INDIANAPOLIS -- By now it has evolved into almost something of an art form here: every year, from the podiums in the media workroom, a new crop of red-flagged draft prospects deliver the full-blown NFL combine mea culpa. The tried and true playbook calls for displays of outright contrition and accountability and a relentless shift of focus from the misdeeds of the past to the bright future that awaits.
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And on Saturday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, it was Marcus Peters’s turn to take that particular stage and say his piece.
As expected, Peters spent most of his nine-plus minute media session in amends-making mode, trying to explain some of what could have induced the University of Washington to dismiss him from the team in early November, even though he’s considered perhaps this year’s best cornerback prospect and has that elite NFL-ready gift of excelling in press coverage. Hoping to blaze roughly the same path that highly-rated but controversy-addled defensive backs such as Janoris Jenkins (2012, second round, Rams) and Tyrann Mathieu (2013, third round, Cardinals) did before him, Peters pointed the finger of blame at himself and left it there, saying he had no one to fault but himself for the character concerns that have clouded his draft status.
"(NFL teams) want to know the character," Peters said. "Am I a hothead? Which is false. I made some immature decisions at the University of Washington and it hurt me truly. So I’ve just got to learn from my mistakes and I grow from it as a man."
There are a litany of issues and incidents Peters will be asked to answer for here at the combine during his one-on-one interviews with cornerback-needy teams (which is roughly everybody in the league). He was suspended for the first quarter of the Fight Hunger Bowl after the 2013 season after turning in an assignment late. In September of 2014, he threw a self-described "hissy fit" on the sideline of the Huskies’ home opener against Eastern Washington, after head-butting an opposing receiver and drawing a costly personal foul penalty (and was suspended for the next game against Illinois). And, as punishment for being late to a team meeting, he again missed some game action due to a two-series benching at the start of UW’s late-September game against Stanford.
But more ominously, there were reports that claimed Peters choked a Huskies assistant coach during a practice confrontation last fall -- a charge he flatly denied as "false" on Saturday -- and other reports of him getting into arguments with a Washington assistant in the days just before head coach Chris Petersen banished him from the team in November.
Peters used the throwaway term of "miscommunication" to explain his troubled 2014 season at Washington, but he has acknowledged that he was thrown by the switch from former Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian to Petersen last year, and let his focus drift as his name and game became more widely linked to a potential first-round draft slot.
"Just miscommunication, mostly on my behalf," Peters said. "I didn’t take the coaching transition too well.... But I live and I learn from it, you know? There are going to be things that aren’t going to go right. But I went through one of the worst things that could happen to me in life. I got kicked off my team. I wasn’t able to finish my college career with my teammates, and I own up to that and I man up to that and I just move forward."
That sounds like progress made, but dismissing his issues at Washington as mere "miscommunication" makes a bit of a mockery of what teams are trying to find out about risky prospects like Peters.
"They’re well-versed in what they want to say," said Giants general manager Jerry Reese on Saturday, when asked if has become more difficult to judge a player’s sincerity with them receiving so much pre-combine interview coaching. "It is getting a little tougher right now. But you know, we have some crafty questions that we can get the right answers."
As a measurement of Peters’s potential for increased maturity, it is seen as a positive development in the eyes of the NFL that he recently returned to Washington to try to make things right with Petersen, and that the coaching staff has welcomed him back to campus for the school’s April 2 pro day workout, where he’ll go through drill work along with other Huskies defensive standouts like nose tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker-safety Shaq Thompson.
Peters withdrew from classes and headed home to Oakland once he was kicked off the team at Washington, but upon returning to pay a fine for driving with a suspended license, he went on something of an apology tour around campus.
"I had a real good conversation with coach Petersen," Peters said. "We sat down and we talked about everything that happened. I sincerely apologized to him again for what I put him and the team through throughout the year. But it was a good conversation and he’s working me into the pro day."
Both here and at the Huskies pro day, Peters is expected to flash the aggressive and athletic form that figures to stand out in a draft that is not particularly deep at the cornerback position. Peters plays with a sense of confidence and ultra-competitiveness, and his ability to provide a physical style of press coverage makes him a valuable component in today’s pass-happy NFL. He and Michigan State’s Trae Waynes are considered the top two cover men available, but Peters’s skill set is considered completely pro-ready and he has the instinctive traits scouts seek for the battles that are waged on the outside in the passing game.
"It’s the island," Peters said. "You’ve got to protect the island. You don’t want nothing bad to come upon your island and I protect it dearly.
"The coaches, they make that decision (on the draft’s top cornerback prospect). But I bring a shutdown mentality to the game. I’m a ballhawk. I’m a team player. I’m going to go out there Monday and give it my best foot (forward)."
Plenty of teams in the top 20 could use the coverage help that Peters can provide, but NFL personnel evaluators are doing their due diligence to determine whether his lost season of 2014 represents a pattern of behavior that can be reversed. Just as Jenkins and Mathieu have turned into solid NFL contributors after entering the league as poster children for the character-issue debate, Peters believes his time away from the game changed him in fundamental ways, and showed him the error of his ways.
"It humbled me a (whole) lot," Peters said. "And what has really humbled me is having a child (son, Carson, born last Oct. 18). Me bringing a child into this world has really humbled me a whole lot because now I have to be able to provide for someone other than myself. I have someone that is looking up to me a lot, so I have to be 100 percent mature."
Peters has seemingly dealt with the roadblock in his football career head on, but he knows he can’t assuage every doubt the NFL might have about his judgment, maturity and dependability. Only time and his actions will answer those questions.
"I don’t guarantee anything," Peters said. "Everyone makes mistakes. All I can tell them is that I’ve matured from the decisions I made in the past and I’m moving forward."
That kind of up-front approach to past mistakes does resonate with NFL teams, especially if the talent level is tempting enough to warrant a gamble being taken.
"We always try to weigh the options of what guys' off-field issues are," Reese said. "But sometimes we've taken chances on guys with off-field issues. If a guy has a blotter of things, they usually don't change that. But again, these kids are really young. They make some bad decisions. You can't kill these kids, 18, 19, 20-year-old kids, on the decisions that they make."
It’s only going to take one team to take that mindset with Peters, who should find an NFL home fairly quickly on draft night in Chicago, at least if he stays out of trouble and gives the league no further cause to debate his character.
"I never figured I lost my chance (to play in the NFL),’’ Peters said. "I am blessed to have a second chance, and to be at the combine, going into these interviews and accepting full responsibility for what happened. I just take full ownership of it."
And so went another textbook combine mea culpa, with this one delivered well, by Peters, and with feeling. It featured the familiar tenets of contrition, accountability and claims of growth and maturity, as was required. But it’s just the first step toward the full-staged comeback he seeks. After the combine ends, it's still up to Peters to walk that talk.