INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL Scouting Combine is a lot like a music festival. The weather typically stinks. The featured acts appear on a main stage in ascending order of popularity. There are also side stages, where your college roommate claims all the "good bands" are, but which are usually reserved for square pegs, niche performers and the Tennessee Titans. There are moments of excitement and long stretches of boredom. No one person can take in it all, and no sane person would want to.
At this music festival, Rex Ryan is Bruce Springsteen. No one in their right mind goes on stage after Bruce Springsteen.
"Let's get it on," Ryan said to the dozens of media members in the audience at the start of his press conference, but his rock star bluster was muted. Ryan is trying out darker material from his new "Revis on the Edge of Town" album, including the 10 minute and 24 second opus "The Trade Rumors are False, but We Still Might Entertain Offers."
Ryan held forth for roughly the length of "Jungleland" about his disgruntled superstar cornerback. "There's no validity to that trade," Ryan said of the rumors of a Darrelle Revis trade that flared up just hours after John Idzik became the Jets' general manager. "I don't know where things like that get drummed up from. Maybe somebody is a big fan of a certain team, and is playing fantasy football, and would like to have him on their team."
Ryan's new material lacks the internal cohesion of classics like "Guaranteed Super Bowls I, II and III." Playing fantasy football and being a fan of a certain team are totally different concepts, and cornerbacks have almost no impact on fantasy football. Ryan quickly undercut the finality of his "no validity" remarks but admitting that the team might entertain trade offers. "To sit back and say, 'oh, absolutely not. We're not going to do it … I'm not going to say this player or that player, but if you've got Jim Brown in that trade, we would probably look into it."
It's a slippery slope from Jim Brown to Kirk Cousins and a second-round pick. The it's our job to entertain any offer shtick is standard press conference boilerplate, but since when has Ryan been standard? Vintage Ryan would have said that Revis was worth more to him than Jim Brown and Jack Lambert combined, then guaranteed three Super Bowls and taken a shot at the Patriots. Late-career Ryan was forced to endure five more minutes of Revis-parsing questions.
Idzik was supposed to speak after Ryan, but the organizers flipped the order because they know a warmup act when they see one. Idzik said the Revis situation shocked him because of "the magnitude of a story which I didn't think was that big." The Jets can turn Chaz Schilens into a controversial character; a general manager does not stand a chance. Idzik referred to being "in a bunker" several times when discussing team meetings, so the non-stop siege mentality of the Jets is growing on him.
Idzik endured nine minutes of Revis questions, ending long assurances with puzzling equivocations, but without Ryan's gift for quips. "We have always wanted Darrelle as part of our team. That hasn't changed," Idzik said. "There have been rumors or stories published, and it's hard for me or anyone in our organization to speculate or respond to all the stories that we hear." Then, after more soothing noises: "We've always had internal discussions about how we can improve our team day to day, position by position … There's a lot of 'what ifs' that we will be discussing."
This went on and on. We don't plan to trade Revis. We like Revis. But we listen to all trade offers, including those about Revis. And we sometimes talk internally about trading anyone and everyone, even Revis. But the specific trade rumor you heard was false. We do not understand why Revis would find this message confusing.
The Jets, once a tight ensemble (at the podium if not on the field), have become a jam band.
New Kid in Town. The main opening act for Revispalooza was an Eagles reunion, with new Eagles coach Chip Kelly taking the podium just before new Chiefs coach (and former Eagles coach) Andy Reid. Kelly's new coach honeymoon interview was nearly derailed by some members of the Browns media pool, who asked why Kelly had a hard time choosing between the Eagles and University of Oregon but was able to easily remove the Browns from his job search. "It wasn't an elimination of anything. I just thought Philly was the best fit." The follow-up question: Why wasn't Cleveland also a good fit? It was a clingy ex-girlfriend moment. What did we do wrong? Come out and say that she's prettier! Kelly just mumbled the "good fit" remark again and waited for the Michael Vick questions.
The Michael Vick questions came, and Kelly would not comment on a crowded quarterback roster that currently includes Vick, Nick Foles, Dennis Dixon (Kelly's college quarterback five years ago, recently signed from the Ravens practice squad) and, heck, even Trent Edwards. "I'm not a predictor of how it's going to work," Kelly said, reiterating his "no predictions" mantra every time the quarterbacks came up. Kelly was as sketchy about the past as the future. He has only spoken to most Eagles players by phone and has only watched cut-ups of their games. That makes it hard to say anything definite. "Part of making the decisions is meeting with the players" to learn their work habits and personalities, Kelly said. "I'm really excited for when that opportunity comes up." Combine teachable moment: actually meeting your players is important to coaching.
Kelly said that many decisions will have to be made by the personnel department, because he will not get to know the players in time to make informed judgments. He also said that he is not a "money guy" when asked about cap matters. As for the Oregon playbook that became his calling card, Kelly said it's a matter of "what we feel on this level we can run, and what's going to fit." He plans to introduce a lot of concepts, then pare down the playbook as he gets to know his personnel, which has not happened yet. Kelly has been on the job less than six weeks, and as he spoke to an audience thick with members of the Philadelphia media, it was clear that of all the people at his press conference, he was among the least familiar with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Reid knows a thing or two about the Eagles. Unfortunately, Reid did not say anything substantive on the record about the Eagles for 14 years and was not about to start on Wednesday. He did not sound eager to break up the Eagles quarterback logjam by trading for Nick Foles. "I drafted him with Howie," Reid said, referring to Eagles GM Howie Roseman, "and Howie still likes him." Reid, in his quiet, guttural way, praised Scott Pioli, Romeo Crennel, Clark Hunt and the Eagles organization, and even managed to give John Schneider of the Seahawks a shoutout when a reporter mixed him up with Chiefs GM John Dorsey. He called the roster he inherited "a good foundation" and said vaguely positive things about the quarterbacks on his roster, the quarterbacks in the draft pool, and the level of competition in the AFC West. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine that you weren't hearing a coach coming off a 4-12 season talking about his new team, which was coming off a 2-14 season.
As a veteran Reid watcher, I can confirm that the biggest difference between Kelly and Reid at press conferences is that Kelly says nothing faster and with more vocal inflection.
The Breakfast Club. New Bears head coach Marc Trestman set the tone for the Combine Music and Art Festival at the morning's first press conference. Trestman is an interesting, dynamic guy, except at 10 a.m. on dreary February morning when standing at a podium and speaking on the record about matters that he is unready or unwilling to discuss. Trestman mentioned The Process* twice in his opening remarks, made it clear that he was not ready to discuss draft picks and only spoke in general terms about his current roster. It was the quintessential combine press conference, the kind that sparks crippling déjà vu.
*The Process is NFL-speak for the hundreds of man-hours teams spend carefully evaluating players, managing budgets and anticipating current and future needs. The Process was invoked an estimated 46,000 times on Thursday. The Process is very real, of little interest to the casual fan, and sometimes works.
Trestman is fresh from the CFL, where "the field is a mile long and a mile wide," in his words. CFL football is very different -- 12 players, three downs, something called the rouge -- but Trestman has years of NFL experience and will have no trouble erasing the 12th player from his game plans. "I don't feel behind on the X's and O's side," he said. "But certainly on the personnel side I have some work to do." Trestman has spent the last few months evaluating the Bears roster "from the inside out" and getting up to speed on who is who in the NFL after five years in Canada. Trestman sounds like he is adjusting well: Notice that he did not say that the CFL field "is 1.604 kilometers long and 1.604 kilometers wide."
The NFL has discussed the possibility of making the field wider as a safety measure. Trestman would not speculate whether a wider field would help. But if the NFL does make the switch, he said, "I've got some plays ready."
Trestman's boss, general manager Phil Emery, shed some light on the reasons behind the combine cult of secrecy. He said that he was once "jumped" in the draft by a team that knew too much about his team's intentions. "There was just too much information that that was our player," he said of the draft pick that got away. "That was an uncomfortable feeling." Emery said that, ideally, "only one or two people will know who that actual 'guy' is" that the Bears are pursuing in the draft or free agency. Hence, all of the talk about The Process, though Emery manages to walk the line between providing information and divulging secrets without saying the same word over and over.
Emery discussed the general depth of the draft at several positions. "There's a number of corners in this draft class that can play, that are going to either help teams as a one, two, or three," he said. At safety, "There are five or six starters in this class … that's rare to me." The defensive line pool is also deep in Emery's estimation, and the offensive line class has strength at the top.
As for the drills and aptitude tests of the combine, including the new Player Assessment Test, Emery has used a battery of tests for years and uses combine results to create separation among similar players."You might have about five at any position have the same grade, and that is a way that you can determine how you stack them," he said. A comprehensible peek inside The Process? We are allotted two or three per combine, no more.
Emery is among the most open and eloquent of the general managers. Jeff Ireland of the Dolphins followed him, marking a return to the status quo: "It's an information gathering process," he said of the Combine, restoring the numbing comfort that comes from repetition of those soothing syllables. Ireland did reveal that he brought the team's entire 55-person staff to Indy to maximize efficiency. "Our building is empty," he said of Dolphins headquarters. Safety tip: Never make it public knowledge that your home is unoccupied. If this were a 1980s movie, a group of fashionable-but-disparate teenagers would break into Dolphins headquarters, hold a totally awesome party and learn some lessons about growing up.
As a kind of February surprise, Titans general manager Ruston Webster and head coach Mike Munchak spoke at the second podium while Emery and Ireland commanded the first. Neither Titans representative was on the official schedule, and neither was announced as a speaker until Emery (one of the most sought-after execs in the league) and Ireland (also popular) had already began speaking. It's almost as if the NFL wanted the majority of the press pool distracted so no one would ask any challenging questions about a controversial assistant coach hire. Go figure.
The Titans, unlike the Dolphins, did not clear out team headquarters. "The defensive guys are back in Nashville now," Munchak said. "We're looking at our personnel, looking at our scheme, and seeing what we would change." Munchak said that coordinator Jerry Gray, not senior assistant/bounty scandal epicenter Gregg Williams, would call defensive plays for the Titans.
In summary, if you are looking to raid the fridge, try Miami. If you are looking for one of the most controversial figures of the last 12 months, who was quietly reinstated and hired back into a league that appears to be trying extra hard to bury the bounty scandal shovels, try Nashville.
Leave it to Schneider. Seahawks general manager John Schneider attracted only a smattering of writers. "I'm surprised there is so much room," he said of the empty seats around the podium, sounding almost disappointed. One of the NFL's greatest paradoxes is that every team is trying to imitate what Schneider and Pete Carroll have done in Seattle, and most fans would love to see their teams successfully imitate what Schneider and Carroll have done in Seattle, but no one wants to hear Schneider talk about precisely what he and Carroll have done in Seattle.
Perhaps it's because Schneider, a dogged player evaluator who can see both the big picture and the details, has joined the cult of silence. When asked for an Emery-style detailed overview of the draft, Schneider said, "To specifically not answer your question, I think it's a good group all the way through." He then added, non-specifically not helpfully, "There's a lot of nice stuff."
Schneider did say that the Seahawks would listen to trade offers for Matt Flynn, though he said Flynn and Russell Wilson are "two starting caliber guys" and that the Seahawks "really feel blessed by our situation." When asked what Wilson needs to work on, Schneider said "relaxing, taking a break." Schneider wants Wilson to enjoy some down time in the offseason. "But I guess he was in there working yesterday," Schneider said. Empty the facility and lock the doors, John. It's the Dolphins way!
Schneider was most forthright when talking about how social media has become part of the evaluation process. The Seahawks, like many teams, have security personnel monitor Twitter and Facebook for inappropriate activity by players and prospects. "It goes both ways, though," Schneider said. "There's guys on Twitter being like Eddie Haskell. They are putting out, 'Hey, I'm going to work out and it's 3:30 in the morning! That's kind of weird." Schneider, always ahead of the curve, may have discovered the next phase of employment screening: Social Media Sincerity Checks, which will prove to employers everywhere that people who act like jerks on the Internet are jerks and people who act nice are just faking it.
As Schneider spoke, draft experts under 40 years old frantically searched the Internet to determine why Eddie Haskell was not listed on any mock drafts.
Schneider may have only drawn a small audience, but something strange happened when Ryan Grigson began his press conference a few minutes after Rex Ryan's. Grigson, the architect of the Colts turnaround, was supposed to be the football equivalent of the house lights going up. But some of the Rex Ryan throng got up and headed to the side stage. There was a shuffling of feet and the rattling of cameras and sound equipment being moved. Ryan even paused for a moment. People were actually leaving the main event to see the buzzy new performer, someone whose routine was not tired or bloated, someone who quickly and quietly produced a winning season instead of an overblown reality show.
That's the difference between Springsteen and Rex Ryan. Springsteen has 35 years of headliner status, Ryan just four, and the coach's name is rapidly slipping from the top of the marquee. Also, Springsteen would never even hint about trading Darrelle Revis.