The NFL Scouting Combine is getting ready to start this weekend in Indianapolis, but the most important part of it has already begun. The interview process -- where prospects sit down and speak with front office luminaries, has become more important than the 40-yard dash.
Most scouts can look at a prospective player on film and know whether or not the kid will be able to play in the league. Running 40s, darting through cones, benching the world, these will only reinforce what most NFL evaluators already believe about the player coming into the combine.
But the interview process is where combine gold is found. It is the best way for evaluators to get a feel for the intellect, emotional state and general character of a player, and these are the things that divide and separate one young man from the other. What lies within has become the most anticipated drill in Indianapolis. How a young player answers critical questions helps evaluators determine if the kid will hold up mentally and emotionally when the best opposes the best.
The salary cap and free agency have redefined the game of football. General managers, pro personnel men and scouts are weighed, measured and, sometimes, found wanting based on whom they hitch their wagon to; it's how careers are forged. Repeated mistakes that cost owners money are not tolerated very well and punishment usually involves banishment from the byways, hallways and thoroughfares of security-laced offices.
The problem with the interview process is that agents get ahold of these college prospects and train them, teach them and coach them what to say. A young man that may have had problems off the field but on campus suddenly turns into Eddie Haskell (Google it, My Young Crunks). Players that have had run-ins with their college coaches need to be closely examined, but many coaches know their program's prestige (not to mention future recruiting prowess) is directly tied to putting butts in the National Football League. Many times the truth about a kid gets lost in translation of personal interests and agendas.
But coaches in college programs are not the only violators of fudging a kid's character for the betterment of personal interest. Even NFL evaluators will tell you they think a spotty prospect is, "A bad kid in the first round, a troubled kid in the second round, and a misunderstood kid in the third round."
Character matters to most teams and the best way to determine whether or not a kid has character involves conversations with campus police, checking police blotters, monitoring security cameras in dorms, speaking with ex-girlfriends and water-boarding the kid's parents. Unfortunately, since there are only 24 hours in the day and resources at a premium, this degree of scrutiny is never employed.
And that's why NFL evaluators cherish the interview at the combine. This is where they make their money. Will this kid turn into a perennial Pro Bowl player or will he be a perennial Punk Bowl player? I know one GM from the NFC North that told me he won't draft a guy that is mentally or emotionally troubled in any way, shape or form. He told me they, "Put him in a box," and won't touch him no matter how far he plummets down draft boards.
General managers, everybody sitting in that room need to be pseudo-psychologists. They need to be able to read people and not always words. Questions need to be worded in a specific way and have deeper meaning. Many times the answer a prospect gives may fill said prospect with certitude, knowing he nailed the question, when his answer filled his inquisitors with disdain.
If I'm an NFL evaluator, I want a kid that takes personal responsibility for his actions and his character and his play on the field. I want a kid that makes the game personal by taking his performance personally. I want a kid that believes he can only control his performance on the field. I want a player that plays for no one or nothing else than the standard he has set for himself. I want a young man that can inspire others by showing them what a self-starter looks like and how a self-motivated individual prepares and works at his craft. I want a prospect that couldn't care less what the down-and-distance is, what quarter it is, what the score is or what week of the season it is; I want a player that only sees the next play as an opportunity to prove he is worthy of playing this great game -- and doing it with all he possesses. I want a kid that is his harshest critic, evaluates himself honestly, focuses on his minuses and is consumed with belly-fire when he watches himself get his face kicked in on the grid. I want a young man that understands this is a business, that he is a mercenary in the biggest mercenary league humans have conceived, and is driven by the need to support his family and provide a better way for his offspring. I want a kid that will tell his agent to shut his face and stop telling him what to say in the interview room because he doesn't need to be coached and knows it's about him and nobody else.
I want that kid.
I want a kid to care more about Pro Bowls than Super Bowls. If you get enough of those guys on your roster, Super Bowls will be your reward.