Going Off Script at the NFL Combine
Business of Football

Going Off Script at the NFL Combine

As an NFL executive, I tried to find glimpses of the real person behind all the rehearsed answers and talking points

Three Combine story lines to watch

The MMQB's Emily Kaplan takes a look at what to watch out for during the 2017 NFL Combine.

Although every NFL player evaluator will attend the combine, my experience has been that combine results do not change opinions on players much. Team scouting departments have just spent a month putting “The Board” together. Performances that deviate, whether positively or negatively, may shift a player up or down in a round—or perhaps even moving them into a different round—but that is the most. The combine is used more as an affirmation than a new set of judgments.

Most players not only do physical training for the combine but also interview training for their meetings with teams. They are quite rehearsed at these sessions, although I always remember seeing puzzled their faces as if to say, “Did I already say this to these guys or was that another team?”

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I found the rehearsed and cliché answers largely useless—every player loves his mother, his coach, his teammates, his university, etc. Thus, when I sat in the interviews my goal was to get them to talk beyond the script. Truly successful people not only maintain focus—most can do that without difficulty—but they are also able to pivot when obstacles arise and seamlessly re-focus. Paraphrasing the eminent philosopher Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan … until they get punched in the face.” I would ask players questions that may have been different than what they were planning to answer to see how they adapted. Some of my questions were:

• Tell me about a time you did the right thing and no one saw you do it.
• Have you had a friendship sour? Why?
• What has been your greatest achievement (non-football)? Your greatest disappointment?
• Tell me something you have never told anyone else.

I would also go through this series of questions with prospects, with these being the usual answers:

What do you do when you wake up in the morning?

“Go to class.”

What do you do before you go to class?

“Put on my clothes.”

What do you do before you put on your clothes?

“Brush my teeth.”

What do you do before you brush your teeth?

At this point, the player would usually turn to our scouts wishing that they would resume football questions and kick this weird little guy out of the room.

My point was not to be annoying (although I probably was) but to search for the player who I knew would be successful at whatever he did. I wanted the player who did 100 pushups or sit-ups right out of bed; the player who squeezed in extra studying in the still of the early morning; the player who organized and re-organized his day for maximum efficiency. To me, self-motivation and self-discipline are two proven qualities for sustained success in life, let alone sports, and I searched for those traits.

Let’s Play Tag

The NFL’s evolving game of tag is just that: a game.

Tomorrow ends the two-week window to apply the franchise tag, which, of course, means that teams waited until yesterday to start applying it. Four players received the tag: Kawann Short, Leveon Bell, Jason Pierre-Paul and Chandler Jones. Expect a few more today and tomorrow. The two-week window should be two days, thus ending the charade of the wait. And although this deadline, like all deadlines, has spurred some action, it is merely a placeholder before the “real” deadline of July 15 when negotiations that have been far apart for months magically resolve. When we approach July 15, the tagged player has two choices: 1) play for the long-term deal that the team puts in front of him—certainly not the long term deal he really wants—or 2) accept high earnings for one year with no security. Usually the player chooses the former.

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For this reason I continue to believe that, no matter how high the tag’s one-year earnings, the team has the leverage, negotiating at whatever level they are comfortable with knowing they have the tag as a backstop if the player declines. And with most teams flush with cap room, carrying the tag is not the burden it once was.

As an example, I shake my head when I hear how much leverage Kirk Cousins has with Washington. Well, if the goal is get a one-year, $24 million deal then, yes, he has tremendous leverage. If the goal is to get a long-term deal, the leverage belongs to Washington. They can negotiate at the level they are comfortable with and if Cousins says no, they can just “rent” him for another year. Last year the team negotiated at a $15-16 million average per year (APY) despite the $20 million tag. This afternoon, they put the exclusive franchise tag on him. And while Cousins will make about $44 million with consecutive tags, he will have done so in a constant state of “proving it,” which he still might not have accomplished a year from now.

When it was initially crafted in 1993, the franchise tag allowed teams to keep true franchise quarterbacks such as John Elway, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, etc. Now it has much broader implications. Teams remove their best free agent regardless of position from the marketplace, leaving that player to negotiate only with his incumbent team instead of the 32 teams available for “normal” free agents.

Finally, as to any players threatening to sit the season rather than play for the tag, well, please: Teams certainly know that is not true.

Welcome to the NFL’s 2017 game of tag; check back on July 15 for the next chapter.

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