By Russ Lande
Even though the NFL Network will televise and endlessly hype the on-field workout portion of the NFL Scouting Combine, the reality is that the most important parts of the week happen away from the cameras. For teams looking to find the right fits for their rosters, the medical checks and the team interviews often take a higher priority than do 40-yard dash times or bench presses. How a player interviews can have a large impact on where he is selected, because organizations get the opportunity to talk to prospective employees face-to-face. They can get a feel for whether players will be team-first individuals, can handle the complexity of the offensive/defensive schemes that they specifically run, are tough enough to play through pain, have quality leadership skills and will avoid off-field problems once they have more money than they have likely ever possessed.
Fortunately for the teams, this vital process has become much more organized over the years, finally putting an end to the days where there was no interview schedule and teams would have to hunt down prospects in the player hotel to speak with them. Because players were basically being grabbed by different team employees, and held from anywhere from 15 minutes to a full hour, it was not uncommon for disputes and screaming matches to arise.
These days, the process is now significantly more efficient, as teams must submit a list of players they want to interview before the Combine, and then an interview schedule is set up, allowing each team 15 minutes per player. An air horn is blown at the end of each period to signal the end of the meeting, at which point the player moves to another room and his next team interview.
While things are definitely more organized, a number of teams would like to interview more players, thus often times two teams will agree to share interviews. In these cases, each team will have its own interview room and will interview different prospects, but will allow members of the other organization to sit in the back of the room to observe the interviews so that both teams can effectively double the amount of players they meet with during the Combine. Although the process most teams follow for interviews is similar, there are definitely differences, because some teams are okay with having many people in the interview room, while other teams only want four or five people there.
Nearly every team will have its head coach, general manager, college scouting director, appropriate coordinator, position coach and the area scout that covered the school sit in on an interview. However, some teams will also have all members of the player personnel department, the special teams coach and a psychologist, either to observe or to ask questions. Depending on the team, the person who leads the interview varies, and in some rooms multiple people will ask questions. Teams usually begin the interview by asking the player about his family, what his experience playing at college was like and if a player has had off-field issues. With most prospects, once the basics are over, teams will try to "put the player on the board" by getting into scheme-type questions with a prospect.
For example, with a quarterback, a team may ask him to draw up his favorite play from college, and then the team will adjust the defensive alignment and ask the quarterback to adjust the protection/play accordingly. They may do this two or three times and then ask him to go back and re-draw the first one (both offensively and defensively) after they have erased everything, to get a feel for how quickly he can see and retain information. Additionally, they will often try to ask a lot of scheme questions, one quickly after the other, in order to see if the prospect can think quickly and answer the questions accurately without being able to write things down.
One other tactic that is sometimes used is watching college game film of that player's performance and asking him to explain what the offensive/defensive play call was, what his responsibility was and, if he made a mistake, to explain why things went wrong. Recently, a quarterback who was regarded as a likely second-round prospect did very well throughout most of his interview, but when it came time to break down his college film, every time the team pointed out a mistake he made, this quarterback put the blame on someone else. (The receiver ran the wrong route, or the offensive lineman missed a block or the coach called a bad play.) This turned off teams, because quarterbacks are expected to be leaders who are willing to take the blame on their shoulders, and this was part of the reason that he was not selected until the third day of the draft.
Along the same lines, a question often asked in interviews is often "do you want to make a Pro Bowl or win a Super Bowl?" This can give an indication if the player was more concerned with team or individual success, and you might find it surprising to hear the number of players who said "Pro Bowl."
At the end of the day, much will be made of the 40-yard times and numerous other testing numbers, and those remain important. However, the reality is that the interviews that go on behind closed doors have a much greater impact on a player's draft stock and future success in the NFL.
Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.