INDIANAPOLIS -- The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine is all about Joe Philbin.
It's 9:45 a.m. and his name has escaped the speakers inside the depths of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. He's the first one to take the stand. Reporters circle around the podium as the Miami Dolphins coach steps behind the microphone. He has plenty of room all around him on stage, but he feels cornered. There's no way for Philbin to escape questions about the bullying scandal outlined in the Ted Wells report, which not only reflects poorly on the Dolphins' locker room but has cast a dark shadow over the culture of football.
Philbin is now the face of on the first morning of the combine. He didn't choose this and he wishes things would have gone differently, but he doesn't have the benefit of looking back. Philbin didn't notice the abusive behavior Jonathan Martin was forced to endure, so for 15 minutes every question about bullying and locker room culture is levied at him.
It's a battle Philbin can't win. He gives vague answers to what he knew and when and says as head coach he should be held accountable, while at the same time not taking much accountability at all. At one point Philbin is asked whether he feels lucky to have a job after the embarrassment the Dolphins have been through. He doesn't even know how to respond.
Philbin knows he's responsible in some way for what Martin went through, but he doesn't know how to admit it. He just knows something has to change.
"I'm going to be more vigilant, I'm going to be more diligent, I'm going to be more visible, and I'm going to have a better pulse," Philbin says.
It's 10 a.m., and Philbin is off finally off the stand. He's ushered away from the crowd of reporters, whose final questions fall on deaf ears. Philbin has no more answers, but at least he can finally breathe.
The character questions
The NFL Scouting Combine is a tricky thing. The amount of information available borders on overload. The challenge for teams becomes sifting through it all. Tenths of a second on a 40-yard dash time, a few reps on the bench press and an answer in an interview can all make a difference for a prospect in some way, though how those things make a difference is largely a mystery.
Teams seem to agree on one thing, though. Talking to the players is important. Coaches and general managers want to get to know a player to gauge how he will fit into the locker room and learn what type of person he is.
Even Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who held his first press conference at the combine since 2009 on Thursday, thinks the interviews have merit.
"Having some interaction with the players personally is good, certainly good for me, because I've had almost zero over the course of the year because of the demands of our season."
In a draft class which Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert called the most immature group he's seen in years, interviews become even more important. You get potential access to over 300 players, some with off-the-field issues. How do you decipher a person's character in 15 minutes?
Sometimes character concerns are overblown. Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was arrested for driving under the influence last summer and was subsequently suspended for the first game of the season. A DUI arrest is a serious offense, and Jenkins recognizes this, but he never got in trouble again after the incident.
"I think it's pretty well-documented that I had a DUI. People might say I have character issues," Seferian-Jenkins said. "It was one incident and you can look through my history. I'm not perfect. Last time I checked no one is perfect.
"I don't think I'm a character risk or a character issue at all.''
Sometimes character concerns aren't so cut and dry. Sometime they make you look twice at a player. When Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan spoke about his run-ins with the law, his answers weren't as cut and dry as Seferian-Jenkins'. Lewan was once accused of threatening a victim of an ongoing sexual assault case and was also accused of punching an Ohio State fan.
Lewan is known for his nasty personalty on the field. He plays through the whistle and isn't always concerned with being 100-percent clean when he blocks. But he doesn't want people to get the wrong idea about him.
"That's not who I am off the field," Lewan said. "It's not the kind of person I am. It might seem that way because of the way I play football but it's not who I am."
By the time he steps off the podium and vanishes, Lewan hasn't given much more clarity to the type of person he is. He likes to play Super Smash Brothers, he would be working construction if it weren't for football and his past is not perfect.
Then there are time where character concerns just make you feel bad. When former Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla sat down at a table surrounded by microphones, he wasn't even thinking about football. Every question was about his drug history, arrest record and departure from the Oregon football team. Lyerla spoke with pain in his eyes and regret in his voice. He didn't seem much more sure of what was in front of him than anyone else was. He was just sorry.
"I'd say that I've put myself in a position where my back's against the wall, to a point that if I don't do everything perfect and the right way, that I won't be able to play football, let alone be successful in any shape and form," Lyerla said.
The right culture
Six hours after Philbin walks away from the podium, John Scneider, the general manager of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks steps behind the microphone. He first jokes about the topless pictures of him in the locker room after the Super Bowl wearing championship belt. Then he gets down to the serious business of football.
Schneider gets asked questions about locker room culture. But unlike Philbin, he doesn't mistakes to atone for. His locker room was one of the healthiest in the league in 2013. After all, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Miami's locker room may have been the biggest mess in the league.
So as the 300-plus draft prospects converge on Indianapolis, the question hangs in the air. How do you avoid what happened in Miami? Those players with question marks off the field are in the spotlight just a bit more throughout the process now. Locker room culture is a real issue, but as Schneider closes out the day of coach and general manager interviews, it doesn't feel like as big of a problem as it did earlier in the morning.
The combine is no longer about Philbin, the Dolphins or the players with character concerns.
"You guys know, everybody puts pressure on themselves," Schneider said. "We've tried to create a culture that's outgoing, fun, aggressive. Life's too short to stress yourself out and stress other people out."