About that Combine…Here’s What I Really Want to Know

MATTHIAS CLAMER/ESPN THE MAGAZINE Left to right: Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley and Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch pose as Run-DMC.

In Roxanna Firehall’s Tuesday post, one of his Two Cents was the following line:

Every year I think I’m getting excited about the combine.  Every year I’m wrong.

Besides being an awesome line, it’s one I expect resonates with many of us. If they had a cheerleader combine it might be different for the guys at least. But I have to confess that, despite my need to start my research for my Best-Looking Player Available mock drafts, I haven’t paid any attention to it at all. I prefer to let them get it over with, sort everyone out, and then I’ll go shopping.

But the Steelers’ junior reporter Xiah Zepeda actually managed to catch my attention with a video of him running some of the drills, with commentary voiceover from Mike Mayock. It’s pretty funny. Check it out here, as it doesn’t appear to be embeddable.

I’m curious how coaches really feel about the combine. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has always said that by this point in the process the combine is just a confirmation (or lack thereof) of how they feel about a player. What I would really love, though, would be to sit in on the interviews.

I’m guessing it is a constant cat-and-mouse game between the teams and the people who prepare players for the combine. They are almost certainly very well coached on the usual sorts of questions. The teams, or at least some of them, are busy trying to come up with questions they won’t expect.

I recall a story about the Steelers’ meeting with Maurkice Pouncey. I can’t find the actual report, but as I remember it, Pouncey walked in to his interview expecting to be asked lots of the usual sort of stuff. Instead, someone, most likely then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, walked up to the white board, diagrammed a play, and immediately erased it. Pouncey was then asked to replicate it, or talk about it, or some such. At any rate, part of what made the Steelers determined to get him was his response—he had managed to absorb the vast bulk of what had been drawn up, and could talk intelligently about it.

The other thing I would love to do would be to have a conversation with Karim Kassam, the stats guy the Steelers hired back in August. In an article I wrote about him I noted the following:

In Nicholas Dawidoff’s book “Collision Low Crossers” he covered the run-up to the 2011 New York Jets draft. After talking about the various player interviews, staff assessments, and so on, Dawidoff said this:

All the NFL teams were engrossed in these careful assessments. And yet, at the end of April, many teams would still make mistakes because, said Joey Clinkscales, who directed the draft for the Jets, one quality remained elusive: “If there were a meter on heart, a way to measure how much a guy cares, we’d draft only Revises.”

…All this work and preparation, but so often the draft confounded it. You could study a person until you were sure you knew him, and then he turned out to be a different person on a football field. Everybody, said [Defensive Coordinator Mike] Pettine, “got fooled” evaluating players, first and foremost because “they’re still kids. So much depends upon putting a kid in the right system for him to succeed.”

Kassam is trained in psychology, and this is part of what he was hired to look at. As he told Jim Wexell of scout.com at the time::

“It’s going to be way more complicated [than a numbers-only approach.] That’s part of what makes it so hard. There are all different types of players of shapes and sizes and speeds that are successful at any different position. You’re pointing out some of the guys that we got great deals on that no one saw because they don’t fit that prototypical mold. 

Finding those guys will be incredibly challenging, and the organization’s already done an impressive job of that. But if I can help find one of those guys every like five years, I’ll be very successful.”

Wouldn’t you love to know what sorts of things he has suggested the Steelers look at? I know I would, although especially if he’s successful you can bet we will never hear a single word about it.

If there is some way to get a look into the minds of the players, perhaps the part they don’t even know about, I think you would actually have a far better idea of who is likely to succeed in the NFL. The talent level, especially after you get out of the top round, is separated by a very fine line. The big question is, who is willing to put in the work?

In his January 26 edition of Asked and Answered Bob Labriola fielded the following question:

What goes on in the offseason for players? Are they effectively on vacation until summer? I assume they’re responsible for maintaining their physical fitness, etc., but do they have other responsibilities?

In a final interview with the media after the loss to the Broncos in the playoffs, James Harrison was asked whether he was going to come back for the 2016 season, which would be his 14th. Harrison said he wasn’t sure just yet, that he didn’t know if he wanted to put his body through the demands of the kind of offseason program that’s necessary to prepare oneself for the rigors of an NFL season. So even though players cannot be required to engage in any offseason conditioning or weightlifting or any other activity that could be characterized as something to prepare one for the demands of an NFL season, there is an implicit requirement attached being that NFL contracts are not guaranteed and players who get cut don’t get paid. In fact, as a team that has a returning head coach, the Steelers are not even permitted to begin their offseason workout program until April 18. It’s often said that championships are won through the work that gets done when nobody is watching, and that’s an apt description for what you refer to as “other responsibilities” in your question. (Emphasis mine)

This brought to mind something I read about Lamarr Woodley after his disappointing 2012 season. I found the original story, by Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In an article from February 17th, 2013Cook wrote:

Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley wasn’t much of a football player last season, but he is getting rave reviews for his portrayal of legendary rapper Jam Master Jay. Woodley, Trent Richardson of the Cleveland Browns and Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks are featured in a pictorial in the Feb. 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine, recreating an album cover of the iconic hip-hop group Run DMC. Woodley is wonderful in the photographs that have been released and has talked about the painstaking preparation that went into the project.

It’s nice to think Woodley will devote the same energy this offseason to his day job…

The team needs him to pick up his game and become a dominant player again opposite Harrison.

“He was awful,” one teammate said of Woodley’s performance last season.

“He tells us he works out, but we didn’t see it. He wasn’t in shape. That has to be a reason why he was always hurt.”

It’s easy to say Woodley got fat — literally and figuratively — after he agreed to a six-year, $61.5 million contract before the 2011 season, including a $22.5 million signing bonus. But that would mean ignoring those nine sacks in the first eight games of 2011. He was in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversation before his hamstring injury.

No one begrudged Woodley his money. He had played out his original four-year contract and made just $550,000 in the 2010 season because of a technicality. He never complained. He just produced. He had 13 sacks in 2010, including three in the postseason. He had 13 1/2 sacks in 2009 and 17 1/2 in 2008, including six in the postseason.

It wasn’t long after Woodley sacked Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner to end the Steelers’ 27-23 win in Super Bowl XLIII after the 2008 season that Woodley talked about his motivation.

“Ain’t no price tag on winning. Winning and making history is something you can’t buy. Me? I’m a guy who loves history. When I’m 60 or 70, I don’t want to be remembered for the money I make. I want to be in the history books.”

There was no mistaking Woodley’s point. He wanted to be remembered as one of the NFL’s great linebackers.

Woodley was well down that path before his hamstring injury against the Patriots in 2011. He needs to get back on it if the Steelers are going to be successful in 2013.

Believe it or not, there’s more in the article, including Cook’s feeling that the Steelers should re-sign James Harrison:

Harrison will turn 35 in May, but that’s not as much of an issue with him as it is with other players. He is the Steelers’ hardest worker. He trains maniacally. Unlike last year, he will get in all of the off-season work. He will be ready to go when training camp opens in July. He should have a big season.

It is particularly interesting in hindsight.

But to return to Woodley, what was the problem? Did Woodley just get tired of the grind? Was he sick of being injured? I don’t expect we’ll ever know. But it certainly makes an interesting thing to think about as we ponder the shiny new class of players. How do you find the Antonio Browns in the sixth round? Conversely, how do you weed out the talented but apparently mentally flawed guys like Limas Sweed? And while Sweed represents one of the few wide receiver misses in the past eight years (at least above about the seventh round,) how do you transfer the Steelers’ apparent brilliance at choosing wide receivers to the selection of a position group with a similar set of attributes—in other words, defensive backs?

And speaking of defensive backs, there’s another issue besides work ethic, and that’s the stuff above the neck. No, I’m not talking about head trauma. The Steelers have drafted two DBs in recent years who were assumed to be the heirs to two of their iconic players, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu. Ed Bouchette’s Steelers chat this past Tuesday addressed both of those picks, neither of whom, it appears, will actually inherit the crown:

Orange Julius: What’s the real story on Shamarko Thomas, is he just too dumb to play safety? He went to Syracuse you know

Ed Bouchette: Whatever the reason, Thomas has not panned out and I do not think they believe he is much of a candidate to play safety in 2016.

Rob: So what happened to Cortez Allen? How does a guy go from showing promise to off the team?

Ed Bouchette: Sometimes, the game is just too big for some players.

While Bouchette declines to say what the issue is with Thomas, Mike Tomlin indicated last season that the problem was in some way mental. As to Cortez Allen, it does seem to occasionally happen that a couple of failures in a row sends a player into a downward spiral he never recovers from. Limas Sweed certainly comes to mind. And although I figured a guy who made it through The Citadel would have a high degree of mental toughness, it also seems to be the case with Allen. Why?

It’s all a mystery. A lot of things about football are a black box to most of us fans. Unless you have played the game and are present at most of the practices, there is a ton of stuff about players you don’t see. But the odd thing is, it seems as if player selection is almost as opaque to the “experts,” including team scouts, as it is to the rest of us. All you have to know is that the “experts” were all highly enthusiastic about the Steelers’ 2008 draft, one which has turned out to be possibly the worst in many, many years, to know that there’s way more that goes on than meets the eye.

Perhaps this explains why it’s difficult for some of us to get excited about the combine. We can’t see a lot of the things we actually need to know. And we have a sneaking suspicion that we’re not the only ones…


  • roxannafirehall

    Great article. While I continue to read combine and mock draft stories, I do so with less gusto, primarily for the reasons you state. I don’t have the information to evaluate players. Even the many amateur draftniks, there must be hundreds, can’t possibly have enough time or savvy to properly evaluate college players. Considering how often the professional evaluators miss (the Colberts, not the Kipers), these opinions are merely candy to eat until dinner (the draft) is served. Candy is good for a snack, but not a steady diet.


  • Mental toughness can be tricky. You can build mental walls to keep yourself focused….but I imagine you can build too many, or too steeply…and the walls can block you in. It isn’t difficult for me to imagine that a guy like Allen, who likely is mentally tough, over did it to the point that when a failure happens…he has a hard time coming to grips with the fact that it happened.

    That makes little sense as I re-read it. I guess I mean that some folks consider mental toughness as ‘blocking out’ anything negative…whereas consider mental toughness the ability to adapt, absorb, and move on from the negative. You feel safe behind a wall…but once it breaks, it is hard to trust the wall again. But if you are flexible, you can bob and weave and, hopefully, keep the confidence levels high.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I think I know what Epalito means. Ike Taylor once talked about it on his radio show and I brooded about for a while. He said something like this: You can’t think too hard on the past but you gotta keep thinking.

    Ike. I’ve always liked him. I didn’t realize he was always speaking words of wisdom. And while I meant that as a joke (okay, sort of a dry, lame joke) I realized I think more about some of the things Ike has said than anyone ought to admit. The LA accent and unfinished sentences sometimes disguise the fact that he’s a very smart man.

    (casts off! Business is…not limpin’!)


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