INDIANAPOLIS -- Outside of the Super Bowl, it's the biggest football media orgy of the year. The scouting combine, an event that was once held outdoors in various places with a few reporters clogging hotel hallways hoping for a few minutes with this coach or that executive, is now a huge event in which more than 300 draft prospects and more than 600 media members congregate every February. The primary reason for the event, held at Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis), is to put NFL teams and draft prospects together in all sorts of ways -- from individual interviews to medical tests to football drills. There's always game tape, and postseason All-Star games like the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine game, but this is the Big Kahuna, and it really kicks the pre-draft process off with a bang.
Then, there's the chance for the media to meet with just about every general manager, coach and prospect over the four-day media period. Of course, there's also the chance to congregate at various night landmarks along the way (St. Elmo's, Harry and Izzy's, the Ram, the JW Marriott lobby bars), but for those who cover the game, this is also a content extravaganza that will do a great deal to inform pre-draft coverage. This is just as true for those of us at SI's various iterations, and here's what this humble scribe observed on the first day of media availability during the biggest job fair in sports.
Reclamation is a valuable currency this week.
The tight ends and offensive linemen talked with the media Thursday, and for some of them, this week is about far more that fast 40 times and incendiary performances in various pad drills. This is the chance for some to prove that they've learned lessons from their prior mistakes.
Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla was the main man in this particular bubble on Thursday. He's a 6-foot-5, 250-pound player, with 4.6-40 speed, whose game tape is football porn. But he's dealt with a litany of off-field issues, and he's now trying to rise from the realm of the undraftable.
The summary, via NFLDraftScout.com:
Abruptly quit the team on Oct. 6 , calling his choice to leave the Ducks as a "personal decision." This occurred after missing the Ducks' Sept. 14 game against Tennessee for what Lyerla later called the stomach flu but head coach Mark Helfrich characterized simply as "circumstances."
Arrested Oct. 23, 2013 when undercover police discovered [him] inhaling a "white powdery substance" inside a car. Lyerla later admitted the substance was cocaine. This was hardly Lyerla's only run-in with police. He had his driver's license suspended Oct. 11, 2013 after receiving four driving tickets in the previous 24 months. It is worth noting that since his arrest and court case Lyerla, has parted ways with one sports representative and signed with another.
Of course, those draft analysts who also fancy themselves armchair psychiatrists used Lyerla as fodder for their own particular missions.
"Overly emotional and prone to outbursts following a dysfunctional childhood that offered little direction and much confusion related to a divorce," is how Lyerla's profile reads in the league's official site's take on the most controversial prospects in 2014. "Not a disciplined team player. ... Has overcome a lot of adversity stemming back to his youth and defied the odds to become an impactful performer. Talent grades could garner interest in the second round, but past history could easily knock him down several rounds and off many draft boards."
All Lyerla could do Thursday was try to answer the same questions teams will ask him through the week.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just to be honest and to show remorse, where remorse is due, and just do my best to prove that I've changed and I'm changing and I've matured since I made those mistakes... As much as I hate to say it, I think some of the mishaps that happened and me getting in trouble probably is the best thing that's happened to me. Because it really put me at a point in place and gave me time to self reflect, and just helped me realize exactly what I want out of life and what I need to do to get it."
Lyerla said that he had a "big sit-down" with his family, which helped him realize what he needed to do. He also mentioned that he's not hanging out with the people he did before, and he knows he'll have a major uphill battle when it comes to convincing teams that he's really changed in the 15-minute speed dates prospects generally get with NFL teams this week.
"I'd say that I've put myself in a position where my back's against the wall. To a point that if I don't do everything perfect and the right way, that I won't be able to play football, let alone be successful in any shape and form."
Well ... maybe not perfect, but hopefully with a new level of self-awareness. Lyerla has the height/weight/speed thing down. As such, his shapes and forms will be graded very differently. He was once among the top men at his position, and now he's holding on for dear life.
Some coaches need new stories.
-- Two AFC East coaches not expected to speak did so anyway, under radically different circumstances. Joe Philbin's appearance kicked off the press conferences Thursday morning, but it wasn't announced until Wednesday night, about an hour after the Dolphins sent out a statement announcing the firings of offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O'Neill. These terminations happened a few days after the Wells Report was released to the public, indicating a level of organization dysfunction and disconnect one doesn't often see in a sports franchise outside of fictional re-creations. After Philbin took the podium and made his standard, awkward tough-guy pose, he was asked all kinds of hard questions regarding how it was that he didn't know what was happening in his own locker room for so long.
Philbin revealed that while Turner didn't make the trip to Indianapolis, O'Neill did, only to be terminated upon his arrival. He revealed that he was not behind the decision to name Richie Incognito to the team's "Leadership Council," a term that should only ever be uttered in irony around this franchise as it's currently constructed. And he revealed that he doesn't have any more of an answer about how to stop a recurrence of what happened to Jonathan Martin than he does a comprehensive clue about how to run a team like a head coach should. Philbin is a good football guy who understands passing offense. And by all accounts, he's a straight shooter who cooperated with Ted Wells and his investigators fully and completely. But ... you know what? Norv Turner is a good guy who knows how to create a great passing offense, and he's always been a walking tire fire as a head coach. Some just don't have that acuity.
"Tell the truth. Tell the truth. It's always good advice," Philbin said near the end of his press conference. Well, not always. There are times when you reveal things you may not have wanted to ... things you didn't even know about yourself.
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-- Bill Belichick knows a lot about himself, and he surprised just about everyone by taking a podium Thursday afternoon. As always, Belichick alternated between open dialogue when asked questions he liked (such as the specific technical advantages of the three-cone drill) and monosyllabic responses when hit with other things (like questions about his upcoming free agents; a question that every coach hates). And for those betting on such things, Belichick uttered his first "It is what it is" about 6:20 into the presser.
He also told a story about one of his first combines ... which was a near word-for-word version of the story he told a few years ago.
"I was walking over here this afternoon and thinking about how far the whole combine has come. [This is] probably my 30th year. The first one I was at was the second one at Arizona State -- obviously held outdoors. One of the days ended, not in total darkness, but certainly past dusk. I still have the image of Refrigerator Perry doing the vertical jump out there on the Vertex in the middle of the Arizona State field. In almost total darkness."
One wonders if Belichick will continue to tell this same story at future combines. Perhaps in traditional grandpa style, where the sky gets darker and Refrigerator Perry's vertical gets higher every time.
-- Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett came to Indy this year as the semi-proud possessor of three straight 8-8 seasons, the perception that he's merely a puppet for team owner Jerry Jones and a seeming inability to explain how his own sub-coaching structure works. Scott Linehan will call the offensive plays, meaning that for the third straight season there will be a different person in charge of that dubious honor. Unless you believe that assistant Bill Callahan wasn't calling the plays last year ... or the year before ... or through parts of the year ... or on every other third down ... we're still not quite sure.
"The biggest thing we have tried to do is allow me to move more to the responsibility of a head coach, giving equal time to the offense, defense and special teams as well as the other responsibilities of personnel and all the things that come with the position," Garrett said of a change in responsibility that either started in 2012 or '13, depending on who you do or don't believe. "The hope is that I have a less of a role. Obviously I have a strong influence there. And have a strong influence in the other two phases as well."
That would be defense and special teams, we assume. The other two things. We'll find out when the season starts and the footballs start flying. Hopefully in the right direction for Garrett's sake, but anytime a coach says, "The hope is that I have less of a role," that can't be a good sign.
The key to Seattle's "defensive blueprint" is that there isn't one.
Seahawks GM John Schneider was the last team exec to take the stage on Thursday, and I asked him about the perception that other teams might be looking to copy the defensive blueprint he and Pete Carroll put together over the last four seasons. If there is such a blueprint, it would certainly make sense that the rest of the NFL would be hunting for it, especially after Seattle thrashed the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. But Schneider said that the real keys to what the Seahawks have done is an open line of communication between every part of the organization, and a holistic connection between the ideas of scheme and personnel.
"I think it's just about trying to improve every single day in every aspect of acquisition. I think our staff is open-minded so they're able to adjust on the fly. We moved Red Bryant [from defensive tackle to defensive end] when we got here. We knew he was a big powerful man, so they wanted to put him in a specific position to accentuate his strengths. I think coach Carroll and his staff are very good at listening and being open-minded about players, whether it's a conversion player. Blueprint-wise? I'd love to say this is exactly how you do it, but really it's about getting up every day and trying to improve in every aspect that you can."
So ... the answer is that there is no answer, unless there's a hidden system allowing teams to take little-valued draft prospects and turn them into prime players. Schneider did address his team's ability to hit the mark on so many late-round picks.
"We're very open with our communication. The coaches have to buy-in to that player, so if it's a Kam Chancellor or Richard Sherman, however they feel they can accentuate those guys' strengths, they're going to do it. When we pick a player, we just have a cool buy-in. That's the best way I can describe it. They know ideally that we're not going to be pick somebody that looks like me."
And there you have it. Don't draft anybody who looks like your general manager. How simple!