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What I Learn at the Combine

For a film analyst, the annual ‘Underwear Olympics’ provides more than just a look at this year’s draft class

INDIANAPOLIS — My first year covering the NFL combine was 2011. I quickly realized that the week is about much more than the Underwear Olympics. In fact, as credentialed media, we have no access to the workouts. Only team and league employees are allowed into the stadium part of Lucas Oil. Stationed in one of the cafeterias, media members can only see the workouts on TV, just like everyone else at home.

Yet the TVs are muted and rarely watched. Most are just here for the press conferences. Rookie prospects are ushered in throughout the day; big names stand at podiums, little names sit at tables. NFL head coaches and GMs also cycle through.

The combine press conferences are like all press conferences. The person in the spotlight says little of substance. If they do utter anything juicy, it’s immediately tweeted by everyone in the room. Sitting all day near the podiums earns you the privilege of receiving breaking news maybe two or two-and-a-half seconds before everyone else, but really has little to do with the speed of sound and more to do with how fast you can type.

• THE NFL MIGHT CHANGE THE COMBINE: Forward-thinkers want to modernize the event.

Not liking the return on this investment, I spent most of my first year at the combine running around downtown Indianapolis looking for opportunities to introduce myself to NFL people. For those who don’t know, downtown Indy feels almost futuristic just because a lot of it is connected indoors. There are seven or eight clustered hotels where NFL people stay. All of them have skywalks connected to the convention center—a building so large that it should have its own mayor and sanitation department.

The convention center has a tunnel that connects to Lucas Oil Stadium. There’s a strict policy that prevents anyone not directly tied to the NFL (i.e., media) from using it. To enter Lucas Oil, we must go outside, cross the street, climb the stadium entrance steps and go through the east gate. (And by unfortunate coincidence, the buildings around there capture, and augment, seemingly all of the wind in Indiana.) As I heard the very funny Darin Gantt of Pro Football Talk once say as we were walking through minus-15 wind chills, the restricted stadium tunnel is the NFL’s reminder to the media that “you may be with us, but you’re not of us.”

• COMBINE FACT AND FICTION: Andrew Brandt’s Business of Football column, including notes on cap cuts and Kirk Cousins.

Anyway, in downtown Indy, everyone associated with the combine can be found in any of these interconnected buildings. Around any corner, you can come across a draft prospect, NFL coach, front office exec or media personality.

One time I saw a prominent national reporter stand around for nearly an hour outside a conference room in the Westin waiting for Jason Garrett. The next day, I saw this reporter on TV. He began his live combine spot by casually stating that he had “bumped into Jason Garrett last night at the hotel.”

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Did I mention there are agents? Lots and lots of agents. Traversing the skywalks and Indy’s loudly carpeted convention center corridors, it’s not uncommon to see a Rosenhaus brother literally run by on his way to a meeting. (You’ll initially think it’s Drew, but always look closely because half the time it’s actually Jason.) You also see the occasional current NFL player at the combine. One year, Matt Hasselbeck was with his position coach at the RAM restaurant’s bar downtown. Another year, I rode up an escalator behind Eric Winston and Jason Witten, who were presumably there on NFLPA business.

On the subject of escalators, the lowlight of my combine career was riding one with John Elway. This was during my first year, when I spent the whole week bouncing from one hotel to another, hoping to encounter an NFL Somebody. When I saw Elway, he was alone, exiting the Westin. I approached and stammered through a nonsensical introduction. It was apparent he didn’t want to talk. (Or, more likely, he didn’t want to talk to some callow nobody hustling over to him.) Fortunately, Elway’s arms were full, which meant I couldn’t extend for a handshake, which meant he couldn’t reject my handshake.

Not breaking stride, Elway returned my hello with a much hastier hello. Then, he stepped on the escalator. Having so obviously nowhere to be, I made the mistake of joining him. This had the effect of turning the escalator into a sad slow-motion ride, like we were grown men in the kiddie section of an amusement park. It was a long escalator, too, which demanded small talk. I wound up just telling Elway how much we in the media loved his new Twitter account. (I cringe at this memory.) The twist was that after a long escalator ride, there was still a very long walk to the stadium tunnel. So Elway had nothing to assume but that this strange babbling reporter was about to follow him stride-for-stride for the next several minutes. The only way he could fend this off was by giving an even colder shoulder than the one from his curt hello.

I picked up on Elway’s hint at a painfully early point in the escalator ride. When the steps folded into a merciful end, we quickly separated. Elway went left, I went right, and the remainder of my self-confidence stayed on the escalator, grinding deeper and deeper into its gears.

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It wasn’t all self-consciousness and misery at that first combine. I did indeed meet a few coaches and front office executives. In fact, on my final night, sitting in the lobby of the Conrad (perhaps Indy’s trendiest hotel), Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff recognized me and said hello. To be recognized by someone of Dimitroff’s stature—or, really, anyone—felt like the crowning achievement of my career.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten to know enough coaches that I no longer have to run around introducing myself out of the blue. My days here in Indy are now filled with meetings. I visit with coaches about the nuts and bolts of football, trying to learn the stuff you can’t learn by watching film alone.

It’s an educational process. You learn nuggets that equip you to later learn on your own. Things like why a defense almost always plays two high safeties in the red zone, rather than the usual single high safety. (One big reason: In that compacted area of the field, everything happens quicker, leaving a single high safety short on the necessary time to traverse the entire middle of the field.) Or you learn why it’s better to toss the ball to a slower running back as opposed to hand it off to him. (Getting the ball in hand early brings comfort and control to a runner who lacks quickness.) You learn dozens of things like this every day at the combine.

It’s also a long process. I’m writing this on Wednesday night, barely 48 hours into the trip. It already feels like I’ve taken up residency in Indy, maybe because thanks to the skywalks and convention center corridors, I’ve spent less than three minutes outdoors.