Don’t read too much into the workouts, NFL executives insist every year when they visit Indianapolis.
The NFL Scouting Combine is about player interviews and medical check-ups, they remind. Team representatives typically base their player evaluations on game film.
“I think the main part of their evaluation has happened already from August through December and the college playing days and the years that preceded that,” said Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. “As I’ve said in the past many times, the combine workout is icing on the cake.
“What we think a player runs we’d like to verify, and we’ll do that through the workouts here or the college pro days. So any time you can verify information as to what you believe from their football evaluation helps solidify that evaluation. I always say it’s 90 percent done at this point. You still want to get medical and you still want to get the measurable part of their evaluation. That’s what we’ll do here.”
And for some, even interviews don’t seem to be as important.
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said he likes watching the players, then added, “individual interviews are pretty good too, a bit staged today. They’ve been well-coached, so you try to work your way through that the best you can, but it’s still an opportunity to talk to the kids.”
It makes sense that the NFL’s next crop of players would go to every extreme to be prepared, be it physically or for interviews. Teams often ask unusual questions to see how a player responds to the unexpected.
But, again, several NFL voices reiterated those interviews don’t last long, just 15 minutes, and there’s only so much that can be gleaned from brief chats.
“At the combine, our time is very limited with players,” said San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco. “You're looking at 15 minutes with an interrview, so most of our work on background and character and make up is all done really in the fall, when our scouts do their visits, talking to coaches, talking to support staff, doing our background work really a lot during the football season. We'll do some more work through this time of year.”
And if a player has off-field issues, teams typically aren’t going to be swayed that there’s no reason for concern after one sitdown.
“No one is going to our room and talk to us and clean everything up face to face all the time,” Telesco said. “You do a lot of background work on these players. That's what our scouts do. I mean, they’re not only looking at their physical ability and their talent level football-wise but they’re doing a lot of research on them as people. A lot of that is talking to people you know and sources and every situation is unique to itself.
“Some take longer than others to work through. But you just keep working through it and sometimes you get to a point where you feel good about it and it cleans up and there are other times you just feel that it's a high enough risk that you let someone else worry about them.”
NFL teams will spend eve more time getting to know players after the combine. They will watch them work out at pro days and arrange more extensive interviews. Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said his organization will look to spend at least a full day getting to know each of the prospects who are high on their draft board.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said combine interviews stick to football.
“We don't try to get into his head. It's about football,” he said. “We've only got 15 minutes. That's all you've got. So you start asking personal questions, bang, he's gone. So we really treat it as just football.
“It’s a crazy idea, make a 10- or 15-snap tape and coach has a script. We want to see what he knows or what he doesn't know, and what he can spit back to us. When you draft a guy, one of the things that you have to do is know -- as much as anybody can know -- but you've got to know how quickly this guy's going to be able to get on the field. Because if we can't get him on the field, what's the point?”
But Cardinals coach Bruce Arians says his team takes a different tact in these chats.
“Because in 15 minutes, it’s hard, and they are programmed to answer the right questions,” Arians said. “The big thing is to get another chance to stun them, and hit them with a question they aren’t programmed to answer. You get a feel for a guy. Does he have the passion? Does he really want to do the right thing? It’s different for whatever issue you have, it’s different to see the future on how they will stay away from the problem or is the problem going to reoccur?”
The NFL might be as conscious as ever about off-field problems in the wake of much-publicized incidents involving running backs Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, among others. Stronger punishment for transgressions means teams will try to be more thorough, if possible, in their assessments. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have the No. 1 overall draft pick, have hired an outside company to investigate the background of quarterback Jameis Winston, projected in many mock drafts as the first selection.
“It’s not the physical part,” said Cardinals general manager Steve Keim. “I say this all the time, we miss more so on the person than the player. In this day and age, with these guys and the off-field issues. I can watch tape and see a player’s foot speed and his movement skills, his athleticism. I can’t read his heart and his mind. Those are the two things, to me, we have a tendency to miss on, whether a guy can learn it, whether he loves the game.
“If you can’t learn it, the coach isn’t going to put you on the field because he doesn’t feel comfortable and he doesn’t trust you. And if you don’t love it, it’s going to catch up with you at some point, regardless of how talented you are.”
Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace reiterated what teams are looking at in Indianapolis.
“We go through this process here, but really the most important thing I get out of this is the interviews we do at nighttime and the medical,” Pace said. “I think we’ve got to be really cautious about some guy working out well in shorts. The film—and I know people say that, but I wholeheartedly believe it — is the No. 1 priority when you look at these (guys).”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.