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Money, pressure to win contribute to NFL execs pushing the envelope

While most of the attention this week has naturally focused on what Jeff Ireland said to Dez Bryant in the course of their now controversial pre-draft interview, the real question is: Why would the Miami Dolphins general manager even consider such a question to the highly-regarded but enigmatic Oklahoma State receiver?

Ireland has issued his apology for having asked Bryant if his mother was ever a prostitute, it has been accepted, and delving back into that part of the story does little more than continues Ireland's piñata-like existence this week. But the revealing part of this saga is trying to get at the contributing factors that have turned NFL decision-makers into one part detective, one part amateur psychologist, and one part human resource official in the course of conducting these pre-draft prospect interviews.

How exactly did we get here, with one team's no-nonsense general manager crossing the line separating tough, but necessary due diligence and an offensive question that strikes almost everyone as needless and entirely too personal? Is that what the NFL's pre-draft interview process has become in 2010, an exercise in how to administer the third-degree to prospective players, especially those with some character-issue baggage?

Yes and no was the answer I heard from several NFL club front-office executives this week, all of whom agreed to discuss Ireland's highly charged question and its aftermath anonymously, given the sensitive nature of the topic and their unwillingness to add to the level of condemnation a respected colleague already has incurred.

"Miami's mentality is pretty straight forward, pretty all-business in how they do things,'' one NFL general manager told me. "[Dolphins football czar] Bill [Parcells] is like that and so is Jeff. I'm not defending them, but I can see how they went straight at it. Their decision-makers felt they had to find out, is this the case? It is crossing the line, but there's a 'There by the grace of God go I' quality to the whole thing, and I guarantee you everybody in our business who does this felt that on a certain level.

"What happens sometimes is we become so driven to find out the truth of an issue that we throw out decorum, and we think we're playing detective in there with one light bulb shining down on this player. I think we need to all use this incident to take a step back and consider the process of questioning these players in this situation, and realize there's a right way to ask tough questions.''

Jim Trotter: Logical follow-up question not worthy of outrage

In talking to club executives and personnel decision-makers, it's not difficult to find contributing factors for teams feeling the need these days to push the boundaries of what questions are fair game, especially in the case of players being considered for the very lucrative top half of the first round. They all cite a version of the following influences:

• Money. It's bigger every year in the first round, and there's more at stake than ever financially in making sure a player's future is worth investing in. Prior to their Brandon Marshall trade, the Dolphins were once considering Bryant with their No. 12 pick in the first round. Due largely to his well-documented character/maturity issues, Bryant wound up dropping to the less-lucrative No. 24 slot, where Dallas got a relative bargain in choosing him.

• The emphasis on player conduct by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made teams more wary of taking the next Pacman Jones and suffering the consequences. Don't forget, owners and teams can now be fined by the commissioner if they have repeat offenders on their rosters.

• The increasing pressure to win now in the NFL. With coaches and general managers no longer given anything resembling honeymoon periods, or shown much patience (see Jim Mora in Seattle, Jim Zorn in Washington, George Kokinis in Cleveland, and Eric Mangini in New York), the need to make sure you know what you're getting in the draft has never been more urgent. With no time to waste, teams aren't as inclined to consider any topics off limits, and in that environment, mistakes are made.

• The understandable push back by NFL clubs against the coaching and programmed responses they get from prospects who have been taught by agents and handlers to reveal nothing too meaningful or unflattering in their pre-draft team interviews. It's a cat-and-mouse game that gets more choreographed every year, NFL club executives say.

"There are a lot of different things that come into play in this issue,'' one NFL club front-office executive said. "Teams are spending more time than ever looking at the character-issue players. We have to. The commissioner has made personal conduct very important, and when you see players like Pacman Jones get drafted and then flame out in grand fashion, teams look at that and start scrutinizing everything about the players. Maybe too much so.

"I promise you the Dolphins are not the only team that asks tough questions. Not by any stretch. What you're doing, especially at the top of the draft, is risk elimination. Some of that is about the money. It's all about making a good safe decision. There are tactful ways to ask tough questions, and Jeff didn't ask it the right way. But I understand why they asked it. You're tying to get a response from a player and find out everything you can find out about him.''

The need to be safe rather than sorry in the draft is more prevalent than ever, the club front-office executive said. And it explains how Jacksonville can take a player like Cal defensive tackle Tyson Aluala at No. 10, even though few clubs rated him higher than the bottom of the first round, and no one likely had him graded higher than Bryant, the draft's top-rated receiver.

"Dez Bryant is twice the talent Tyson Aluala is, but Jacksonville took him because he was a very safe pick,'' the club front-office executive said. "You're not talking ability, you're talking character with that pick. It's really telling. No one in their right mind would ever take Tyson Aluala over Dez Bryant in terms of ability. But in terms of character you would. You can see with that pick how much the scales have changed, and how much character means more these days.''

The specter of a high-profile character case like Pacman Jones, whose fall from first-round pick in Tennessee to poster child for the league's renewed emphasis on its personal conduct policy was stunningly swift, has possibly led some personnel evaluators to over-reach in their player interviews, one NFL personnel man said.

"You're kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't, because if you don't find out as much as possible and take a guy who bombs out because of character, you can lose your job, a'la (ex-Tennessee general manager) Floyd Reese,'' he said. "He drafted Pacman, Pacman got in trouble, and it started a snowball effect and he lost his job over it.

"Then again, if you probe as far as you can, you can catch heat for that as well. I wouldn't have asked that question [of Bryant]. I wouldn't have gone there. But if a personnel evaluator misses on too many of those, you lose your job. My sense is the Dolphins were trying to push his buttons. Maybe they cared less about his response than seeing how he reacted to having his buttons pushed.''

The laws that govern what a potential employer can ask a potential employee can't be ignored in the NFL, but they're also not a perfect fit for these particular job interviews. Take the case of last year's NFL offensive rookie of the year, Minnesota's receiver-return man Percy Harvin, who was drafted in the first round by the Vikings. He entered the NFL having failed a drug test for marijuana at the league's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis in February.

Understandably, teams who had interest in him about asked his pot use extensively. In most settings outside the NFL, if you failed a company's pre-employment drug test, you're not the getting the job. But Harvin flagged a test and still got picked in the first round. First he had to assuage the Vikings' skepticism about his drug use. The Dolphins, some club executives said, were clumsily attempting the same basic exercise, trying to discern how much Bryant's background might play into his well-known track record for immaturity and irresponsibility. But they took it a step too far.

"What questions are always out-of-bounds?'' one NFL club executive said. "I don't know. I think teams have asked players if they're gay or not. That's happened. We haven't, but it has been done. Can you ask a guy if he's ever stolen money from his teammate? I don't know if that's OK. But if you have that information, shouldn't you be able to ask about it and find out if the kid is truthful about it, before employing him? We all remember the Tatum Bell incident [in Detroit] a few years ago.''

If anything, in this age of Google, there's too much information readily available about potential draft picks, and maybe too many topics that seem to be in play, NFL club executives say. Separating fact from the fiction that can exist on the internet is more challenging than background checks from years gone by, and that can lead to questions like Ireland's.

"Fifteen years ago you couldn't just go to Google and type in Dez Bryant, mother, and the word prostitution and see what comes back,'' a club personnel man said. "Because it's out there, at least as a rumor. But the information overload is a part of what we're dealing with here. There's so much more information, and you feel like you've got to check it all out.

"Look at a kid like Michael Oher with the Ravens last year. He fell all the way to No. 23, partly because people said he wasn't smart, and there was the whole story of his background and where he came from in the book [The Blind Side]. It played a part in him lasting that long in the first round.''

NFL clubs have always dealt in the rumor mill in the pre-draft scouting process. Club executives say it's a necessity to stay as informed as possible, but also agree lines have to be drawn as to what questions can then be directly tossed at a potential draft pick.

"One of the things that happens is when a team's scouts are out doing their research and evaluation of players, they tend to dig on their own and get information from other scouts around the country about guys,'' one NFL general manager said. "You hear stuff, and it takes on a life of its own in the case of a character issue. What might have been a suggestion, all of sudden it becomes a rumor and there's conjecture that's there more to this. Maybe his mom is this, or there's more to the issues than we knew.

"So even though it starts off as a rumor, and nothing concrete, it might precipitate a GM saying, OK, I'm going to get to the bottom of this and find out myself what the truth is. Our owner wants to be in the know about everything. Not only from a money invested standpoint, but in light of the commissioner's push on the player conduct front. You want to know everything about a guy and his history, because he may wind up getting our owner fined by the league.''

In this year's draft, teams were probing Florida State safety and Rhodes scholar Myron Rolle on how deeply his commitment to football ran, and his priorities in life. They were firing questions at Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, trying to uncover how much truth there was behind his reputation for having accountability and leadership issues. But Bryant was the most hotly debated high-profile player with character red flags, and some say his being the target of this year's most provocative pre-draft interview question isn't too surprising.

"Teams feel the investment is great enough that the questions are getting tougher,'' said one club executive from a team that picked high in 2010's first round. "Teams are looking for ways to decipher what's true and what's not. There was some question on whether Dez can take tough coaching, and that could have been part of what the Dolphins were trying to figure out about him. Some teams ask questions where they're hoping to get guys riled up, because they think they don't have passion for the game. That's where it gets very tricky, because every team has a different reason for asking these questions.''

Finding anyone willing to defend the line that was crossed in the case of Ireland and Bryant -- even if Ireland's question was part of a give-and-take conversation with the Cowboys receiver -- is difficult. But this is an incident that may prove to be a tipping point of sorts in terms of what league personnel evaluators feel is within bounds in an interview setting, NFL team executives say. The envelope has definitely been pushed in recent years, and perhaps with the eventuality of a new rookie wage scale being part of the next CBA, the pressure to probe quite so far will decline to a degree as rookie salaries are scaled back.

"You can talk about the money, the risk of taking the personal conduct violator, and all of that plays a part,'' one club executive said. "But sometimes in the heat of the moment in these interviews, you're going at it rapid fire and you're asking questions designed to get revealing answers, and you basically lose sight of where the lines are and where they should be drawn.

"That's what happens. You're trying to fit the pieces of your puzzle together, but only you know the road map, and you're kind of leading the witness. In Dez's case, I don't understand what can be gained from that question, and that makes the question silly. But the process is you have a bunch of dots and you're trying to connect them. That's what we're doing in there.''

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