting, budgeting and coaching departments, and doing lots of other detail work that is about as glamorous as what goes on in an actuarial office.
Coaches are actually at a very early stage in The Process in late February when they take 20 minutes out of their schedules to address the media on things that interest us, like free agents, rookie quarterbacks and invisible girlfriends. So coach after coach says things about rookies like, "Nassib … Nassib … He's that quarterback from Syracuse, right?" and it's not an evasion -- coaches don't watch much college tape in January or February. They watch their own team's tape, replace assistants and conceivably touch base with family members. With no firsthand knowledge of the rookies, they are left to talk vaguely about "The Process."
Some coaches mention The Process more than others: John Harbaugh and Mike Smith say it often, and Mike McCarthy is a fan. Even Rex has been known to drag it out. Tom Coughlin, ironically, is less likely to say it than most coaches, even though there are few more process-oriented people on earth. Coughlin loves The Process. But he leaves Giants general manager Jerry Reese to say nothing about it.
Person Three: The quarterback whose college record is supposed to speaks for itself.
The top quarterbacks at the combine always have glittering records: eye-popping statistics, gaudy win-loss records, bowl victories, trophies and more fame than the guys who were starting for the Browns or Cardinals by the end of last season. But some of these quarterbacks obviously peaked in college. Anyone who watched Danny Wuerffel in the NFL knows that there can be a big difference between a great college quarterback and a quality NFL quarterback.
When a college superstar with dubious NFL credentials arrives at the combine, however, he becomes part of an elaborate dance. Because he already has name recognition and a fan base, some members of the press pool (not me, I am too busy counting the number of times each coach says "process") ask leading questions to the following effect: "Even though you are 5-foot-4 and have the ball blown back in your face if you throw toward a window-unit air conditioner, don't you feel that you are being overlooked by the draft experts, and that your 45-2 win-loss record in the Directional Prairie Conference speaks for itself?"
The player, eager to defend and assert himself but mindful that he is listed 19th among quarterbacks in most draft guides for tangible reasons, says something noncommittal: "I think I have proven that I can lead a team and compete at a high level. This week will allow me to answer some questions for scouts."
If Person Three is, in fact, undersized, he will now add, "Russell Wilson was supposed to be too small, too. And look how that turned out."
It must be pointed out here that Wilson was not noteworthy enough to merit a podium interview last year. That honor went to Kellen Moore of Boise State, who won more college games than Wilson and was even shorter, making him one of the greatest Person Threes (Persons Three?) ever. At any rate, after the podium interview, many stories are filed with headlines like Person Three Says He's a Proven Leader, Will Answer Questions, then everyone cringes as this quarterback needs two bounces to reach receivers during passing drills.
This year's Person Three isn't short. He's Collin Klein, who led Kansas State to the Fiesta Bowl and was a Heisman finalist. Klein is a great fit in any offense that doesn't require a quarterback who throws quickly and accurately; at best, he's a developmental guy for a quarterbacks coach to tinker with. But he was a heck of a college player and is a great story. Doesn't his record speak for itself? No, it doesn't.
Person Four: The general manager who won't talk about free agents.
The NFL league year officially begins on 4 p.m. ET on March 12; they should really drop a ball in Times Square for it, or something. Until that moment, all 2012 contracts still apply. So while we may talk about Wes Welker as a "free agent," and while the Patriots may have no intention of keeping him (we'll see), he is still on the payroll for a few more weeks. That means other teams cannot talk to him about his intentions, and they should not talk about him, either, because a) it could be construed as tampering and b) it would let opponents know a team's free agent strategy weeks in advance.
Everyone knows this, but as soon as the first general manager hits the podium next Thursday morning, someone will ask, "Do you have any interest in Wes Welker?"
The general manager will then say, "I am not going to stand here and talk about another team's free agents." Depending on his exasperation level, that executive may outline the reasons why, just as I did two paragraphs ago. If pressed, he will utter the phrase that ranks second to "The Process" in combine ubiquity: "We evaluate everybody."
Different executives have different degrees of patience. Thomas Dimitroff of the Falcons, typically unflappable, smiles through the question and tries to phrase his answer in a way that sounds polite and quotable. Ted Thompson of the Packers, a professorial type, answers succinctly but gets a faraway look in his eyes, making you feel guilty for having asked. Patriots execs … come to think of it, I have never sat through a combine press conference with Bill Belichick or a Patriots exec. It must be a Jedi mind trick.
Despite the fact that no coach or executive (except for the Patriots' brass) can talk about Wes Welker, reporters will keep asking about Wes Welker, sometimes out of inexperience, sometimes in the vain hope that someone will slip. We offered him $80-million Tuesday, but don't tell anyone 'cuz it's a secret and we could get in trouble. The questions are wearying both for the coaches and other writers: We give the askers the heavy-duty stink eye, then wonder what happened when we find ourselves asking Ozzie Newsome about Wes Welker 45 minutes later.
Person Five: The player hoping to answer questions about his character.
Manti Te'o now speaking on podium A. Manti Te'o on podium A. (Sounds of screams as the smaller reporters are trampled.)
Te'o has Person Five locked up this year, but he follows in a proud tradition. Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett used their 2011 press conferences to answer questions about their maturity, with varying degrees of success. Last year, Michael Floyd spoke frankly about his drinking problems at Notre Dame. The combine is an opportunity for players to tell teams (and us) that the fights and DUIs are behind them, and they have learned from their mistakes. No prospect has ever used the combine to tell the NFL world that he plans to remain a cretin and lush, in part because they are coached by their agents, but mostly because success at the college level requires a few milligrams of common sense, or at least it did until Te'o.
The trick to the media interview is to sound honest and forthcoming about events from your past that are really none of our business. That can often be done by faking it. Maurice Clarett nailed his public interviews back in 2005, then quit halfway through his workouts, then went insane. Clarett was well-spoken and engaging, which goes a long way in the world, and even further at the combine. There is something to be said for the firm handshake and air of confidence, particularly for quarterbacks, whose job description includes public relations. But Dale Carnegie was not a scout. And he has been dead for 57 years.
Like Persons One through Four, Person Five is as much a media creation and a product of the combine environment as a flesh-and-blood human. The people you encounter most often during combine week are people like me: football writers who are little under-stimulated from sitting on folding chairs all day and are a little over-eager to report to you that Collin Klein is trying to prove doubters wrong and that Mike Smith wants you to trust The Process. When it comes to the fun parts of the NFL offseason, like the free agent period and the draft, we can be like kids in December. If that means we drape a little too much tinsel over Montori Hughes before anyone is ready, chalk it up to enthusiasm.