NFL Combine 2013: The mysterious & team-proprietary interview process

Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE

As I wrote last week in my preview of what to watch for as it comes to the Seahawks and the NFL Combine, the physical speed, strength, and agility tests that take place in Indianapolis are important, but represent an ancillary part of the process for this Seahawks front office. As John Schneider said, heading into last year's Combine, "Our primary goal at the Combine is to get as many questions answered as possible from the meetings we've just had for the past 17 days. That includes psychology questions, scheme-fit questions, medical questions, any background questions, any character questions." No mention of 40 times?

"We've given the coaches some players to start evaluating," Schneider continued, "that they're going to be interviewing at the Combine. Because for them, they're just starting to get to know the guys and it's their first exposure to the players the scouts have been looking at."

In other words, for the most part, Seattle - the scouts, front office, coaches - have settled on their preliminary draft board during two or three weeks of intensive meetings, and the Combine will be an opportunity to tweak things based on psych, background, character, and scheme fit/medical questions. Will this guy fit in our locker room? Will he work hard? Practice hard? Play hard? Is he competitive? Does he have that fire inside, chip on his shoulder? Can he learn a playbook? Recognize schemes, sets, formations? Football IQ, information processing, attitude, drive, etc, and so forth.

Does he love to play ball? This is one of the most important questions that Pete Carroll and Schneider must answer.

Now, I won't totally oversell the meetings. The physical testing will add some players to their board and/or move guys around based on excellent/poor showings. The meetings can only do so much for a player if that player has serious physical or talent concerns. Take Russell Wilson, the absolute best example of this, as a 5'10 quarterback with 1st round talent that ended up going 75th overall. It wasn't because of his play -- he had one of the best seasons for a college quarterback of all time. It certainly wasn't because of his interviews -- "The most impressive interview I've ever had in the last 25 years of doing this? Russell Wilson," Chiefs GM John Dorsey said recently. "Wasn't even close. You could feel that guy as a person, how strong he was, how intellectually deep he was, how mentally tough he was, that he had the charisma to lead other players. I always try to look at kids like I'm in the locker room and I'm a teammate. It was easy to see this guy leading a team."

Even the Seahawks, who were super high on Wilson throughout the whole college season and All-Star game circuit waited until the 3rd round to nab Wilson (you could say they knew he'd fall to there, but that's just a guess). Like 31 other teams, they too looked at his height as a serious factor. So, obviously, physical measurements will come into play this week. The thing that intrigues me though is that of all the things that go on at the Combine, the player meetings and interviews seem to very little publicity, yet play a very important part in the process.

Part of this is the mystery behind these meetings. You don't have media present so it's obviously pretty difficult to know what's going on behind closed doors unless players or coaches tell you afterwords. There have been leaks that disclose some infamous questions asked to players, like Jeff Ireland's query to Dez Bryant on whether or not his mother was a prostitute. That one was bad. I can only imagine some of the things that don't get reported. I also do not envy Manti T'eo this week.

So what do these meetings look like? As Field Yates of ESPN Boston explains:

Each NFL team has a first-floor suite that they are allowed to set up in whatever manner they choose (most teams bring projectors and whiteboards so that they can study tape and quiz players that they are interviewing. A full spread of food is equally common, as the interviews can extend deep into the night).

Inside of the hotel, teams meet with players they specifically requested for 15 minutes at a time (no longer), and players have an itinerary that lays out which team they will be meeting with and when. The process begins with a fog horn going off to start the initial 15 minute window, and every 15 minutes it is blown again so as to signal it is time for the team to let the player they were interviewing continue on his way.

The interviews take place within the team's suites, often involving the position coach of that player's position, and also the coordinators (plus the head coach and personnel brass). The conversation can be casual just to get a feel for the player, or technical, with questions about coverages, reads, schemes, etc. Anything a team feels it needs to cover with a player to better gauge him is addressed.

Each team can request up to 60 player interviews - and it's a strictly timed process. "Each player has a schedule, we have a schedule, at twelve minutes you hear the horn to let you know the time's almost up. You hear another horn at 15-minutes, that guy leaves another guy comes in," Bills Assistant GM Doug Whaley explains.

Andrew Brandt, John Schneider's former colleague in Green Bay, shared one thing that he used to make a regular part of his player interviews (keep in mind that John Schneider was probably present for this line of questioning).

Former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt knew the players had been prepped for the combine interviews for weeks, so he would try throwing them off. "What do you do when you get up in the morning?" he'd ask.

Brandt would keep drilling the players with those seemingly inane questions until he found out whether the young man in front of him was dedicated and hard-working. "I was looking for the guys that did a hundred pushups before they brushed their teeth, the guys that woke up early for that last study before class," said Brandt, who cited former Packers all-pro defensive end Aaron Kampman as an example. With a laugh, Brandt added, "At some point the coaches and general manager kicked me out, 'Hey, you're taking too much time with your games you play.'"

Schneider consistently talks about how from the top down - front office to coaches to players - one virtue that he constantly espouses is the value of hard work. Schneider is a blue collar guy that works insane hours - and personally scouted three or four of Russell Wilson's games last winter. They're now a perfect match in Seattle.

Per that USA Today story on the interview process, there are other methods employed to illicit reactions from players:

There are often quicker, more aggressive "games" played, like the one the Ravens' Smith faced. Brandon Meriweather, a first-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2007, also diffused a similar situation. Meriweather hadn't even completed the act of sitting down in his chair for a meeting with a team when the University of Miami safety heard the first question about his role in an on-field melee the previous season.

"What the (expletive) were you thinking?"

The technique was designed to see if Meriweather's temper would kick in. It didn't, and Meriweather said the tenor of the rest of the interview was a much more professional one.

There are technical questions - per San Francisco 49ers DT Ricky-Jean Francois: "He was just showing different clips, different plays, asking me what the formation was. I had never seen some of it. If your mouth stopped, something was coming off his tongue right quick."

There are character questions - per Ravens defensive end Pernell McPhee: "It's personal questions. Your family, how you were raised, how well you did in school, if you had any failed drug tests, run-ins with the law. They ask you every question possible, and they already know the answer. They just want to see if you're going to tell the truth."

For a team like the Seahawks -- a team that regularly will acquire or draft players that have had previous run-ins with the law or who have character red-flags -- these interview sessions are eminently important. Pete Carroll mentioned last year how they got 'unique information' on Bruce Irvin before deciding to take him with the 15th overall pick. How that information was gleaned - I don't know, but I do know that Carroll had known Irvin for years, so he did his homework on him and likely asked him straight up to explain his run-ins with the law.

I just wish I could be a fly on the wall for these meetings.

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