NFL Combine Diary, Day 1: Where We Learn What's Wrong With You Young People

After three hours driving through a steady light snow, I park at the Indianapolis Convention Center, walk across the street, and follow the signs directing me to registration for the most intense job fair in the world. I'm inside Lucas Oil Stadium, and I'm here to take in the 2010 NFL Combine.

At base, that's all this is--a career fair for college students seeking their first job. A group of industry employers gather in a single place, inviting a large pool of candidates to present themselves and interview for employment. Just like any other, the kids come in, try to say and do all the right things, shake a bunch of hands, and then leave, wondering who will be interested in them enough to offer a job, or at least a second interview.

And that's where the similarities end.

WHAT IF EVERYONE HIRED LIKE THE NFL?

I had thought my recent experience with the hiring process of big law firms to be intense. Comparing it to what these NFL hopefuls go through makes me laugh.

At the beginning of the second year of law school, students 'bid' for interviews by submitting their resumes; law firms look through them all, and select a dozen or so for 15 minute on-campus interviews with a lawyer or two from the firm. From those interviews, a couple students are invited to the firm itself for second interviews, which typically consist of a half day at the firm, rotating amongst 30-60 minute interviews with various attorneys. Job offers are extended within a few weeks after the round of second interviews ends.

Now imagine what the process would be like if Big Law vetted its incoming attorneys the same way that the NFL does its newest players. In place of the process I just described, a team of lawyers would have studied my every move throughout my first year of law school, hyper-analyzing video of my participation in class, as well as every one of my papers and exams. My attendance at the subsequent career fair would depend on whether such careful review of my work was deemed truly superior. If I was exceptional enough to receive an invitation, I'd arrive for a grueling four-day process in which the law firms began with a thorough medical review (physical and psychological). After that, I'd have to work through nearly thirty intense interviews, and then prove my composure with the media. Finally, I'd spend hours undergoing rigorous on-site testing of my aptitude.

We're not done. Firms that liked me after all that went would then dispatch scouts to my school to review my on-campus performance at the law school's Pro Day. And anyone still interested in me after that would further ask that I travel to their facilities for a private testing of me and my abilities.

That's the degree of difference that we're talking about here. The NFL Combine is just one step in one of the most thorough job vetting processes in the world.

NFL MEDIA -- CYNICAL AND JADED

Reflecting on how remarkably intense this all is, I try to strike up a conversation with the media member stationed next to me, a newspaper reporter from a metropolitan daily in Florida. Can you imagine, I ask, if each of us had to go through something like this to land our jobs?

He shrugs indifferently, a reaction I initially attribute to his veteran experience, but soon begin to think representative of something very different. There are over 200 members of the media in attendance, and the more of them I interact with, the more I sense a pervasive cynicism. For every perfectly pleasant, engaging person I meet, there are two jaded, disinterested souls going through the motions. Many seem cranky, generally, and many others quickly become so when they find out I'm covering the event as a part-time blogger.

"Doesn't your paper ask you to blog these days?" I ask one writer who seems particularly disgusted with my presence.

"You bet your ass they do," he hisses in reply. "But if it weren't for jokers like you, they'd still appreciate my filing three stories per week, instead of asking me to write a blog three times a day."

This isn't to say that everyone I meet is this way, but more than enough are that I understand why new media continues to grow and thrive as it is. The gatekeeper status previously enjoyed by established media made sports journalism an enjoyable, privileged position; and now, any old schmuck with a computer and Internet connection can do the job. Unsurprisingly, many do it better, and equally unsurprising, among the old guard the change breeds resentment.

"Really?" I ask, prodding for explanation. "Because my only regret is that I can't explore sports with as much depth as I could if I just had enough time to write about everything I want to write about."

"And that's the trouble with you young people," is his reply.

And that pretty much says it all.

An NFL employee announces that Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert is about to begin speaking. A huge fan and student of what Colbert's been able to do to achieve sustained success in Pittsburgh through the Draft, I excitedly spring from my seat to go listen. The newspaper reporter barely flinches, except to frown his disapproval at my enthusiasm. After positioning myself near the stage where Colbert's to speak, I steal a glance back and see the reporter hasn't followed. He's reading a novel.

EMPLOYER INSIGHTS

I was excited to see on the schedule provided by the NFL that a number of head coaches and GM's would be speaking to the media on Thursday. Though I wasn't sure precisely what to expect from the event, I'd headed to Indianapolis with a few goals in mind:

  1. Chronicle the atmosphere of the NFL Combine.
  2. Talk to as many Texas/Big XII players as possible.
  3. Watch Terrence Cody's breasts bounce when he runs.
  4. Listen to how GMs and coaches talk about their approach to the Combine.

While players were weighing in and going through various medical tests, Day 1 at the Combine began with a series of press conferences from team executives and coaches: first up was San Francisco 49ers GM Scot McCloughan, followed by 49ers Head Coach Mike Singletary, Detroit Lions Head Coach Jim Schwartz, Buffalo Bills Head Coach Chan Gailey, Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, and Kansas City Chiefs GM Scott Pioli.

The first thing to be said is that you really can't understate just how critical to their jobs is the skill of media management. To differing degrees, the coaches and GMs do answer questions with their thoughts about players, philosophies, strategies, and the like; however, they're all presented with questions that they either flatly reject as off limits or, more commonly, deflect with answers that sidestep the subjects being broached. One of the more interesting questions I wind up pondering is whose style of media management I prefer.

Among the highlights from my notes on everyone who spoke:

Scot McCloughan, 49ers GM: Listening to McCloughan, it's easy to see why the organization stuck with Mike Singletary beyond an interim basis. He's both very direct and speaks very much like a Football Guy, in ways that illuminate why Singletary--who wouldn't be a good fit with every management team--is understood and appreciated. I jot in my notes to look up McCloughan's background and am not surprised to find in his official bio:

Respected NFL executive Ron Wolf was a member of the scouting department in Oakland at the time and brought Kent [McCloughan] on board to bolster the department. Young Scot joined his father for film sessions at the house and even traveled as his dad’s sidekick on trips around the area. He watched, learned and took notes.

Football was life in the McCloughan household, and the environment quickly ceded Scot into a standout on the football team as a running back, safety and return man.

McCloughan speaks and carries himself like a Football Lifer, which I offer neither a compliment nor criticism. Mostly, it helps understand...

Mike Singletary, 49ers Head Coach:  Look, it was not a given that San Francisco would retain Mike Singletary after giving him a crack at the job on an interim basis, beginning in October 2008. I mean, it wasn't one week after he was named interim coach that he provided us with the first of many memorable press conference moments:

Fast-forward 18 months and two things stand out. First and foremost, after the way he interacted with the media as interim coach, many organizations never would have hired Singletary full-time to begin with. And second, watching and listening to Scot McCloughan up close makes it easier to see not only why Singletary was retained, but why when he's speaking to the media today, you never would guess that he'd ever been anything less than a consummate pro with the media. He was direct, certainly, but he was also measured and restrained. He deflects with ease questions that were meant to stir the pot.

Frankly, it's a nice balance. While sidestepping questions a coach shouldn't discuss publicly, he remains refreshingly honest when responding to questions that he could. When probed about whether it was a bad sign for Tim Tebow that Alex Smith (also from a spread offense in college) didn't begin hitting his stride until this year, Singletary scowls at the questioner and rejects the premise entirely: "No. What hurt Alex Smith was playing with a poor surrounding cast."

Of note to 49ers fans: both McCloughan and Singletary emphasize, over and over, how much more of their evaluative capital is spent on college film. They acknowledge the utility of the Combine for getting to know a player personally, but as Singletary puts it, "If there's a pie chart, most of ours is filled by what we see on film."

Jim Schwartz, Lions Head Coach: Right from the beginning, I can tell I like Schwartz. "I have no statement," he announces goofily, "so fire when ready." A reporter asks a dumb question about organizational 'mindset' this week, and where I would fire back, "What a stupid question," Schwartz accomplishes the same by cracking, "Well, I guess the biggest thing is that we're not here to find a QB, huh?"

He's light and interesting throughout, but his best lines come from a series of lame questions about what he felt he needed to fix when last season came to a close. "Probably the number one thing was my blood pressure," Schwartz replies in complete deadpan.

And how would the Lions approach the Draft? "With good decisions," Schwartz answers cheerily, "so that my doctor can cut my Lipitor."

The delivery is pitch-perfect, and all of the sudden I'm kind of a Lions fan.

Chain Gailey, Bills Head Coach: At this point, we all know Chan Gailey better than we should, and while I can't say I understand why the Bills would hire Gailey for a reclamation project, I find myself endlessly amused by his press conference, primarily because the media's favorite go-to question for anyone and everyone is some version of, "How has _____________ helped you prepare for where you are now?" Whereas with Jim Schwartz there was a single question about how his background in player personnel might be helping him today, almost the entire Chan Gailey press conference is filled with questions about how his various experiences in the past will help him now.

I have to bite my tongue not to ask how his wealth of experience with mediocrity is helping him prepare to make the Bills mediocre.

Kevin Colbert, Steelers GM: Bias alert: I'm a huge Steelers fan. Colbert begins by announcing that Thursday morning the Steelers reached a deal with tackle Casey Hampton and franchised kicker Jeff Reed. No one else seems to care too much, but I'm celebrating in my head. I realize that part of the disconnect I feel with so many members of the media is that they don't seem to be fans anymore. I recognize the need for many of them to be impartial, but there's a difference between impartial and indifferent, and too many of them seem to be in the latter camp.

I arrived here most eager to hear Colbert speak--because I'm a Steelers fan, certainly, but also because there aren't many who have succeeded so well, for so long. It's easy to understand why an elite college program like USC or Texas reloads instead of rebuilds, but in pro football most teams struggle to sustain success over time. At least occasionally, they have to rebuild.

Amazingly, Pittsburgh hasn't been in rebuilding mode for more than 15 years. And every Steelers diehard will tell you the same thing when distributing the credit: it starts with the Rooneys, and the rest is Kevin Colbert.

Colbert doesn't disappoint, answering questions with a thoughtfulness that is the antithesis of what you typically get from guys in his position. After two hours of hearing coaches and GMs who are prone to say things like, "Look, we've just got to find football players who want to make football plays," Kevin Colbert offers us several truly interesting insights--the most interesting of which are about the reason more and more shorter outside linebackers and defensive ends are finding success in the NFL. (See the sampling of Colbert's comments that I posted here.)

Next: The job candidates emerge from their physicals to talk with the media.

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