INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL Scouting Combine really needs someone like Seth MacFarlane.
Or Amy Poehler and Tina Fey; they make everything more palatable. Billy Crystal's shtick would play well. The combine needs someone funny, likeable, and glamorous to smooth over the slow stretches. Any celebrity comic will do, really, except Ricky Gervais.
Like everything else the NFL does, the combine has become a spectacle for fan consumption, but the NFL still tries to project the veneer of a wonky trade show for insiders, even as it televises every relevant moment and 97.9 percent of the irrelevant ones. Like an awards show, the public iceberg-tip of the combine is a parade of talking heads (and running legs) talking politely about last year's accomplishments and positioning themselves for future opportunities.
If the whole event is an awards show, why not go whole hog and present awards? Sure, a first-round draft selection is a fine award, but those are not awarded for another two months, and they are more like boffo box office rewards than what the NFL seeks from its combine infotainment. The league should give awards for recognition of artistic achievement in the category of providing offseason distractions.
That's why I have created my own Combine Awards. I call them the Forties. The name references the Combine's most famous and mostly useless drill, the 40-yard dash, as well as the urge to drink lots of malt liquor that results from a week of nonstop coverage.
With no MacFarlane available to televise the Forties, recognition in Mandatory Monday will have to do.
Best Actor: Jim Harbaugh, head coach, San Francisco 49ers. At turns funny, contentious, and incomprehensible, the Harbaugh press conference has become the highlight of the combine. Harbaugh expressed his boredom at brother-versus-brother rehash questions ("Yeah, I've talked to him," was the full response to one sibling rivalry question; "No" was another) then got downright snippy when asked if the 49ers would be more active with 14 picks in this year's draft than they were with seven picks last year. "Uh, I think you can certainly assume that it would. You're comparing to last year? Seven picks last year? To say we'd be more active in the draft this year wouldn't get going out on a limb by saying we'll be more active this draft. I think that's true."
Once he got the anger out of his system, Harbaugh began quoting Judge Judy and Ronald Reagan, explained that he lacks the ability to know somebody simply by looking them in the eye and provided a new catch phrase for how to approach all facets of life, but particularly future Harbaugh press conferences: "It's a new day today, and paws on the ground, and we're attacking it with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind." Go get 'em, Tiger.
Best Original Screenplay: Manti Te'o, linebacker, Notre Dame. Yes, Te'o was a little scripted. He was a little rehearsed. But he was not defensive or evasive, and he answered questions with aplomb and good humor. Combine watchers are no strangers to the tightly managed press conference, and while there were moments that recalled Cam Newton reading a prepared speech, there was also candor. His reminder of the human toll caused by overzealous coverage of a victimless scandal (his parents having to sneak into their own homes, the strange stares he received in grocery stores) turned the focus back on us for a moment, and every great screenplay prompts some introspection. When Te'o said that he wanted to put the past behind him and focus on football, no one doubted his sincerity for a moment.
More on Te'o later.
Best Performance, Comedy: Chance Warmack, Guard, Alabama. Warmack is an out-of-control tractor-trailer on the field and a one-liner machine off the field. His best exchange of the combine came when a reporter asked how his parents came up with the name Chance. "It came from a movie. My mom and my dad went to see a movie and the main character was named Chance," Warmack said. Yes, but which movie? "I don't know. I wasn't there. I wasn't born yet."
Honorable mention for comic performance goes to Ziggy Ansah, the African-born BYU pass rusher whose deep, quiet voice and short answers concealed a deadpan wit. Here's Ansah describing the his homeland, spoken with a slight accent but no inflection: "It's pretty much the same as here, except it's all Africans, black folks, and all white people in Utah."
Best Wardrobe: Bruce Arians, Head Coach, Arizona Cardinals. Arians upset perennial frontrunner Thomas Dimitroff of the Falcons by wearing a raspberry beret, the kind you find in a second-hand store. Arians looked like the typical Best Foreign Language Film winner, a venerable French New Wave auteur whose lifelong explorations of the depths of ennui make him ideally suited to coach the Arizona Cardinals.
Arians also delivered one of the combine's best quips when he joked that the Cardinals would solve their quarterback dilemma by seeing whether cornerback Patrick Peterson could throw the ball. At least, we hope it was a quip. Please, for the love of all that is sacred, let that have been a quip.
Best Action Movie Hero: Luke Marquardt, Offensive Tackle, Azusa Pacific. Every combine includes a few dozen players who look like action figures. At 6-foot-8 and 315 pounds, sculpted from titanium alloys and advanced polymers, Marquardt stands out from the muscular pack, a guy who leaped from the boss level of a video game and landed at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Marquardt is a true unknown. He attended Azusa Pacific University, the NAIA program that produced Christian Okoye, another player who seemed more like the product of a video game designer's imagination than a flesh-and-blood human. Marquardt's parents were missionaries, and he initially tried out for basketball before coaches convinced him to try football. Game film of Marquardt is hard to come by, but he benched 225 pounds 31 times (the bench press does not matter much, but good heavens) and he looks the part of an NFL lineman. Or a Bond villain.
Honorable mention for Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner, whose German accent would best be suited for an action movie in the 1980s. Werner gravitated toward football because "it's such a man's game," though he also admitted that he learned a lot about football by playing "Madden," and button mashing is not particularly virile. After 25 reps on the bench press, however, it is clear that he is here to pump us up.
Best Special Effect: Making the Bounty Scandal Disappear. No one from the Saints spoke at the combine. The Titans, who hired Bounty Scandal point man Gregg Williams a few weeks ago, were not listed on the schedule, but general manager Ruston Webster and coach Mike Munchak were suddenly announced early on Thursday, while other (more famous) executives were speaking. Williams himself was in Nashville. These are not the droids you are looking for, and the scandal that defined the 2012 offseason is locked away forever in the 2012 offseason.
Best Mumblecore Performance: Tyler Bray, Quarterback, Tennessee. Quarterbacks are expected to be well-spoken and a little charismatic. Leadership and public relations are both part of the job, after all. Even when the content of a quarterback's interview leaves something to be desired (like Geno Smith blaming his midseason slump on West Virginia's travel schedule), he's supposed to carry himself with an air of conviction.
Which brings us to Bray, quarterback for the shoegaze era. Bray's non-quotable quotes deserve a font all their own when printed: Slacker Sans Serif. "I feel I'm ready. I've done a lot in college, didn't win a lot of ball games, but I put up some pretty good numbers for the SEC." Bray's entire press conference was a series of grunts, sighs and pauses, punctuated by vaguely muttered clichés. Many players, especially non-quarterbacks, are obviously shy (like Ansah), but few look and sound as much like sixth-graders giving a poorly researched presentation on the Dewey Decimal System as Bray.
Bray could turn into Vince Lombardi in the huddle and the locker room, of course. But he came to the combine to shake a reputation for immaturity, so it could not have hurt his cause to stop slouching and speak up a bit.
Best Hair and Makeup: Les Snead, General Manager, Rams. It's frosted. It's feathered. It's windswept, even indoors. Snead's hair has its own Twitter feed, @LesSneadHair, and more personality than the Rams organization had from 2008 to 2011. Snead's hair is ready for prime time, or at least ready for commercials selling upscale convertibles, and he may have said something substantive, but it is hard to hear what his mouth is saying when his scalp is screaming "mousse."
Thomas Dimitroff is a perennial favorite in this category as well. He has become the Susan Lucci of the Forties.
Media Room Achievement Award: William Carroll, ProPlayerInsiders.com. Carroll earned the media room nickname "Long Question Guy" for his distinctive interview style. Most of us grunt and stammer out nearly incoherent questions (then criticize players for mumbling; see above), but Carroll holds forth like Socrates in the Athenian marketplace.
A typical Carroll question, directed at Falcons coach Mike Smith: "Coach, obviously, you hope that Tony Gonzalez comes back. And everyone who loves football hopes that Tony Gonzalez comes back. But, we know you may have to … the word 'replace' can't be used … 'fill' his position. Prototypes. You had a prototype tight end. You have things you are looking for now. What are the non-negotiables? What do you have to have in the guy who has the unenviable task of filling his spot?"
Carroll's unique questions put coaches and players off their droning game at times; Smith responded to the Gonzalez question by calling tight ends the queens of the chess board, which isn't the kind of thing you normally hear in response to a Gonzo catch good, we like, how you replace? question.
Carroll told me before the Te'o press conference that he planned to ask Te'o a football-related question, though he never got the opportunity. Te'o would probably have appreciated the question. And we would all still be there.
Best Beard: Travis Frederick, Offensive Tackle, Wisconsin. Steelers defender Brett Keisel shaved his iconic facial muskrat nest a few weeks ago. Fredrick arrives just in time to provide chinstrap habitat for a new generation of rodents.
Best Cinematography: The Press Pool. A rumor swept through the media center that Te'o would speak sometime in the noon hour on Saturday, and by 12:15 p.m. at least 120 reporters and cameramen surrounded Podium C. Reporters started taking pictures of the press pool, then started taking pictures of other reporters taking pictures, then … you get the idea. If you follow 20 NFL writers on Twitter, you were buried under an avalanche of 200 pictures of reporters, by reporters, on Saturday afternoon. Sorry.
As a cloud of self-conscious despair descended on dozens of highly trained, talented experts staring at an empty podium and waiting for a 22-year old to talk about a meaningless scandal, the NFL spread the word that Te'o would not speak for at least another three hours. No one moved for several minutes, as the press pool met the news with skepticism and a little despair, which for weeks has been the default reaction to all Te'o news.
Best Short Subject: Marquise Goodwin, Wide Receiver, Texas. The 40-yard dash is slightly more meaningful for wide receivers, who are actually required to sometimes run 40 yards in a straight line, than for other players. Watching guys run sprints against the clock in compression gear is not the most compelling television in the world, but have you channel surfed on Sunday morning recently? Goodwin burned up the track at 4.27 seconds. Tavon Austin of West Virginia was nearly as fast, at 4.34 seconds. Imagine how much fun it would have been to see them run against each other, instead of a few minutes apart.
If you missed the sprints because you were eating breakfast or living a fulfilling life or blinking, don't worry: They will be replayed endlessly, and they don't take long.
Most Meaningless Moment: Chance Warmack, Guard, Alabama. It is hard to pick just one of the thousands and thousands of meaningless moments of the last four days, but Warmack's 40-yard dash provided the least interesting data point in the history of mathematics. Warmack ran a 5.49 second 40-yard dash, which was slow, but no one cares.Womack weighed in at 317 pounds of ornery gristle, and he ran with such a seismic four-on-the-floor style that he could have plowed three 260-pound men into the track along the way and still finished the dash in 5.49 seconds.
Scouts and coaches probably wrote down his time, then ripped the page from their notebooks and threw it away, then threw away their notebooks. The only way Warmack could only have hurt himself in the 40-yard dash if he literally hurt himself in the 40-yard dash.
Lifetime Achievement Award: Rex Ryan, Head Coach, New York Jets. The lifetime achievement award is always given to someone who was once vibrant and relevant, but is past his creative prime. It goes to someone who we fear we may not get another chance to honor. Ryan's days of one liner and Super Bowl guarantees are long gone. As Thursday's Darrelle Revis Aria revealed, he is now embattled and wallowing in self-indulgence, like so many interesting directors before him. Ryan will not give combine press conferences when he is a defensive coordinator, and those days are coming soon. If this year's performance is any indication, his peak is already behind him.
The biggest non-story in NFL history is no longer a story. Manti Te'o did not provide many answers on Saturday, but he provided closure. He is weary of his story. We are weary of his story. You are weary of his story. He gave us something wonderful: nothing to talk about.
No one knew when the Te'o's press conference would actually take place on Saturday. That left many of us on Te'o stakeout duty. The NFL invited writers to watch combine workouts live, but warned that it was a 90 minute commitment, and that the Te'o press conference, like time itself, waits for no one.
Only a handful of us chose to play Te'o Roulette by watching the live drills. We sat in a club box in Lucas Oil Stadium and watched offensive linemen who might as well have been in Bloomington. We were not allowed to take videos or use social media, even though the videos would be of Bigfoot quality at that distance, and it is hard to tweet when you cannot even identify the player. Wow, OL18 looked great in that mirror drill. No, wait, that was OL16. Did anyone bring a list? No? Oh well. Wait, you say that OL16 is Eric Fisher of Central Michigan? No wonder he looked great: He is graded as a first-round pick. Where did you get that information? Ah, you went into the hallway and watched the television feed. That figures.
The live workout access ended just in time for the Great Te'o False Alarm, when more than a hundred of us gathered at Podium C, based on an erroneous report, and sat around. Several veterans said that the crowd easily trumped the Tim Tebow 2010 crowd; one distinguished reporter estimated that there were 30 percent more reporters on hand for Te'o than for Tebow. Forty years from now, many people will think they were the same person.
One colleague turned to me and asked, "Do you even have a question?" I admitted that I didn't. I was a Lookie Lou, like one of the townies who shows up for the open house when the mansion on the hill goes up for sale. I was not alone. A few other reporters admitted to me that they were not obligated to write stories; they just wanted to be there just to be part of the scene. Few of us had the stomach to go put paws in the ground and attack with enthusiasm, as Jim Harbaugh might say. There would be no hyper-parsing, no asking why this public statement didn't gibe with that one, no Marianas Trench dives into the young man's psyche or sex life. Most of us just wanted to watch ourselves watch. That's where we were, mentally: past the point of Te'o fatigue, in the giddy place where you make a situation crazier just to see how crazy you can make it.
Oh, and the jokes. We sat and watched an empty podium. A colleague sauntered up. "Hey, I see that Te'o's girlfriend is giving her press conference first!"
A colleague sauntered up. "Hey, I see that Te'o's girlfriend is giving her press conference first!"
A colleague sauntered up.
This is the Te'o hoax legacy. He will get drafted pretty early, earn a starting job and settle into life as a solid NFL linebacker, the kind that makes the Pro Bowl as an alternate in his good years. Five years from now, he will intercept a pass in a playoff game, and for each of us who tweets that he made a fine play, a dozen internet cutups will reply, "I'll bet his invisible girlfriend is thrilled," by that point forgetting all the details of the story, which admittedly we never really knew, anyway. (A few may even get mixed up and make Tebow jokes.) The jokes are already long past warmed over. By the draft, they will be blackened, moldy little bricks.
You have read all you want to read about Te'o by now. Dozens of us churned out sturdy, honest, accurate descriptions of the event, all of us straining for an angle that had not been sanded down by weeks of grainy spin. These final Te'o hoax stories were more like sighs than the hyperventilation of January, and it was a pleasure to return to normal breathing. What at first sounded suspicious, hilarious, tawdry and mysterious turned out to be a boring, baffling byproduct of the combustible mixture of accelerated technology, post-adolescent awkwardness and the manufactured sports mythmaking that makes us complicit in whatever guilt we choose to assign.
Every Te'o story filed since Saturday, including this one, is a 1,000-word expansion on two ideas: 1) There was nothing to see here; and 2) A whole lot of us gathered to watch it.