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Everything Good at the NFL Combine Happens After 2 A.M.

As soon as the announcement went over the loudspeakers Saturday afternoon that “Michael Sam will be speaking at the podium,” it was a lung-bursting sprint against the clock to jockey for position. Reporters, with iPhones in hand, raced to get closest to the stage; dozens of photographers and cameramen slid in behind them.

A red-headed cameraman chasing the crowd nearly bowled over a few people 20 feet from the stage and then he delivered a shoulder to the back of NFL Network reporter Michael Silver, nearly knocking him over.

Silver collected himself, shouted, “what the fuck are you doing?” and then muttered a few other obscenities while the cameraman sheepishly turned around for a half-second apology before scurrying as close to the herd as possible.

Michael Sam, the openly gay football player from the University of Missouri, took mostly banal questions from the press, but one – “Do you feel like a trailblazer?” – elicited a comical response from a media member seated at a table behind the podium. A writer from a Florida newspaper blurted out, ‘SERIOUSLY?’ and three men near him shook their heads before the defensive lineman could say, “I feel like Michael Sam.”

After Sam left the podium, Gil Brandt, the 80-year old veteran NFL analyst, went over to the Houston press corps and quietly said, “Biggest crowd ever. That’s the biggest.”

The subject of Sam kept popping up at the Combine among the media, and not just, “will he get drafted?” Nobody seemed surprised spurned Sports Illustrated went all-in on Sam with anonymous sources. Many think a small media market would be the best fit.

But my trip to the Combine wasn’t with the intent to write about what was being shown on TV, but rather to absorb everything surrounding the ever-expanding event and chronicle the look and feel of the weekend in Indianapolis.

Nothing good happens after 2 am? The opposite is true at the Combine.

“WE’RE OFF THE RECORD, RIGHT?”

Prime 47

Prime 47 (formerly Mo’s) is ground zero for after-hours shenanigans at the NFL Combine. Teeming with coaches, scouts, agents, media members and very attractive, very available women with daring decolletage and earrings the size of hubcaps, it has a Spring Break-for-NFL-types feel to it.

In what felt like the house party scene from Swingers, an expectant crowd turned to see a large group of people entering. Alas, it was only Greg Schiano, with shoulders slouched and eyes rimmed with fatigue. The crowd collectively shrugged.

Coaches seemed to spread out to other venues more this year, perhaps knowing the spotlight on Prime 47 was so bright. Chip Kelly planted himself at High Velocity inside the JW Marriott Saturday, devouring food with a Churchillian determination. Daniel Snyder, the Lilliputian owner of the Washington Redskins, kept a low profile all weekend, but did visit Hooters with the Redskins staff. Jay Glazer somehow got Seattle GM John Schneider and Denver coach John Fox at the same table at St. Elmo’s.

The coaches or GMs who did post up at Prime 47 occasionally got approached by fans, and it was comical to see which move they’d go to in hopes of ending the conversation. Whipping out the phone and scrolling was a popular one. If that hint wasn’t sufficient, they’d extend the “nice meeting you” hand, and seek asylum in the coach’s corner.

Without fail, within 90 seconds of first meeting a scout or agent, an NFL Combine virgin would hear, “we’re off the record, right?” By the end of the conversation, some joked about being off the record; others were pretty clear nothing could be repeated.

The most fun/bizarre encounter I had was with former 2nd round pick out of West Virginia John Thornton, who spent 10 years in the NFL. A hulking presence, Thornton is now an agent, and works in tandem with Roc Nation on Geno Smith, the Jets QB.

When I introduced myself as Jason, he looked me up and down and before I could say my last name, he said, “yeah, I know you, McIntyre, the guy who was killing Geno Smith on twitter last season.”

My eyes popped a bit, and I was taken aback.

[Aside: Of the many lessons learned this weekend – lots of NFL personnel, scouts, and agents monitor twitter. Closely.]

Before I could respond, Thornton said, “Was it week 10 after the Buffalo game? Or wait, after the Tennessee game?”

Who remembers tweets from months ago? Agents, that’s who.

The most popular NFL topic at the bars was by far Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco-Cleveland thing (runner-up was the Ian Rapoport vs. Mike Florio brief twitter battle that followed.) The Combine chatter was that there’s no way Harbaugh is coaching in San Francisco after next season, even though he has two years left on his deal.

A great line I heard from an AFC assistant coach was that the real reason the 49ers are building a new stadium is that Harbaugh’s ego doesn’t fit into Candlestick Park. He won at Stanford, in San Francisco, and famously made the franchise draft Colin Kaepernick. But like Bill Parcells, who wore out his welcome after four prickly years in New England, three with the Jets and four in Dallas, San Francisco has had it with Harbaugh’s antics.

Prepare for Harbaugh Watch all season in 2014. Assuming Harbaugh doesn’t win the Super Bowl, NFL people repeatedly say Dallas is the most likely landing spot because, well, Jerry Jones.

SMOKESCREEN SEASON

Caraun Reid

One of the most fascinating players in the 2014 draft who few are talking about now, but might in a few years, is Princeton defensive lineman Caraun Reid. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-2, 302-pounds, he took a seat in a plastic chair and it disappeared.

Reid is from the Bronx, not exactly a football hotbed. His parents? Jamaican ministers. Reid matriculated to Princeton, and majored in sociology. He slayed the Senior Bowl in January. Saturday, he sat at a table with four reporters, while three dozen flocked to the table next to him when Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough – the guy who was suspended for the Rose Bowl – sat down.

Reid’s eloquent nature and size made me think of Jonathan Martin, so I asked him what he thought of that disaster in Miami.

“I can’t attach a sociology theory to that one,” he laughed. “There are outliers in everything.”

One scout told me Reid could be a bigger deal in three years than Louis Nix, the Notre Dame star. Ask someone from an NFL team about Reid, and answers vary. Is he tough enough? Does he have a mean streak? Sure, his measurables are more impressive than Will Sutton of Arizona State, but what about the competition he faced?

It’s smokescreen season.

“You have to sift through the bullshit,” said Jeff Darlington of the NFL Network. “Nobody has any incentive to tell the truth. So when I’m talking to trusted sources, I try to make sure I don’t put them in situations where they need to lie directly to my face.”

Vonn Bell intercepts Tajh Boyd in the Orange Bowl

Enter Tajh Boyd, the Clemson QB. On December 31, 2012, Boyd put on a show for the ages, carving up an LSU defense stacked with future pros, leading Clemson to victory. In a draft that suddenly began to look bleak in terms of QBs, Boyd might have gone ahead of Matt Barkley, Landry Jones, and Mike Glennon.

Then, Boyd decided to stay in school.

He put up impressive numbers, but when you stay in school, your game gets ruthlessly dissected (see Barkley, Matt). A few questions into Boyd’s trip to the podium, an overhead speaker announced Sammy Watkins would be taking questions nearby, and a third of the crowd bolted to hear what the likely Top 10 pick had to say. Boyd, undeterred and upbeat, took all the difficult queries and deflected them as if he were a missile shield.

“I told myself I was leaving after the LSU game,” Boyd said. Whether it was the NFL draft advisory board, the love of college life or something else, he stuck around Clemson for another year. “I don’t regret the decision at all. People were talking about me as a top 15 pick coming into the season … I still don’t think there’s a better QB in the draft than me.”

Was Boyd’s senior season a result of putting pressure on himself? Did his lack of size and speed worry teams upon closer inspection? Did he post monster numbers in bowl games against LSU and Ohio State because defense is optional in bowl games? Why did he flounder in big regular season games the last two years?

One NFL front office executive tried to sell me the idea that nobody’s talking about Boyd because maybe that’s the way somebody wants it. “I’m not picking on Kiper and McShay and Mayock, but in their final mock drafts, last year, two had Geno Smith in the Top 10 and one had Ryan Nassib in the Top 10. None had EJ Manuel in the 1st round. Look it up – this type of misdirection happens most often with quarterbacks.”

Jimmy Garoppolo

I asked the aforementioned executive which QBs could this happen to in the May draft and he got hypothetical on me: “How would you know if I was bullshitting you or not? What if I gave you [Jimmy] Garoppolo. There’s no way for you to tell whether or not we really want him. I know your work, but I don’t know you. And even if I knew you, I might give you Garoppolo because we want everyone sniffing around on Garoppolo thinking we want him while we’re quietly going after someone else.”

These situations abound at almost every position, but because QB is the most important player on the field, the obfuscation is most prevalent.

Without getting too X-Files-trust-nobody on you: Mike Evans is widely regarded as the second best receiver in the draft. In my last two mock drafts I had him going to the Jets. After a blazing 40, impressive measurements and allegedly strong interviews, the buzz in Indy was he may not make it out of the Top 10. But then, this: a college scouting director dismembered Evans, picking apart his game in intricate detail to the point that doubt actually crept into my mind.

And that’s the thing about the Combine – front office types, agents, scouts, coaches – everyone is happy to open the door to doubt.

COACHED UP

If you watched any of the NFL Combine on TV, you were barraged with clichés and mundane coach-speak from the players. In addition to training for months for the various drills, many players were coached up by agents on how to handle the interview process with teams and the media.

Often, the result was boring quotes.

cody latimer

Cody Latimer, a confident 6-foot-2 receiver from Indiana said he went into interviews – 14 in all – speaking his mind because why fake the funk, when teams will obviously see through it?

When asked about Michael Sam: “No impact. I’m there to win. He can do him – I’m going to do me.”

On how he’d handle a Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation: “I’d confront the guy. If that didn’t work, I’d mention something to the coach. I’m not going in throwing punches or anything; I definitely wouldn’t let it get that far.”

While Latimer says he wasn’t really coached up by his agent to prepare for the media onslaught at the Combine, it felt as if the majority of the players were. It was as if they were handed a sheet with talking points, and no matter the question, they’d hem and haw and quickly revert back to the game plan.

Take LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. At LSU he was never afraid to speak his mind, and uttered this classic in 2013: “it’s not like I’m Tim Tebow and have terrible mechanics.”

Yet when Mettenberger took the podium, he was coached so well that he essentially took a deep breath before answering each question, and was nearly robotic in his answers. I attempted a curve ball: The NFL has become a running QB league – Wilson, Kaepernick, Newton, etc – and you’re not really known for your mobility. Does that concern you at all?

“Do you think Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are fast?” Mettenberger shot back. It felt like it was something he actually wanted to say. Real. Honest.

That sort of honesty was mostly absent from the Combine.

zach mettenberger LSU Tigers

Agent-bashing runs rampant at the Combine. And media bashing is a popular sport as well. But I came from the source-building and the stories – and Steak ‘n Shake late-night runs where being a fly-on-the-wall is enjoyable because everyone comes in hammered, with stories oozing out like melted butter. It makes you wonder what would happen next year if TMZ showed up.

I’ll leave you with this fun little tale:

After power agent Tom Condon inked Robert Griffin III in 2012, he sent a private jet to Waco to fly RG3 out to Arizona to work with Terry Shea, the former Rutgers coach who is now a quarterback coach. Shea has worked with several Condon-signed QBs, such as Blaine Gabbert, Sam Bradford and Josh Freeman.

Except RG3 didn’t want to go. He was open to working with a QB coach, but didn’t want to work with Shea. As the story goes, the private jet sat in Waco for a day or two, and then Condon himself flew in to execute an end-around: Instead of pressuring RG3 to go, Condon allegedly went to RG3’s two best friends on campus and told them if they could convince RG3, they too could fly out on the private jet with him for an all-expenses paid weekend of fun in the Arizona sun.

And yup, RG3 went.

 

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