INDIANAPOLIS -- Welcome to Day Two of the NFL Slushing Combine. The winter storm that dumped massive amounts of snow across the Midwest only nicked Indy, proof that Roger Goodell is still working the kinks out of his weather wand. If the wand worked properly, the storm would have avoided Indiana altogether instead of dumping a few inches of gray ice onto the streets. Goodell has only 11 months to perfect the wand before the New Jersey Super Bowl -- an ice storm can be more devastating to the George Washington Bridge and New Jersey Turnpike than snow. But frozen glop matters little in the lull between Rex Ryan's Revis Rants and Te'o Time. The NFL has a captive audience, and that audience's feet are cold.
Coaches, Executives and Deep Thinkers
Falcons Fill Draft Board, Chess Board. A report that the Falcons would release Michael Turner helped shake off the winter doldrums, and Falcons coach Mike Smith took the podium a few minutes later to provide something far short of a denial of the report or vote of confidence for his aging running back. "This time of the year, there's tough decisions that have to be made. We're recalibrating our roster as we speak … Michael's under contract right now, and we'll continue to go through the process of how we recalibrate it." Recalibration, in other words, is the new downsizing.
Smith had better news about Tony Gonzalez, who is contemplating retirement. Smith said he has spoken to Gonzalez, and will speak with him again "sooner than later," opening the door for a return. Smith then talked at length about Gonzalez's contribution to the tight end position. "He was really the first one: the more athletic tight end who could extend from the formation, line up outside, line up in different places," he said. "In a chess game, the tight end position is becoming the queen. You can move it all around the board. It's not like the rook or the bishop." The hard-hitting world of football is often compared to the gentle, sedate, non-physical world of chess, but in the playoffs that metaphor is usually applied to the Falcons defense.
If Smith sounded ready for one night in Bangkok, general manager Thomas Dmitroff sounded ready to visit another exotic location when he called the combine "a pseudo pilgrimage to Mecca." Like Smith, Dimitroff was cautiously hopeful that Gonzalez would reconsider retirement. "Tony's an anomaly. When you see him walk out onto the field, a 36 year old, he looks like he's 25 … we're hoping that he makes his decision to come back and play for us."
Dimitroff laughed when a reporter suggested that the Falcons park a trailer in Gonzalez's driveway so he cannot escape. It is a bad idea anyway. First, that won't help when someone is contemplating retirement, as opposed to free agency (he can stay home all he wants). Second, Dimitroff is an environmentally conscious guy who talks of pseudo-pilgrimages to World Heritage sites. There is no way he owns a trailer.
Dimitroff did warm the hearts of math lovers everywhere when he confirmed the importance of analytic tools for player evaluations. "Statistical analysis is very big when you are assessing talent on the field," he said. "I believe every team in the National Football League right now is aware and cognizant of the proper use of analytics." The "numbers geek" stereotype is starting to exist exclusively in the minds of talk-radio callers and a select number of former general managers.
Your Moment of Metaphysics. Packers general manager Ted Thompson provided the quote of the draft when he explained why he talks about offseason plans in the vaguest terms, not only to the media but to former friends who work for other teams. "We have friends in different positions like the ones I talked about -- John Schneider [Seahawks], John Dorsey [Chiefs] and Reggie McKenzie [Raiders] -- there's conversations going on so you kind of bounce things off, but nobody really tells the truth. So you have to discern what's truth and what's the untruth and what's the truth that he's trying to get me to buy into so I'll believe the untruth. It's all a mess." The reason food portions at Indy restaurants are so huge (I ordered bacon macaroni and cheese on Thursday and it was served in a Dutch oven) is so NFL execs can stuff their faces non-stop, lest they spill a team secret to a former friend. It's not paranoia when everyone really is trying to get Greg Jennings from you.
Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind. Jim Harbaugh stepped into the Rex Ryan "headliner" position on the Friday schedule -- a few coaches spoke after him, but no one listened to them. The public address announcer called him "Jim Harbeaux" twice, perhaps to throw the quote-happy throngs off the scent, perhaps in recognition of the Canadian influence seeping through the NFL, from wider fields to mobile quarterbacks to Marc Trestman. Harbaugh gave the proceedings a much-needed deathcore metal edge, rapidly spouting motivational wisdom about his players' need to keep "paws in the ground and attacking with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind" without any context or provocation.
Harbaugh was asked about the importance of honesty in a draft prospect, a question that marked the press pool's plant-and-pivot toward Manti Te'o's Flying Circus on Saturday. Harbaugh said that honesty is important, but he said it Harbaugh-style. "I'm a big fan of Judge Judy," he said. "If you lie in Judge Judy's courtroom, it's over." Harbaugh backed up his Judge Judy wisdom with Ronald Reagan's "trust but verify" quote. Harbaugh coaches like a tough guy but references pop culture like a 77-year old shut-in. He did not sound too worried about truths others are trying to get him to buy into so he will believe untruths.
Quarterbacks with Questions and Gurus
The Doors of Perception. Friday is quarterback day, and every quarterback in this year's class is trying to answer questions. For fleet-footed, Tebow-armed Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, those questions are: Are you sure you can play quarterback? Positive? Absolutely positive? "That's my heart, and I know I have the tools to do that," Klein said. "I'm going to pursue every door that I can to play quarterback, and until those doors are closed I'm not going to consider anything else." When you think about it, the Canadian border is like a giant door.
Klein is working with former Cardinals and Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer on making his throwing style more NFL-feasible. "We're working on everything," Klein said of Plummer."We're working on keeping my front shoulder closed, and always making sure my feet are in the right spot." Combine followers are used to the Inverse Quarterback Paradox: The worst quarterbacks often make the best quarterback gurus, just as great baseball managers are pulled from the ranks of bullpen catchers. Former Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke is one of the best quarterback whisperers in the business; he has been working with Zac Dysert ( Miami of Ohio) this offseason. Plummer was a fine quarterback for several years, but he was known for his arm, legs and guts, not his technical precision. Then again, Klein's delivery needs all the help it can get. Seven years from now, some prospect will tell us that he is improving under the tutelage of John Skelton, and we won't blink.
A later report stated that Klein will work out with the tight ends this week. Every door that closes is another one that opens, to a locker, where a uniform No. 88 is hanging.
Making the Option Pitch. Remember when option passers had to answer questions about how they would adjust to a pro-style offense, way back in 2011 or so? Nowadays, pro-style quarterbacks must answer questions about how they can adjust to the option.
Ryan Nassib started for three years in a variation of the West Coast offense (with a little option seasoning) at Syracuse. Hey, that's great kid, but can you be Colin Kaepernick? "I can do OK," Nassib said in response to the option question. "I'm not going to be able to pull a ball down and run for 60 [yards] like some other guys might be able to … You just make smart decisions. You can add different things onto that read zone, so maybe I don't have to run. Maybe I can throw a ball." Nassib has been working with Bengals legend Ken Anderson in the offseason. Not all quarterback mentors are Plummers.
Landry Jones of Oklahoma faces the worst of both worlds: He was predominantly a shotgun quarterback, but he rarely ran. There is no precedent for a shotgun-heavy quarterback who cannot run the option succeeding in the NFL at all. Except for Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. And Matthew Stafford. Matt Ryan, he's kind of like that. Joe Flacco works from the shotgun a lot.
Okay, let's start over: There is no trendy, buzzy quarterback who fits that profile, just some living legends, the Super Bowl champion and a handful of productive starters. Landry Jones used the Senior Bowl, and will use his workouts to prove that he can be a conventional NFL quarterback, whatever that is. "I didn't have any issues with taking the snap under center or calling plays from the huddle," Jones said of the Senior Bowl. Jones called plays at the line for the Sooners. "That was a big thing going in for me." That under-center experience will help Jones compete for a starting job in 1988.
Jones' guru is George Whitfield, the former Arena Football journeyman who tutored Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck (see Inverse Quarterback Paradox). Whitfield has Jones working on "my setup, holding the ball a little bit higher, and taking some of the extra things in my motion and scratching them out of my game." Just in case years of ESPN programming have caused confusion, quarterback development is very precise and mechanical, and these mentors do not hand young quarterbacks a football and tell them to "go be elite."
No Excuses, Except for the Following. Geno Smith played in three different college systems and runs very well, so there are few questions about his ability to adapt to the strategy of the moment. The questions about Smith involved midseason swoon in 2012: After throwing 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions in West Virginia's first six games, Smith threw 11 touchdowns (some of them at the end of lost-cause blowouts) and five interceptions during a five-game losing streak. "We started out red hot," Smith said. Then, "Inconsistency set in." It sure did, but Smith may not have been talking about his own inconsistency.
Smith offered many explanations for the losing streak, perhaps too many. The Mountaineers suffered an injury at running back (Shawne Alston, leaving them with only receiver-rusher Tavon Austin and about five other guys who can fly). Defenses began sitting back to stop the pass, making it harder to convert third downs. The Mountaineers were still acclimating to the Big 12. "It became a different league," in Smith's words. Then there was all the travel; Smith cited travel fatigue as an issue. "Not to make excuses," Smith said at the end of his list, about 200 words too late.
Smith said that he stepped up and addressed the team during the losing streak. "As the leader of the team, I have to set the bar, and lead by example." Let's hope he did not spur his peers into action by complaining about backfield injuries and airport food.
Matt Barkley of USC, who like Smith looked like a better prospect in early October than mid November, offered a simpler explanation of why his production tailed off last year. "You can't get better every single year. It's impossible to keep gaining more yards, and more yards, and more yards," he said. "There's just going to be some years where things don't go as planned." Random fluctuation makes a better scapegoat than travel fatigue, but not by much. Barkley has some tough losses to answer for, and he didn't do so by becoming the first prospect in history to throw statistical volatility under the bus.
Barkley had other issues to address beyond his inconsistent November performance. He is still recovering from a separated shoulder, and he will not be able to throw until USC's pro day. Barkley said that he is on schedule, that doctors now permit him to throw without supervision, and that he is working with the medical staff that brought Sam Bradford and Drew Brees back from injuries. Barkley delivered the best deadpan response of Friday when asked how he would respond to critics who say he lacks an NFL arm. "I would disagree," he said.
Barkley also told a whopper when asked if he felt comfortable playing in cold weather. "I love the weather here in Indy!" the California native said as slate-gray ice pellets howled down from the sky outside.
Loves Indy weather? Talk about an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. Remember Jim Harbaugh, Ted Thompson and Judge Judy, Matt. Honesty is the best policy, and no amount of truth will get us to buy into the untruth.