The combine will heat up as the week goes on, but on the event's first day, the 49ers' and Browns' controversial regimes took center stage in Indianapolis.
INDIANAPOLIS—Before the players take center stage, the coaches and general managers get a day in front of the media at the start of the NFL scouting combine. Though there were offensive linemen, a handful of small-school quarterbacks and a few punters and kickers available to the media, Wednesday's session was dominated by the NFL's play-callers and shot-callers. Two NFL teams had thoughts that were of particular interest, and there was one offensive lineman who stood out (eating 7,000-plus calories?), as he has throughout the new year.
The 49ers are still on the defensive
San Francisco 49ers GM Trent Baalke wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He would prefer to avoid the subject of his franchise's recent past. That's a recent past that involves the team losing head coach Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in what looked more than anything like a power play for Baalke and CEO Jed York. Baalke and York had ways they wanted to do things, and Harbaugh wouldn't always go along, so Harbaugh (and Roman and Fangio, who the coach brought from Stanford in 2011) were out, and new head coach Jim Tomsula is in.
Tomsula, formerly the team's defensive line coach, was attached to York and Baalke to a truly stupefying degree, so much so that when former Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase interviewed for the head coach position that was vacated by Harbaugh, he expressed a desire to keep Fangio instead of having Tomsula as his defensive coordinator. And according to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, that eventually cost Gase the position. The 49ers were apparently fine with Gase's original choices for coordinators, but upon review, tried to crowbar Tomsula in there. Gase balked, and Tomsula received an unexpected promotion.
Given the pedigree of the coaches San Francisco let walk and Tomsula's relative inexperience, it's hard to see this as anything but the guys up top wanting someone malleable. With Harbaugh off to the University of Michigan, Roman in Buffalo and Fangio in Chicago, it was left to Baalke to explain himself.
Which, as it turned out, he really didn't want to do. Baalke is a pretty high-strung guy at the best of times, and it doesn't take much to get him riled up—he was directly behind me in the CenturyLink Field press box when the Seahawks beat his 49ers 17–7 last December, and that's when I discovered that Baalke is one of the more impressive desk-pounders in the NFL.
Bang... bang... bang... you could hear Harbaugh's future, for good reasons or not, being decided with every hit.
Well, a more nervous-looking Baalke took the podium on Wednesday morning, and after fielding a few softball questions about the types of receivers he might be looking for in the draft, he had to face the hard-hitters. When asked if he was concerned about losing a coach who had led the franchise to three NFC championship games and a Super Bowl in a very short amount of time, Baalke went straight into "Hey, look over there!" mode.
“Jim did a heck of a job," said Baalke. "He’s a heck of a coach. I think, once again, he’s gone his direction, we’ve gone ours. I feel very good about the direction we’re headed and I’m sure he does as well.”
In response to the question about Baalke and York forcing Harbaugh out, which Harbaugh has intimated, Baalke once again went all vanilla.
“Once again, he’s moved on, we’ve moved on and I think the important thing for us now is just to look forward and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve got important things happening here coming up and I know that’s where my focus is.”
Baalke shut down the Kawakami report in similar fashion.
“I didn’t read the reports, so I’m not real familiar with what you’re talking about. But, the job for the 49ers was offered to one person and one person only and that’s Jim Tomsula.”
Baalke later reiterated that Harbaugh did a "heck of a job" in San Francisco and that the Michigan job is, indeed, a "heck of a job" as well. True in both cases, but it's all on Baalke now, and he'd better be right about the changes he's made. CEOs tend to stick around in dark times, but high middle managers are fungible commodities when things go sour. That's something Baalke impressed upon Harbaugh, and if the Tomsula Plan goes as many expect, he'll most likely be the next on the chopping block.
Tomsula will speak during the Thursday media session, which should be an interesting spectacle.
The Browns are a hot mess, but they've got the right head coach
Their owner appears to be a Fredo version of Jerry Jones. Their general manager was recently busted for illegal texting. Their star quarterback is in rehab. Yes, the Cleveland Browns are The Californians of pro football, and head coach Mike Pettine is just trying to stay above it all. Pettine, who learned a lot about chaos when he was Rex Ryan's defensive coordinator with the Jets, was handed an industrial-sized can of it in 2014, his first season as Cleveland's head coach. At his media session, Pettine was refreshingly honest, for the most part, about the aftereffects of such a dysfunctional season.
Johnny Manziel's in rehab? Pettine is on it: He recently visited Manziel in the facility.
"I'll keep the details of that private, just to respect his privacy and the situation he's in," Pettine said. "But other than that, also in general terms, we're in that time of year with players where there's not a lot of communication, conversations cannot be football-based. I wanted to go visit him and see how he's doing and let him know that we're proud of him for the decision he made to go in. Obviously he has our full support."
Pettine said that the decision to seek recovery was Manziel's, not the team's, and that he doesn't have a firm idea of when Manziel will be back.
"He's in a much better place now than before he went in," Pettine said of his quarterback. "He's very determined to come out of it in a much better way."
In the end, Pettine wanted to avoid the questions about Manziel's background in college, and how the Browns could have missed so badly, but he did address them.
"I'm not into hindsight and woulda, coulda, shoulda with that, what regrets we have," he said. "We coached [Manziel] to the best of our abilities as a coaching staff. There were some issues that at the end of the year he felt he needed to address. He stepped forward and said, 'I need help,' and went ahead and initiated it. I hope we treat him as we treated him before."
As for GM Ray Farmer's texting scandal, Pettine was pretty darn forthcoming about a guy who's essentially his boss.
"I'll be honest, I wasn't thrilled about it. Ray and I have had very clear and open conversations about it. I think as you guys will see tomorrow when you talk to him, he's apologized not just to myself but to other members of the organization. In-game is very emotional. I'm not going to go into my initial reaction, but at the same time I'm very comfortable with my relationship with Ray. That hasn't changed. We see things very much the same. It's a mistake, he admits it. A lot of it is deeply rooted in his competitiveness. I think if you polled all the GMs, those three or four hours on Sunday might be the toughest of the week.
"It's an unfortunate thing and we're waiting for the league to hand down the punishment for it. Whatever it is, we'll abide by it."
Pettine also said that team owner Jimmy Haslam isn't involved in personnel decisions. There are very few people in the league who will buy that line, but it is what it is.
"To me, the most upsetting thing about this month has been the depiction of Jimmy Haslam," Pettine said. "I know some people are going to say, 'This is the guy who signs his checks, so he's going to pump him up.' He's been depicted as a guy who's been meddlesome and involved in a lot of decisions and that hasn't been the case at all. He was not involved in any draft decisions, he was not involved in any playing time decisions. He's been the ultimate ... we talk about it as servant leadership. 'What do you need for us to get better?' There hasn't been one instance where we asked for something and he said no.
"He's very inquisitive. He wants to know a lot what's going on. But for us as a coaching staff in year one, he was outstanding."
It's obviously unknown what Pettine's coaching legacy will be in Cleveland. He's had an uphill battle from the start. And it's easy to imagine an organization that changes coaches and GMs like others change practice uniforms throwing him out with the bathwater after another bad season. But it's also true that Pettine has handled a difficult situation with toughness and grace, and that will play well for his future, no matter where that may be.
Hobart offensive lineman Ali Marpet is one to watch
Unless you saw him at the Senior Bowl, you might be saying to yourself, "Ali who?" And unless you're a huge fan of the Hobart Statesmen, fair enough. But Marpet went from playing Endicott, Merchant Marine and Johns Hopkins in the heart of the Fingerlakes in upstate New York to blocking the best senior defenders the NCAA had to offer in Mobile, Ala., and he didn't miss a beat. That led him to the combine, and to a Wednesday afternoon media session that was far more populated than it would have been a month ago.
And Marpet was just as ready for this moment as he'd been for any other. This spotlight wasn't too big for him, and he turned out to be quite the quote machine.
On the jump in competition at the Senior Bowl: was he intimidated?
"At first, I wasn't sure how I was going to match up. Pretty soon, I knew I would be okay. I was invited there for a reason. But it was huge for me, that first day. Going out and getting used to the speed ... the speed was the biggest difference going from D-III to D-I. I was able to handle the size, and once I had a few reps, I was fine.
"It wasn't overwhelming, but there was definitely a huge change in verbiage. A lot more recognition that we have to do as offensive linemen, as opposed to the quarterback. But I think it was an easy transition—I mean, we only had three days to learn the playbook."
As it turned out, the guys who Marpet struggled with at the Senior Bowl were the same guys everyone else struggled with: Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton and Utah defensive end Nate Orchard.
"Danny Shelton was on the North squad, so I would go up against him in practice. He's a big body. You don't see a guy who's 330, 340, whatever he is. And if you do see someone that big, you don't see him with that sort of explosiveness. The combination of those things was the biggest jump. I think I struggled most of all with the quickness of some of the edge guys. Nate Orchard was a quick guy off the edge, and it was that first step that was the hardest. I got used to it by the third day. And in the game, I was fine."
On how much he grew from his freshman year:
"I came into camp in my freshman year at 255 pounds. I just weighed in at 307 pounds. It's always been a struggle to try and gain weight. Each meal is a battle, and it's part of my job—255 is definitely too small, even for a Division III school. My senior year, I played at around 300 pounds, and it felt good. I take eating pretty seriously."
"It's a job. It's something I take really seriously. I know there are some guys down here who have to stay away from the desserts, but I don't have to worry about that, I'm the opposite way. I was just pounding pasta a little while ago, before I got up here.
"Usually during the season, I lose seven pounds. We did a Bod Pod test, which is a body fat test, and it showed that if I just laid in bed for 24 hours, I'd be wasting 3,500 calories. So, just sitting around, I need to eat 3,500 calories a day to maintain my body weight. When I'm exercising, I need 7,000-plus to maintain, and if I want to gain weight, I need 8-9,000 calories. That's not easy."
Not at all. And every football writer in attendance nodded knowingly—at least, about the calories.