INDIANAPOLIS -- Bullies! Short, party-loving quarterback phenoms! Bizarre head coach trade rumors! Tiny hands! Gay defensive ends! Ground gravel! This year's NFL scouting combine was more combine-tastic than ever, and the fun doesn't stop for three more days.
Most of the interview fireworks were fired off Thursday through Sunday, a four-day whirlwind that started with Joe Philbin's passionate defense of the theoretical ideal workplace (as opposed to the actual slime pit he supervised in Miami last year) and ended with Michael Sam's revelation that the first gay NFL player can make the media pool look just as silly as any straight player can. In between, there were hours of carefully rehearsed and uninformative press conferences, punctuated with moments of relative levity and, often accidently, tiny morsels of news.
Too busy watching speed skating all weekend to sort through the nonsense? No worries: that's my job. The second annual Forty Awards celebrate 2014's greatest achievements and advancements in the field of delivering an NFL combine to NFL combine-starved NFL combine fans. Here are the highlights, lowlights and fashion runway stunners from four days of deliriously redundant log rolling.
Best Actor: Michael Sam, defensive end, Missouri
We expected Michael Sam to take the podium and talk about being gay. What a dumb thing to expect. Stand at a podium some time and try to talk about being heterosexual, assuming you are heterosexual. (I realized I liked girls in 1984, about two minutes into Madonna's "Lucky Star" video. I like women because, you know, women, am I right?)
Instead, Sam essentially took the microphone and challenged us (reporters, critics, fawners, society) not to be a bunch of morons. There was a snap of defiance beneath his funny, ingratiating responses to questions about whether his announcement hurt (or helped) his draft stock or hurt (or helped) potential endorsement deals. Sam's message went beyond the simple "don't categorize me" to "I can't believe you are doing such a lazy, obvious job of trying to categorize me."
Whether you consider him a threat to the fabric of the American family, a probable target of institutionalized bigotry and locker room abuse, a "distraction," or an inspirational symbol suitable for self-congratulatory rallying cries, Sam has a message for you: go away, I am working out.
Greatest False Alarm in Combine History: Kony Ealy, defensive end, Missouri
Prospect press conferences are announced just seconds before they begin, and the windows for their arrival times are scheduled by grudge-holding cable television repairmen. Michael Sam was scheduled to appear on Saturday sometime between 12:30 p.m. and March. So when the PA announcer said "Missouri defensive end …" it was the equivalent of Drew Brees drawing defenders offside with a hard count. I managed to kick-slide with my left leg and push my chair backward while grabbing my portable tape recorder, all in 3/100ths of a second. Younger, quicker reporters took three steps toward Podium B. I swear I saw one spry photographer leap NaVorro Bowman-style over a row of chairs.
Then the announcer finished her sentence: "Kony Ealy, Podium B." Alas, it was just Sam's more talented, less copy-worthy linemate. Everyone took a deep breath, and police arrived to sort through the wreckage of a 73 journo pileup.
Runs 40 Yards Faster Than You Can Read This Sentence Award: Many, many players.
Dri Archer came within .02 seconds of breaking Chris Johnson's combine speed record by running a 4.26 second 40-yard dash on Sunday. Archer is a 173-pound wisp of an all-purpose back from Kent State, so while that blistering sprint will get him a late-round selection as a return man, don't pencil in any 1,000 yard seasons for him. Or for Chris Johnson, while you are at it.
Twelve wide receivers ran their 40-yard dashes under 4.5 seconds, including future Top-10 pick Sammy Watkins (4.43). Odell Beckham (LSU, 4.43) and Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt, 4.46) also pushed themselves into first round consideration with their workout results, joining Mike Evans (Texas A&M; 4.53 seconds at 6-foot-5), Marqise Lee (USC, 4.52), Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State, 4.61 at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds) and others. The receiver sprints were more exciting and intense than about 95% of the Olympic events covered in the last two weeks, and it is almost feasible to build a first-round mock draft out of the top two quarterbacks, top three offensive tackles, top two defenders and 25 receivers.
Best Press Conference Intro: Rex Ryan, head coach, New York Jets
Jets press conferences are not what they used to be. There are no more Super Bowl guarantees, and general manager John Idzik has reduced overall organizational anarchy by about 98 percent. Rex Ryan himself is more subdued than he once was, and the New York beat writers could barely work up the interest to ask any "is there any reason to not cut Santonio Holmes?" questions, though they did ask one.
But Ryan's sense of humor has not been completely Clockwork Orange-conditioned away. "I can't answer a question," Ryan said at the start of his presser. "I figured it out, this being my sixth year, that the main thing about tonight is to get by without getting fined. With that, I will open it up for the questions I cannot answer."
The first question was some boilerplate about the Jets injuries. "I can't answer that question."
When asked what the Browns will get from new coach and former Ryan assistant Mike Pettine, he replied: "Not much. He's not a handsome kid, for one thing." Ryan also took a shot at the Patriots, noting that they refer to pulled thigh muscles as "upper leg injuries."
Idzik got in his own version of a deadpan zinger when a reporter noted that he spent last combine coping with Gatling-gun questions about Darrelle Revis. "Who?" he asked.
Silk Purse Award (Made from Genuine Sow's Ear): Mike Pettine, head coach, Cleveland Browns.
Pettine spoke just hours after a wild hare rumor raced across the football world: at some point during their sad, protracted, contentious coaching search, the Browns nearly acquired Jim Harbaugh from the 49ers in exchange for Josh Gordon and a trainload of draft picks. The rumor was highly embellished (Adam Schefter explained at Peter King's tweet-up that it never progressed far beyond hypothetical discussions) and totally insane. If consummated, it would have been the ultimate Gift of the Magi trade: "We gave away our beautiful receiver and draft picks so you could have a franchise-defining coach! But … we gave away our franchise-defining coach to acquire these lovely draft picks!"
Also, Harbaugh's first act as Browns head coach would be to eat Jimmy Haslam's spleen.
Anyway, Pettine spent the first part of his presser discussing an overblown rumor of an unconsummated trade that took place before he was hired. And he handled it exceptionally well. "I think that's noise," he said of the rumor. "It has no bearing on my job moving forward." He later added: "I think when you look at it, I think it shows the organization's committed to getting it turned around, that it would investigate that option. I see that as a positive."
Pettine has a point. A wise organization should have some Hail Mary passes in its personnel playbook, not just check downs. And I don't need to know that my wife had a dream of marrying Leif Garrett long before she met me. Also, Pettine appears to be a much better fit for the Browns than the irascible Harbaugh: I would not trade Pettine, Gordon and the right to draft a Sammy Watkins-caliber talent for Harbaugh if you threw in a muzzle. If you would like a quick SAT-style analogy to hammer it home: Mike Pettine : Rex Ryan :: Jeff Fisher : Buddy Ryan.
Still, Pettine must be wary that any "let's trade the two first rounders to move up for Johnny Manziel" spitball speculation may be reported as gospel hours later. There are leaks within the Browns organization. The suspects include anyone who might still have loyalties to recently-fired coaches and executives. In other words, nearly everyone.
Fashion Shocker of the Milleneum: Bill Belichick, head coach, Patriots
Not only did Belichick deign to hold a rare press conference, but he arrived wearing a clean blue-collared dress shirt, jeans and Nike sneakers. It was like seeing Ian McKellen wearing a tee-shirt and chinos after walking out of a Lord of the Rings marathon.
Belichick mumbled the usual non-committal clichés while projecting unconcealed contempt for the media and the entire concept of interpersonal communication, but it was impossible to look away because of the jeans. They weren't quite Mom jeans, but their odd fit suggested something between Garanimals and Wrangler jeans from the late 1970s:
Most Durable Anecdote: Bill Belichick's Refrigerator Story.
Belichick is renowned for his sense of humor among those who know him personally. Seriously.
Since most of us don't know him personally, however, we get treated to the Belichick who thinks basic expressions of human compassion count $37 million each against the salary cap. That's why it was shocking to hear him begin his unscheduled presser with a semi-amusing anecdote:
I was walking over here this afternoon and thinking about how far the whole combine has come. That's probably my 30th year. The first one I was at was the second one at Arizona State -- obviously held outdoors. One of the days ended, not in total darkness, but certainly past dusk. I still have the image of Refrigerator Perry doing the vertical jump out there on the Vertex in the middle of the Arizona State field. In almost total darkness.
A cute tale. So cute, in fact, that Belichick uses it every time he gives a combine presser. Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar remembered Belichick telling the same story five years ago (twice-a-decade Belichick pressers are, for all parties involved, once-a-decade too many). It only took a little sleuthing through the archives to find the 2009 version of Belichick's Lone Anecdote:
Well, it's kind of interesting to be here at this stadium. As the combine has moved along, it's come a long way. I remember being at Arizona State. It was getting dark, standing out there, watching the Fridge do his vertical jump. That was quite a sight to see.
Five years from now, Belichick will tell the story once more, only the Fridge will be jumping at midnight.
Most Likely to be Played by Jack Black in a Movie: John Schneider, GM, Seahawks
Hey, let's cast the whole Russell Wilson inspirational movie right now. Working title: Tall in My Heart
Russell Wilson: Michael B. Jordan.
Pete Carroll: Greg Kinnear. (He already played Dick Vermeil and Bob Crane. Pete Carroll is the arithmetic mean between Dick Vermeil and Bob Crane.)
Marshawn Lynch: Rapper Trinidad James.
Richard Sherman: Digitally animated. Voice by Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor, Mr. Krabs).
Jon Schneider: Jack Black.
Schneider is the NFL's schleppy shark. He steps to the podium with tussled hair, wearing a dumpy beige sweater over a collared shirt. He greets questions with a series of rubber-faced facial expressions that would make a silent film comedian jealous. Schneider's eyebrows are in perpetual motion, and his shoulders hunch and sag with slacker befuddlement while answering the types of questions most general managers greet with purse-lipped impatience. Everything about Schneider's bearing makes it look like he was grabbed at the last second and thrown onto the podium. Gosh, a Seahawks salary cap question? Oooh, hmmm, I wasn't expecting one of those.
Then Schneider returns to his office, grinds countless hours of tape, finds ideal Seahawks system fits in late draft rounds from small programs or the CFL, hands them off to Pete Carroll and kicks everyone's ass.
Mind-Boggling Statement Award: Jason Garrett, head coach, Cowboys
When asked what new Cowboys passing game coordinator Scott Linehan brings to the team, Garrett avoided saying that Linehan was just one more person to undermine the leftover granules of Garrett's authority. Barely. "The biggest thing we have tried to do is allow me move more to the responsibility of a head coach." Garrett has been a head coach since 2010, so you think he would already have arrived at such responsibility.
Linehan will take over play calling (duties formerly assigned to Bill Callahan, who is still hanging around), and with Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli in complete control of the defense and Jerry Jones buying the groceries, Garrett would appear to be moving further away from the responsibilities of a head coach, which generally involve making meaningful decisions about something. Maybe it's one of those optical illusion country roads, where cars appear to roll uphill. Maybe it's the real secret to how the Cowboys finish .500 every single year.
Most Polished Prospect: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Carr is the (much) younger brother of David Carr, the first overall pick of the 2002 draft whose career came derailed when he endured 249 sacks in five years with the expansion Texans. So Carr experienced the combine rigmarole when he was a preteen. Somehow, it did not permanently scar him. "I have been preparing for this since I was three," Carr said of the Combine process.
Carr's lifetime of preparation showed as he breezed through self-effacing remarks about his Las Vegas Bowl performance (Fresno State lost 45-20 to USC; Carr threw for 217 yards, mostly in garbage time); joked about familiar faces from David's 2002 combine tour ("It's weird. I have people in the medical things say, 'Hey, I had your brother 13 years ago.' Then they feel old."); and hammering home the differences between him and his softer-spoken brother. "Well, there's no expansion team. That's a great thing."
If great press conferences made great quarterbacks, Brandon Weeden would have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy three weeks ago. But Carr showed that he is a charismatic young man with NFL savvy. Also, his non-Las Vegas Bowl game tape and Senior Bowl efforts are solid if unspectacular. Plus, he has adequately-sized hands …
Best Body Part: Teddy Bridgewater's Hands
The inexplicable national effort to find flaws in Teddy Bridgewater's game was momentarily derailed when the former Louisville quarterback measured 6-foot-2 and 214 pounds. Bridgewater had experienced three inches of shrinkage during the Combine run-up, not to mention alarming Matthew McConaughey Dallas Buyer's Club-style weight loss in the eyes of some experts. Luckily for the Bridge Bashers, the talented passer has hands that measure just 9 1/8 inches from pinkie to thumb. NFL scouts like their quarterbacks to have hands that are longer than 9 ½ inches.
Now, the standard NFL football has a circumference of 22 inches in the middle, and has been for many, many years. The average adult male has a hand-span of roughly nine inches and is also capable of successfully gripping a football. Bridgewater's fraction-of-an-inch deficiency is not complete nonsense -- it is roughly the difference between a running back running a 4.5 and a 4.6 -- but it is the kind of tiny number that you harp upon when you are casting around for tiny numbers to harp upon.
A close look at Bridgewater's hands during his press conference revealed that his fingernails were rather long. Was he striving for that extra eighth of an inch? Grow those nails to just the right Nosferatu length, and they can dig right into the pigskin in wet weather! Perhaps he should instead of taken inspiration from short people who walk toy poodles to make themselves appear taller. Trim those nails well, young man, and the whole hand looks larger.
Johnny Manziel did his part for making fractions relevant by measuring a frothy head of beer foam below six feet tall. Manziel's height should not be a major concern to anyone who watched an obscure roll of scouting tape called Super Bowl XLVIII.
Super-scout Russ Lande told me that nine inches is the bottom line for quarterback hand-span for most teams: below that, a quarterback falls right off the draft board. Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch's hands fell below nine inches, but Lynch has other things to worry about, like the fact that he does not throw footballs very well.
Runner-Up Best Body Part: Morgan Moses' beard.
Bridegwater's hands may be small, but Moses' beard has outstanding measureables. It is lush and full bodied, immaculately manscaped, thick enough to retain body heat and prevent chinstrap abrasion but luminous, like a pile of tiny, polished obsidian pebbles glued to enormous jowls. With Brett Keisel retiring, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett is the reigning king of beards. Moses is coming to take the crown from him.
Talk About Everyone Else but Yourself Award: Jake Matthews, tackle, Texas A&M
Matthews is, at worst, the second-best offensive lineman in this draft class, and he will be drafted no lower than sixth. But no one cares. Matthews is Bruce Matthews' son, Clay Matthews' cousin and Johnny Manziel's chief bodyguard. All he needs to add to his resume is Lady Gaga's costume designer to become completely overshadowed by the people around him.
Matthews was ready to address Manziel questions (why no, he is not a me-first player who blasts Sambuca breath across the huddle) and famous family questions. ("I hope I'm not grandfathered in. I like to think I am here on merit," the All-American tackle said at the start of his interview.) But Matthews also fielded questions about Greg Robinson, the mammoth Auburn tackle who could overtake him on draft boards; Jeff Fisher, who coached Matthews' dad and whose Rams own the second overall pick; Luke Joeckel, the Texas A&M left tackle Matthews replaced after the Jaguars made Joeckel the second pick in last year's draft; and Kony Ealy, the Mizzou pass rusher Matthews had to keep away from Manziel. At least Mizzou does not flip-flop its pass rushers often; all Matthews needed was a few Michael Sam questions to make him disappear completely.
While answering a rare question about himself -- actually, it was a question about if father Bruce would ever let him play a position besides the offensive line -- Matthews revealed that he played quarterback as a high school freshman. Now there's an interesting tidbit: the hulking pass protector from a family of linemen and defenders throwing passes! With Matthews' luck, he probably backed up Russell Wilson or someone.
Take a Shot at Someone Else Award: Blake Bortles, quarterback, Central Florida
Some scouts love Bortles. I think he's the next John Skelton, but it's a minority opinion. What is certain: Bortles is a big guy with a strong arm, sizable hands and no personality-driven red flags. That differentiates him from a certain short campus bon vivant, and Bortles knows it. When asked about Johnny Manziel -- and it must be noted that most fellow prospects and teammates say that Manziel is swell -- Bortles replied: "All I know is that I'll be trustworthy, I won't embarrass an organization off the field by making any bad decisions or anything like that. Won't embarrass my family's name, and will be a trustworthy guy, a trustworthy player."
Bang! If Bortles doesn't make it as a prospect, he will have a fine career writing draft guides.
Longest "It's a Long Story" Story: "Why I was late," by Jadeveon Clowney
Prospects take commercial flights to the combine; there's no golden NFL helicopter that circles the nation getting them to their workouts on time. So prospects are subject to the same vagaries of air travel as other mortals. This can be a major problem for a young man trying to prove that he has an outstanding work ethic who suddenly discovers that his flight was delayed.
Jadeveon Clowney told reporters that he arrived at Columbia Airport in South Carolina with time to spare, only to discover that the flight was delayed for several hours due to "ground gravel." So Clowney did what no one in their right mind would do: he drove to Charlotte, roughly 90 minutes away without factoring in time-sinks like restarting the security process, only to learn that flights there were also delayed.
Or perhaps all of this was "dog ate my homework" excuse slinging and Clowney is just lazy, lazy, lazy, LAZY, too lazy to sit around to wait for a plane that he can sleep on. It's more likely that Clowney simply learned a valuable life lesson: air travel stinks, but trying to catch a plane with your car is impossible.
Lifetime Achievement Award: Jim Harbaugh, head coach, San Francisco 49ers. A great Harbaugh press conference is like a lost battle against a dashing Scarlet Pimpernel-like swordsman. A bad Harbaugh press conference is like public root canal without anesthetic, except that the dentist is in nearly as much pain as the patient.
An awful press conference, like the one Harbaugh provided on Thursday, is a transcendently masochistic experience, like journeying through medieval villages on your knees while lashing your own back with a cat o' nine tails.
No professional sports coach works harder to make sportswriters feel guilty about doing our jobs than Harbaugh. Ask a leading question about a benign topic, and he will say "I agree with you." Fish for some general quotes about players or opponents, and he will underscore his boredom with your question by trailing off into an incoherent muddle.
This response to an (admittedly dopey) question about athletic quarterbacks cannot be done justice in print: "There's always been great athletes that have played the quarterback position. Therefore we can expect great athletes to continue to come into the league." For the proper effect, say each word as if you are distracted by the act of feeling under your desk for the button that operates the trap door that sends the questioner into the Pit of Rotating Blades.
Ask him about Jonathan Martin -- Harbaugh was Martin's college coach and has made some strong statements in support of the player's toughness and NFL readiness -- and Harbaugh will refuse to reiterate or refresh statements which are "on record."
Ask Harbaugh about locker room misconduct, and Harbaugh tells you that he will not fall for your sneaky journalistic ploy. "For me to stand up here to answer that question, you would tie that back to THAT situation, so I would prefer not to comment." Crafty, coach. We will beat ourselves up on the way out.
Personally, I find getting treated like an insect perched on a pile of dung on the edge of a fetid swamp life-affirming and therapeutic, having attended Catholic school and whatnot. But Harbaugh may not realize that giving awful answers to weak questions only results in weaker questions, because all the good questioners stop attending your pressers. And it's that bubbly personality and respect for his fellow humans that makes those "traded to the Browns" stories sound more and more believable.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Joe Philbin's "Goldman Sachs" soliloquy.
Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin kicked off the Combine with a three-minute tour de force of a monologue about accountability, insisting that he wants the Dolphins to be a "great American company" along the lines of General Electric or Goldman Sachs, a place where employees enjoy an overwhelmingly positive work experience. Then he started speaking off the cuff, and it became clear that the only Dolphins employee whose work experience Philbin really cared about was Philbin.
Philbin's corporate examples should have tipped us off that he was kidding about the whole "buck stops here" routine. Goldman Sachs was the subject of a stinging public attack by a former executive for its "toxic and destructive" environment in 2012, and it has also had its fingers all over several financial crises, most notably the last one and the next one. General Electric is more respected, having avoided the awesome suction of the Comcast vacuum cleaner a few years ago, so if Philbin's actual goal is to make the Dolphins the best-run appliance warehouse in America, he's got a shot.
The Philbin soliloquy works best if it is juxtaposed with ironic images, like the Godfather baptism/mass mafia hit sequence. With no actual footage of Richie Incognito and his Incogna-teers threatening Asian-American employees on Pearl Harbor Day, we must settle for an interlacing of Philbin's inspirational noises with some content from the Wells Report.
"I remember the first day that I interviewed for the Miami Dolphins head coaching job with Steve Ross, we talked a lot about the type of program that I wanted to run in Miami. One of the things I told Steve was, it's important to me that any player that we have or any staff member, I wanted to create an atmosphere where their experience as a Miami Dolphin whether it was for three weeks, three months, 10 years, was the best professional experience they ever had.
In the 2013 season, Incognito began openly, at various times to refer to Martin in the locker room and on the practice field as "my b***h" or the "O-line's b***h.
"And if they left Miami and went to another organization or if they left and went to work for General Electric or Goldman Sachs or whatever great company in America, that they would look back on their time as a Miami Dolphin and say that organization was committed to helping me reach my full potential. That they committed the resources, the time and invested in the individuals to make us a great football team so they could look back and say they had a tremendous experience.
Ultimately, there is little question that Incognito, [John] Jerry and [Mike] Pouncey persistently made insulting and derogatory comments about Martin and his family 13 members. Nor is there any dispute that Incognito called Martin a "n****r," his b***h or a stinky Pakistani.
"Any time that isn't accomplished, anytime one of our players or staff members has an experience contrary to that, it requires my attention, it needs to be corrected, it needs to be looked at, it needs to be fixed."
In addition, Incognito and others acknowledged that Player A was routinely touched by Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey in a mockingly suggestive manner, including on his rear end, while being taunted about his supposed homosexuality. Incognito specifically admitted that he would grab Player A and ask for a hug as part of this "joke."
"I want everybody to know I'm the one that's responsible for the work place, the environment in the Miami Dolphins facility. I'm the one that sets the schedule, I decide when the practices are, I decide what time players eat, how they meet, how they lift, everything that they do in the facility.
We found that the Assistant Trainer, who was born in Japan, was the target of frequent and persistent harassment …Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey admitted that they directed racially derogatory words toward him, including "Jap" and "Chinaman." At times, according to Martin, they referred to the Assistant Trainer as a "dirty communist" or a "North Korean," made demands such as "give me some water you f*****g chink," spoke to him in a phony, mocking Asian accent, including asking for "rubby rubby sucky sucky."
"I can tell you, I can tell our fans, I can tell you sitting here, I can tell our players, we're going to do things about it. We're going to make it better. We're going to look at every avenue, uncover every stone and we're going to have a better workplace. I promise you that. I'm going to make sure that happens."
I didn't necessarily name [Incognito] a leader. There's a leadership council that we have in place. The process is that players elect the players they want to have on the leadership council. Out of respect for the process, that's how the votes came in, and he's on the leadership council.
Oops, that last italicized bit was not from the Wells Report, but from ten minutes later in Philbin's own press conference. It seems Philbin does not need an independent investigator to contradict and undermine his high-minded statements. He just needs to be asked to think on his feet for a few minutes. This Dolphins epic may end with the door to team headquarters closing and survivors kissing Philbin's ring, but anyone who watched Godfather II can tell you just where respect for processes instead of respect-worthy people will get you.