In just a few days, the NFL world will converge upon the scouting combine in Indianapolis. It will be a week-plus flurry of news after a relaxing week of college players coming out of the closet, investigators dropping 140-page reports of workplace misconduct full of the kind of language Tarantino characters use when they stub their toes and Jimmy Haslam firing anyone who got in the way of his Josh McDaniels/Greg Schiano dream coaching staff.
In other words, I cannot wait to spend 10 hours per day writing and conducting non-stop interviews, because I need the rest.
This combine promises to be like every other combine, only more so. Let's kick things off with a Q&A about how the next 10 days or so will shape up. And remember: There is no need to take guff from anyone for watching 40-yard dashes, because they are far more interesting than the freakin' luge.
Sum up how the combine will go this year.
It will be a Michael Sam circus with a few workout sessions and head coach press conferences on the fringes of the fairgrounds.
How do you think the Michael Sam press conference will go?
Sam is bright and pretty well-spoken. He will be coached on how to handle any tricky questions. That's not a knock, but a simple reality. No agent worth a percent of commission would let him step up to a podium in front of 200 reporters just days after announcing that he is gay and not give him some fallback strategies in case, say, some reporter asks him why he is an abominable sinner trying to destroy the fabric of American family life. He will handle the press conference very well, and we will write hundreds of articles about how well he handled it.
Do you think he will be asked a challenging question like that?
For the first openly gay athlete to enter the NFL, every question is a challenging question. But no, I don't expect anyone to ask anything crazy, unless the Malcolm Smith 9/11 truther guy scores another credential. The trickiest questions Sam will field from reporters may involve questions about the questions NFL teams are asking him in private. There is going to be a media-wide fishing expedition for evidence of discrimination.
Will there be evidence of discrimination? Will teams ask inappropriate questions during private interviews?
With 32 teams and four to six interviewers per team, we are talking about at least 150 individuals, mostly men in their 40s or older, doing the questioning. Something stupid or awkward is going to be said, by someone. Remember when Jeff Ireland asked Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute? Ireland is not conducting interviews this year (that would be fun/horrible, on multiple levels), but there are loose cannons, people with less-than-progressive attitudes and the occasional nitwit scattered around the league.
That said, NFL professionals are a little more professional than they are often given credit for, everyone has been drilled in the do's and don'ts of interviewing, and last year's Manti Te'o situation gave everyone a practice run about prying too deeply into personnel matters.
Now that Sam is openly gay, there won't be any of the coy "Do you have a girlfriend?" gamesmanship. I expect coaches to ask questions about how Sam deals with an opponents or teammates using derogatory language, and other (I think) legitimate questions about how Sam plans to cope with some of inevitable challenges he will face. Sam probably has good ideas and plenty of experience to draw from when he provides the answers.
What about Sam's workout performances? What does he need to run, in terms of 40 time?
Don't worry too much about Sam's 40-yard dash. He has pretty good straight-line speed, so he should clock in somewhere in the 4.7 range -- the middle of draftable territory, but not "resurrect Al Davis" fast. Sam also has a competitive weightlifting background and the body type to excel in the bench press (his arms are not super long), so he will put up very good numbers in the weight room.
Keep an eye on the three-cone drill, which measures lateral quickness and agility. Sam wants to come in close to 7.2 seconds or below. Less than seven seconds would be outstanding, and it would show that Sam is quicker and more fluid than the tape shows. A number around 7.5 seconds would be troublesome, as a 280-pounder can be a little slow-footed when changing directions, but a 260-pounder needs a better score in this drill.
What other workout results might be significant?
Football Outsiders studied combine results for pass rushers for several seasons and determined that the three-cone drill has a somewhat significant correlation with NFL success. The broad and long jumps have enough of a correlation to keep an eye on, and the 40 is not total garbage. They use a SACKSeer system to assemble these numbers and other determining factors into a single pre-draft metric. Don't worry, when Sam's SACKSeer is calculated, no one will keep it a secret.
Until then, take a look at Barkevious Mingo's 2013 workout numbers: 6.84 seconds in the three-cone, a 37-inch vertical leap, a 128-inch broad jump and a 4.58 40-time. Those are elite prospect numbers, and Sam is unlikely to match them. Armonty Bryant, a small-school defensive end who worked his way into the seventh round last year, put up 7.32-31.5-118-4.86 in those four numbers. Bryant is about 6-foot-4, so he gets more leeway than a shorter prospect, but those numbers give an idea of base draftability at defensive end.
My gut tells me that Sam is going to fall well within draftable range in all of these tests, that he may struggle in the three-cone and that he will look better than average on the bench. There won't be any "easy decision" results, like Sam running the three-cone in 6.4 seconds and suddenly opening minds around the NFL about social issues.
Are you worried that none of this will matter, and that Sam will either go undrafted or be set up to fail by his team or the NFL?
Let's put it this way: Sam is going to experience more prejudice and obstacles than, say, a gay magazine editor in New York City faces. He is going to experience less prejudice and obstacles than, say, a gay middle school teacher in Texas faces. But the middle school teacher in Texas will not have anything close to Sam's support network. Does that define the parameters well enough for mid-February, three months before anyone makes an actual decision?
Yes. Can we talk about other players now?
Jadeveon Clowney said he wants to run a 4.4 40. Any chance that happens?
If Clowney runs a 4.4 40 at 270-plus pounds, he could announce that he plans to sleep until noon and watch Real Housewives of Kankakee all day, and he would still deserve the first overall pick.
What Clowney actually said was that 4.4 seconds were a goal, one he has achieved in a few "hand times" (dude with a stopwatch). His expectation is a time in the low 4.5-second range, which would still be outstanding. You saw Mingo's 4.58 40-time a few paragraphs ago: It was an excellent time for a man roughly 30 pounds lighter than Clowney. Frankly, 4.58 would still guarantee a spot among the top three (Jeff Fisher will be drooling into his beard), assuming all the other drill results are in the same range. Of course, judging by the timbre of things these days, the headline will be "Clowney Falls Short of Goals."
Clowney needs to project an eager, ambitious attitude right now, so setting lofty public goals make sense. He is also making lots of "I would love to play beside J.J. Watt on the Texans" noises, which may be genuine interest or message control, and is probably a little of both. At any rate, blow-the-curve athleticism is Clowney's calling card, and I will be shocked if he does not post excellent numbers.
What about his motivation and production issues?
The motivation concerns are semi-real, but there are Hall of Famers who left college with legitimate questions about their work habits. Defensive line coaches stay in the business because of their ability to get huge men to take the extra practice rep seriously.
As for those three sacks in 2013, it is not unusual for a pass rusher to come out of college with a low final-season sack total, just as it is not unusual for a cornerback to come out with a low interception total. Whole game plans were designed around rolling the quarterback away from Clowney last year, particularly early in the season, before all the nagging injuries. Lots of the people offering gloom-and-doom appraisals of Clowney in October were people who never spent a whole game focusing on a defensive end before in their lives. And the people who gave anonymous "draft stock is plummeting" whispers in autumn were the same reliable unnamed sources of buzz-worthy stupidity who were muttering about "distractions" last week.
Speaking of distractions, what does Johnny Manziel have to do at the combine?
Like Clowney, Manziel will pass all workout eyeball tests. He will not throw, to the surprise of no one. His media interview will be less than illuminating: I have grown up and learned from my youthful indiscretions," blah blah blah, we have heard this routine before.
Manziel must get on the whiteboard with Bill O'Brien, Kyle Shanahan and other top-of-the-draft offensive coaches, and he must explicate plays and coverages like an expert. We know he can throw and we know he can run. Offensive coaches, particularly the two I just mentioned, don't want their schemes turned into Happy Scramble Time Theater, so Manziel must convince them that he won't bypass an open receiver on the shallow cross in favor of SportsCenter's play of the week.
What about his lifestyle? Isn't that a potential distraction?
Yep. Most teams are not concerned that Manziel has any kind of real drinking problem, despite the headlines last year. It's more a judgment issue. Teams will ask Manziel "lifestyle publicity management" questions of the how do you plan to keep a night of clubbing off the For the Win website? variety. Manziel's handlers will be working on that element of his personality. If Manziel drops to, say, No. 5 overall, it won't be about partying, but about players with the potential to be better, like Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater.
How come we aren't hearing much about Teddy Bridgewater?
Because we have a gay defensive end, a quarterback with an MTV reality show lifestyle and a 275-pound man who thinks he can outrun wide receivers while throwing darts at a Steve Spurrier dart board to talk about. Bridgewater is an A-plus quarterback prospect but B-minus copy.
Is Bridgewater too skinny to be an NFL starter?
Did you see Colin Kaepernick when he left college? Anyway, I have heard the "barely 200 pounds" discussion. If that is really a thing -- and it is not a thing -- it is not hard for a guy in his early 20's to pack on 15 pounds of muscle meat. Heck, he could just arrive in Indianapolis two days early, eat all the steak and mac-and-cheese that flows like tap water in that town, and hit the weight room every evening. Bridgewater is going to clear 6-foot-1, so height will not be a serious issue, either.
The main reason Bridgewater is not being talked about with the first pick overall is that the Texans are aggressively not talking about him. Since most of the Texans talk is coming from owner Bob McNair (only take an owner's personnel decisions literally if his name is Jerry Jones, and never take them seriously) and recently fired employees like Wade Phillips, and since Manziel is a hometown hero, I am in four-alarm skepticism mode about the Texans' interest. O'Brien, for example, has not said much. Is he the Machiavellian type who would invite an elaborate smokescreen? Have we mentioned that he is from the Belichick school?
If the Texans really do like Manziel better, the Jaguars, Browns and Raiders will be very happy to see Bridgewater fall, and there may be a scramble. The Rams will listen to offers from teams like the Buccaneers and Vikings.
What about Blake Bortles?
He's a pyrite statue of Blaine Gabbert.
Bortles probably won't throw at the combine. Is that a good idea?
It's a great idea. He probably should not throw at his pro day. The less Bortles throws, the better he looks.
Ouch! What's your beef with this guy?
No beef. He just has a terrible delivery. He over-strides on a lot of throws, with all of his weight starting on his back foot and then slowly -- slowly -- shifting to his right foot, which he places about half a stride farther in front of his body than he really should. On other throws, particularly when the pass rush is coming and he cannot step up, he practically falls backward when throwing. It's a mechanical mess.
Jay Cutler does the same things.
Bortles does not have Cutler's arm or legs, and Cutler's delivery is faster even when it is all bolloxed up. Bortles appears to be a bright decision maker and is a good athlete. I could see Bucs offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford looking at him and seeing the ultimate quarterback mechanics tinker toy. The "first pick overall" thing … well … Brady Quinn heard some "top pick" talk this time a few years ago.
Many quarterbacks have elected to not throw at the combine. Is that a good idea?
It is good for them and bad for me, and teams will not care one way or the other when it comes to the big names. Take Derek Carr. We all know Derek Carr can throw footballs. Give him an empty stadium and some uncovered receivers, and he will throw technically perfect spirals anywhere on the field … unless he develops some slight little twinge in his elbow, or he gets stuck throwing to the unprepared kid from Prairie Dog State, and suddenly outsiders (like me) are questioning his throwing ability.
Or take Aaron Murray, who is recovering from ACL surgery. Murray is probably at the stage where he could throw passes in an empty stadium without serious incident. What good will that do him? Murray threw 14 million passes in college. (OK, 1,478.) He was the starter at Georgia for so long that there is footage of him throwing screens to Herschel Walker. There is not much any pro scout or personnel guy will learn about Murray's throwing mechanics that cannot be seen on film
Murray's MRIs and medical results will be the star of the combine for him. No one expects any red flags, but it is important to remember that the combine started as a chance to centralize medical information, and it is still the best place for team doctors and trainers to get a real sense of just how some wide receiver's knee surgery went two years ago. As for Carr, he will have to do his best work at the whiteboard.
Let's backtrack to all of those coach and executive interviews. Will anything interesting come out of them?
How many team officials will be asked a Sam question?
All of them. They will probably all give the same answer. The NFL will probably issue a memo with a suggested response along the lines of, "We support Sam's decision, and our organization welcomes players regardless of sexual orientation, because our only goal is winning the Super Bowl." Many executives believe most or all of those things, mind you, but those who don't will be well rehearsed. If anyone rolls his eyes while saying it, it will not go unnoticed.
Organizers could save everyone a lot of time by simply instructing all coaches and GMs to give their Sam comment at the start of the presser, then say, "I am not going to discuss other team's free agents, because they are still under contract until early March, and even casual fans know that it would be tampering (and bad business sense) for me to stand here and say 'Gee, I can't wait to throw money at Jimmy Graham.'" Then we can ask all the usual questions about players recovering from injury and obscure assistant coach hires.
Will there be any fireworks at the Dolphins press conferences?
There will be sparks. The new general manager, Dennis Hickey, was not around for the Incognito mess, so we will probably softball some questions at him about changing the team culture. Joe Philbin will have it rougher.
I am not interested in rehashing exactly what Philbin knew and/or did at every moment during the Incognito-Martin affair. The Wells report makes it clear that Martin himself did not provide team superiors with the information they needed to make the best decisions. But frankly, I am shocked that Jim Turner is still on the coaching staff; he could easily have been whisked away when coordinator Mike Sherman was axed, and his dismissal would now be seen as an encouraging sign that Philbin had started to figure out what was really going on. A degree of institutional cluelessness is inevitable when dealing with bullying/misconduct issues. I have heard plenty of teachers say "really?" when informed of what was happening right under their noses. But not being able to figure out which assistants he can believe/trust does not make Philbin look like much of a leader.
Assuming Turner is fired in the next three days, Philbin will also have to talk about Mike Pouncey's role on the team moving forward. John Jerry can be easily jettisoned, but Pouncey is the cornerstone of the Dolphins offensive line when he is not serving as Incognito's vice-tormentor (or testifying in the Aaron Hernandez case; some people have rich social lives). The Dolphins cannot move forward with Turner coaching as usual and Pouncey assuming a leadership role as if he is not mentioned regularly in the Wells report. Philbin needs to issue some strong statements as soon as possible. I know Philbin prides himself on being a high-character individual, but some people stay "high character" by jamming their fingers into their ears and looking away from potential sources of trouble. Philbin is guilty of doing just that in the Incognito affair last year, in my opinion, and continuing to do so would be unacceptable.
Let's lighten the mood. How will the Rex Ryan and John Idzik pressers go?
Idzik and Ryan will be peppered with questions about Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes that we all know the answers to. (Both will be cut.) They will give the usual polite, non-committal answers corporations give to questions that cannot really be answered publically, with Ryan putting his winking little spin on his responses. The New York media will then parse the answers and ask the same questions with different wording in a vain effort to get Idzik or Ryan to slip and say something like "Santonio Holmes is a weenie and we have just emptied the contents of his locker into the team incinerator." This will go on for two 15-minute stages. Then the New York papers will write things up to make the Jets look like a dysfunctional organization with an out-of-control culture; Ryan and Idzik would have a point if they announced that the feeling was mutual.
When the Jets really do something dysfunctional and out of control, I will be there with my joke book. But the dance between the team and the Big Apple media has gotten ritualized, like a Medieval passion play.
What about the people who now make the decisions for the Browns? Will they have anything interesting to say at the combine?
No. Bill Belichick does not usually give a press conference.