2012 Combine Report: Day One
by Mike Tanier
Indianapolis is back.
The strange, bustling, somewhat manic town of SuperBowlia has disappeared. There is not a trace of it: no leftover banners, no partially-deconstructed risers, no trash. If the Super Bowl were held in Philly, the trash would still be everywhere; when it is held in New Jersey in two years (not New York, as erroneously reported by many), we will load all the trash on a barge in the Raritan River, light it on fire, and float it off to sea, Viking-funeral style.
But Indianapolis is spotless. I walked through the former Super Bowl Village, which looked like a bomb hit it most mornings leading up to the game, and the only thing that appears to have hit it was the world’s largest Clorox wipe. Wednesday night’s stroll to the brewpub was downright lonely; on the rather late return trip to the hotel, the only danger was getting gobbled up by the sidewalk rollers.
This is the Combine, not the Super Bowl. And this is your Thursday Combine report.
Schwartz, Lovie, and Fox. Jim Schwartz kicked off Podium Time 2012 with a theme for the Lions offseason: it is better to be trying to keep good players than to be trying to get rid of bad ones. To that end, he said the obligatory nice things about free agents Cliff Avril (“obviously a guy who is very important to us,”) and Jeff Backus (I didn’t get the exact quote, but it was something about being in Detroit longer than the motor industry.)
In the potentially interesting department, Schwartz singled out safety Amari Spievey as a player who was severely affected by the lockout. Spievey tried to move from cornerback to safety last year, but with no offseason to adjust, he started well but quickly faded when called upon in his new role. Schwartz spoke of a “revolving door” at the nickel position because of injuries, and Spievey sounds like a player he is counting on to step up this year.
The first “hey, let’s talk tampering!” questions of the year were about Cortland Finnegan. Schwartz made the usual soothing noises about his familiarity with Finnegan, but of course he cannot comment on another team’s free agent right now. Finnegan and Ndamukong Suh on one field! With Nick Fairley! Can you imagine referees walking along the shoulder of I-75, marching off 15-yard penalties that will extend halfway to Toledo?
On Suh, Schwartz said that the team just finished their in-house film study and pointed to the fact that many of Suh’s best plays did not show up on the stat sheet. He also said that Suh was targeted – “from a scheme standpoint,” he was quick to add – by opponents. “Offenses knew what number he wears,” he said. Schwartz was clearly trying to steer away from the obvious question of whether Suh could use a little anger management counseling, or at least a stress ball to squeeze when the late-hit urge strikes, but the coach did murmur something about trying to get better at the “after the whistle” problems.
Lovie Smith then took the podium. He said that Jay Cutler’s thumb is fine, that Johnny Knox is making progress, and that he sees tackle Gabe Carimi as if he were “a free agent we are going to add” instead of a tackle who lost most of his rookie season to injury. He also said that new offensive coordinator Mike Tice will “try to keep some of the things” that Mike Martz incorporated into the offense, listing “protections” as a specific. Tice was the Bears offensive line coach, of course, and the innovator of the “let’s figure out our protection package as we go along” technique for getting quarterbacks injured. Why on earth would a team want to change protection schemes after allowing 49 sacks and going through three quarterbacks? Much better to promote the man responsible, and urge him not to change his system, and ... never mind.
Smith talked about other things, but John Fox was slated to arrive next to the risers, so he was on borrowed Tebow time. Sure enough, Smith’s conference ended, Chris Mortensen and other higher-ups took their positions, and Fox took the stage braced for a Tebow barrage.
The inevitable did not quite happen. The Tim Tebow talk was relatively subdued. Fox downplayed the Brady Quinn story (and what a delightful story it is), saying that “some things just get lost in the translation.” He said that the team planned to add two quarterbacks to the roster, but declined to state what kind of quarterbacks he was looking for. There were even questions about the Broncos defense, and about the running backs! Fox’s conference ended with two questions about “managing the Tebow storyline,” giving us our first moments of meta-commentary of the 2012 season. (Here’s a question: are you tired of answering these questions?) Fox’s last word on the Tebow phenomenon: “I think it’s kinda neat.” Sounds like something Tebow would say.
Colbert, Harbaugh, Schiano. Steelers executive Kevin Colbert talked about the salary cap, Mike Wallace, and the difficulties of finding 3-4 defenders. To summarize, the Steelers have “restructurings and terminations” ahead of them to clear cap space, Wallace (a restricted free agent) will probably get a first-round tender offer but could still get the franchise tag, and the Steelers really do use the Combine and Pro Days to learn if defensive ends can handle themselves in coverage. (Actual proof that someone in the NFL places value in these proceedings.)
Colbert outlined the strengths and weaknesses of this year’s offensive line draft class: the guards are unusually good and deep, the tackles are not as deep as in recent years, and this is a good year to not be looking for a center. (I agree, for what it’s worth. The Steelers, of course, are not looking for a center.) Colbert noted that there has been an increase in the number of linebackers who can cover, but many of them are converted safeties, and touched on the lack of depth at tight end and the almost nonexistent fullback talent pool, both products of the rise of the spread offense.
Jason Garrett’s press conference was fifteen minutes of nothing. Luckily, Jim Harbaugh followed with a funny-if-cryptic soundbyte about Andrew Luck. “You ever play Spades?” he asked rhetorically. “He’s holding a lot of aces in a lot of suits.” No one in the press pool appeared to be familiar with Spades, so Harbaugh was peppered for additional comments, which left him exasperated. An exasperated Harbaugh is a funny-scary Harbaugh.
If you watched the Indiana vs. Some Soup Can They Should Be Embarrassed to Face in February game on Wednesday night, you may have seen Harbaugh courtside with his brother-in-law Tom Crean, the Indiana head coach. You may have also seen him moving folding chairs with great intensity. In the Harbaugh house, musical chairs may be a bloodbath. It was the second most terrifying coach-folding chair incident in Indiana history. Harbaugh said that he spent the game talking hoops with his 12-year old nephew, Riley, whom the coach said is a fine young quarterback, and is probably also intense.
Greg Schiano took the podium and launched into a detailed listing of all his recent staff hirings. Very, very recent staff hirings. Schiano said that Butch Davis has been helping him with interviews, with each of them talking to different candidates at the same time and then sharing notes. Schiano said that he will be involved in all phases of the game but will not call defensive plays: that will be Bill Sheridan’s job. Schiano revealed that he still had three coaching positions left to fill; no word on how many mysterious consulting spots are still available. “I would rather be a month late than a day early,” Schiano said of the time it has taken to assemble his staff. By that criteria, he is on schedule.
Players. It was hard to squeeze in player the player interviews with so much fun to be had at the coaches’ podium. Matt Kalil (tackle, USC) talked about being huge and how he likes to “impose my will on my opponent” before telling some cute stories of going to the park to “play football” with his dad (former USFL tackle Frank Kalil) and brother (Panthers center Ryan Kalil). “’Let’s play football’ meant ‘let’s work on kick-steps’ or ‘let’s do line drills,’” Kalil said. Dad only brought footballs along so Ryan could snap; the family did not play catch. Later, when Ryan was accepted to USC, Matt got to be his practice sled/tackling dummy. Earlier, Matt said that he does not really know where his “mean streak” comes from. I have a guess.
Kevin Zeitler (guard, Wisconsin) did not have any funny-troubling childhood anecdotes to share, but one of the best guards in this deep draft did say that he is still working on snapping the ball. Zeitler was forced to move to center at the Senior Bowl, where North centers fell like Spinal Tap drummers. Zeitler had never snapped except at a few freshman practices, and he was a bit of a mess in Mobile. But he said that the experiment is not over, and that he will be snapping at his Pro Day. This is a very weak center class, and Zeitler’s value as a three-position interior lineman will be much higher than it would be at guard, assuming that his shotgun snaps do not bounce off quarterback’s ankles the way they did in Mobile.
But then... No time for Big-10 guards: the Rex Ryan presser is coming! We all arrived early at Podium A to get our seats, only to be told that there was a change of plans and Ryan would speak after Chan Gailey on Podium B. Stampede! Meanwhile, Colts GM Ryan Grigson would take the stage at Podium A almost concurrent with Ryan. Conflict! This always happens at the Combine: two major “gets” speak simultaneously late in the day, forcing those of us eased into a coma by Jason Garrett to try to be two places at once.
Ryan, as you have read elsewhere, was subdued, called his annual Super Bowl guarantees a “huge mistake,” and so on. His burn of Greg McElroy (the reserve quarterback who blasted the Jets as selfish and corrupt) was a moment of pure bliss. Ryan spoke seriously of how the team did have problems with some individuals, explained that the Jets are a “transparent organization,” and said that McElroy’s remarks were out of proportion. When later asked if the Jets would bring in a backup quarterback to challenge Mark Sanchez, Ryan said: “well, with McElroy’s comments, absolutely.” Tremendous.
As for Grigson, that poor guy ... Look, Peyton Manning’s health issue is a health issue. If the Colts are privy to any confidential information because they are his employer and his health directly impacts his employment, then they cannot talk about it. Peppering Grigson with endless questions about Manning’s progress or any future medical evaluations is the same as begging him to violate the one piece of privacy-confidentiality our society still values. He doesn’t know, OK? And he won’t tell you what he does know. After the seventh or eighth speculative question about Manning’s health, Grigson looked like a man about to buckle under the strains of stress, uncertainty, and the utter inanity of the questions he was forced to field. Of course, he did sign up for the gig.
All the while, as one photographer noted, a wall-to-ceiling image of Manning loomed over Grigson, decorating one of the room’s support beams. The iconography spoke volumes.
Chuck Pagano ended the Podium-athon by fielding a few Peyton Manning questions of his own, though Grigson bore the brunt of the barrage, leaving Pagano to deflect questions about the move to a 3-4 defense (he says he will not force the change if he does not think defenders can adapt to it) and other non-Manning topics. Pagano ended with some interesting remarks about how salary cap issues, media requests, and other demands (possibly Manning-related) are taking away from his ability to focus on the game itself. “I get so many things coming across my desk that are not football related, I can’t stand it,” he said. There’s a big difference between the life of a coordinator and that of a head coach. Pagano no doubt knew that, but the shift is no doubt disorienting, even for those who have a clue what’s coming.