Even by fancy lodging standards, the downtown Indianapolis hotel room Rams general manager Les Snead and 10 or so other club executives stuffed themselves into seemed woefully small.
Let alone finding sufficient space for 6-foot-6, 270-pound South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney during the formal interview period of the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Armed with the second pick overall, the Rams knew there was a chance Clowney would be available to them. That’s why they requested the Gamecocks star as one of the 60 designated players they could formally sit down with.
But with a hard cap on the 15-minute maximum teams get to talk to prospects and what seems like 100 yards of ground to cover, 900 seconds never seemed so frantic. And there isn’t an air horn in the world louder or more obnoxious than the one waiting right outside to go off indicating time is up.
“You better be organized, because that time flies by,” Snead said.
Only on this night, there was an unexpected glitch. As Snead and his staff started to walk Clowney through some of his college footage, their computer pulled an end around.
“We just couldn’t get the darn thing to work,” remembers Snead. “It was like, start, stop. Start, stop. Start, stop.”
Meanwhile, a nearby clock burned as bright and conspicuous as a neon sign rising above Times Square.
Precious time was ticking a way.
“And they don't mess around with that 15-minute limit,” Snead said. “It's 15 minutes, period. And then he's out the door and it's literally right on to the next guy.”
The Rams eventually got the video player to work, but soon enough the air horn blew and out the door went Clowney.
As for Snead and the rest of the Rams contingency, they were left to debate whether the Football Gods were sending a message.
“Maybe it's a sign we shouldn't draft him,” someone offered up.
“But what if it's actually a sign we should take him?” someone else countered. Ultimately the team did not get a chance to decide on Clowney, as he was selected No. 1 by Houston.
“We had a little bit of fun with it,” Snead said of the balky computer, laughing. “But it made you wonder.”
Which, when you think about it, pretty much sums up the challenge every NFL team faces this week deciding how to interpret an annual event that’s evolved into equal parts beauty pageant, speed dating, forensic files, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Shark Tank” and skills contest.
And how much to read into the next six frenzied days in Indianapolis in which more than 300 NFL prospects have been honorably invited only to conspicuously be poked, prodded, gawked at, evaluated, cross-examined and put through rigorous mental and physical exercises in front of an army of scouts, coaches, general managers, front-office executives, trainers, doctors and psychologists representing all 32 teams.
“You’re not quite on the witness stand on trial,” laughed former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison. “But you're definitely a suspect getting questioned.”
The irony being, you can't provide one single answer by making an actual tackle or delivering a real block or sidestepping an authentic tackler or unleashing a pass against a real live defense with a fast-charging pass-rusher barreling down on you.
Instead, you have to eliminate concerns or verify your play through words, agility testing and medical reports.
And in the case of someone dragging baggage to the party, by cleaning yourself up and making the best impression possible.
“It was always funny, the guys with character issues showed up in suits,” Morrison remembered. “That was hilarious to me. I get it, it's a business deal, but why are they in suits? Everyone was trying to impress. But it was like a running joke. These were guys who had character issues in college and had to answer some questions and had to put their best foot forward.”
“The mindset is this: I'm going to perform so well you'd be a fool not to take me,” is how Morrison described his approach to the 2005 combine. “So whatever you're about to do, whether it's an agility drill or an exercise or an interview or whatever it might be in front of those coaches and scouts and executives, the message you're trying to send is: You'd be crazy not to draft me.”
It's a bit more complicated for the teams, who will use this week to gather and cross-check information while trying to decide their draft boards ahead of making decisions that can either move their franchises forward or set them back years.
“It's a part of the puzzle you put together on each player,” Chargers GM Tom Telesco said. “It's not the biggest piece of the puzzle, but it's an important piece.”
The key being, balancing the information they'll glean in Indianapolis – and everything they'll continue to gather right up until the draft – against the body of work these players have amassed over three or four years in college.
“And that's fascinating, because we do all this, when we could probably just throw everything else out and just watch them play in college and get it more right than wrong than doing all this stuff at the combine,” Snead said.
“But it's still an extremely useful tool because nowadays college football is so different. People say quarterbacks are so hard to assess, but now anything on offense can be hard to do. Running backs are running gun runs, so they're not going downhill they're usually going sideways. Receivers don't run but a certain amount of routes. Lineman are not in a three-point stance, they're in two-point stances. But what you can do, at the combine, is let's look at these receivers. We want our receivers to run a certain way. And you get to see that at the combine and go, ‘We never saw this from him in college but he can do it.’ Doesn't mean he can do it Day One, but you do know his body can do it at the level you want it.”
And while Indianapolis won't render a final verdict, the objective is to reduce as much risk as possible come draft weekend by adding the evidence gathered this week to individual files teams have been compiling on players for nearly a year.
“The reality is, this is more the back end of the scouting process than the front end,” Telesco said. “Our scouts have been on the road since August going to colleges, watching practice, watching live games, doing their background work, watching tape, going to bowl games and All-Star Games through December and January.”
From which, teams have designated the 60 players they want to formally meet with in Indianapolis, prioritized the prospects they'll informally talk to at individual position training stations and organized a list of tangible, intangible and medical questions for nearly every player invited to Indianapolis.
The six-day event is split up by position groups, with each group spending four hectic days covering arrival and registration, height and weight checks, a full day of medical evaluations, a drug test, one-on-one team interviews, aptitude testing and on-field agility and skill testing.
“I remember being in the hospital that second day for eight, 10 hours, getting physicals, MRIs, you name it,” Morrison said. “You literally go in there with 60 or so other guys, and as football players, everyone has something. And getting all that stuff dealt with takes time.
“They ask you about everything, and it's not like you can lie about anything because they have your medical records going back all the way to high school, maybe even to Pop Warner.
“So it's like, ‘What about that separated shoulder you had during your sophomore season?’ And even though you might say, ‘Oh no worries, it's fine,’ they still might want to take a look at it. Then they'll say, ‘How about that left knee? Yeah I know you only missed one game. But let's take another look at it.’”
It's an intense, grueling, time-consuming process for players and teams alike. Which is why clubs typically send a staff of 40 or so coaches, personnel people, front office executives, scouts, trainers, doctors and physiologists each year and then fan them out across Lucas Oil Stadium and the players' hotel.
Their task: As much as possible, complete the evaluation on each individual prospect by confirming, debunking or answering questions that range from physical ability, football aptitude, medical history, coachability and disposition.
Sometimes for better or worse.
Like discovering a red flag on a prospect you've fallen in love with.
“It can be frustrating sometimes, because hey, your favorite player might have a not-so-good physical,” Snead said. “And you feel those emotions because, dang, you really liked that player. But now you have to re-evaluate.”
Or maybe that linebacker you really liked on video posts a slower-than-anticipated 40 time, and your staff starts wondering if they really saw what they thought they saw when he was running sideline to sideline making tackles.
“So that will make you go back to the tape to confirm, hey, did we miss something here?” Telesco said. “Did he compensate for a lack of speed in another way? So you go back and do more work.
“That's the beauty of the inexact science involved with scouting players. Eventually, you get enough people in a room with good football minds, you talk it out, you discuss it, and you eventually come to a conclusion at the end.”
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