by Mike Tanier
Indianapolis, February 24. Day One of the Combine. Weather foggy and mild. Hangover same. I arrived in Indianapolis on Wednesday, just before a water main break closed all the bathrooms at the airport. Note to self: monitor this situation closely, and adjust coffee/alcohol intake before flying home.
Notes from a day of press conferences at Lucas Oil Stadium:
The football media has Cam Newton on the brain, so Bills coach Chan Gailey started the day fielding Newton-related questions. Gailey described this year's quarterback class as a "different" group, noting that many of them are undeveloped as traditional drop-back passers. It was an odd sentiment to hear from the NFL's greatest proponent of the Pistol. Gailey affirmed his confidence in Ryan Fitzpatrick, and one of the funniest, most honest moments of the morning came when Packers writer Aaron Nagler asked if Gailey regretted not giving Fitzpatrick the starting job in camp. "Shoot, yes!" Gailey said. Trent Edwards' ears were burning.
Going from Chan Gailey at the podium to Steve Spagnuolo causes accent whiplash. One minute, it's The Andy Griffith Show, the next it's The Sopranos. Poor Coach Spags was peppered with questions about Andy Reid and the Eagles coaching staff -- look for the Philadelphia Inquirer or Daily News to run something about the Reid coaching tree in the next day or two -- but he responded with Johnny Tight Lips reticence about any "mounting pressure" Reid might be facing. "We owe a debt of gratitude to Andy," he said.
Ron Rivera later emphasized the responsibility Reid gave assistants to develop their own game plans, adding that Reid advised him to read Bill Walsh's "The Winning Edge." John Harbaugh told of a poster Reid keeps behind his wall with the motto "Don't Judge." The meaning of the message, in Harbaugh's words: "Think the best in people. Look for the best in people." I came away from the interviews feeling that coaching is all about inspirational books and slogans. Next year's Football Outsiders Almanac will contain a self-help and recovery chapter.
If Ron Rivera hoped to throw cold water on Cam Newton speculation, he failed. Mixed in with the usual talk of the "process" and the eight players the Panthers are considering with the top pick in the draft was a clear message that the team was interested in Newton and had done preliminary evaluation of things that transcend size/speed/production, like his pocket presence. Newton speculation must be at a fever pitch in Carolina -- one reporter asked if the decision to franchise Ryan Kalil was an indicator that the team is interested in Newton. And really, coach, was your decision to wear a grey sweater also an indication of your interest in Newton? I don't recall hearing the name Jimmy Clausen at all.
John Harbaugh praisedJoe Flacco, calling him tough, intelligent, and courageous, and noting that "he did a lot more last year than a lot of people think." Harbaugh was both more pleasant and more specific than most podium denizens. He said that the Ravens will try to improve their "quick game," and that he encourages Flacco to be more creative and make more plays on the move. Harbaugh called tackle Marshal Yanda "one of my favorite guys," and said that he is a high priority free agent the team hopes to re-sign.
Harbaugh started to answer a question about his brother, but some reporters noted that Jim Harbaugh was in the audience, so John threw the question to Jim: "What advice did I give you on becoming a head coach?" John asked.
Jim stared for a moment, then stammered a bit.
"He can't think of a thing!" John joked.
Actually, Jim just completed the Jimmy Raye elocution class that all 49ers coaches now take, and it left him indefinitely speechless. Later, Jim Harbaugh clarified that he learned a lot from his father and brother, and the new Niners coach proved that he has the question deflection element of his job down cold. When asked if he could provide his interpretation of what happened to the Niners last year, Harbaugh said "No." As you might expect, Harbaugh said nothing about his team's quarterback conundrum, although he said several times that he wants to "get knee to knee and eyeball to eyeball" with his players, which is a really uncomfortable position if you try to picture it.
Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi and Boston College tackle Anthony Castonzo took the podium within a few minutes of each other. Carimi is the taller, higher-cut athlete of the two. Castonzo measured in at roughly the same height but looked bigger because he has thicker thighs and glutes. Castonzo is also the more talkative of the two, a biochemistry major who joked about the fact that his parents spend a lot of time reading mock drafts and his left foot is an inch-and-a-half longer than his right. If I write any mock drafts this year, I will toy with the Castonzo parents by placing him in a variety of different cities, making them wonder where next year's RV trips will take them.
Carimi spoke of his experience against some of the top defensive end prospects in this draft, including Adrian Clayborn (Iowa), J.J. Watt (Wisconsin), and Cameron Heyward (Ohio State). He acknowledged some deficiencies but said he's a "draft ready tackle." Carimi called himself the best tackle in the draft class, just as an off-the-cuff, confident remark, and a reporter tried to stir the pot by asking Castonzo what he thought of that comment. Castonzo didn't take the bait, sparing us a prefabricated controversy.
Derek Sherrod also fielded a question about Carimi's "boast," deflecting it nicely. Like Castonzo, Sherrod spoke at length about the importance of academics and intelligence. Sherrod is two inches shorter than Carimi, Castonzo, and several of the other top prospects. I asked him if that worked to his advantage, and he said it did, affirming that the "low man wins" and that his height could give him more leverage than some of the longer linemen. Doug Farrar thinks Sherrod is the best tackle in the draft. "He's the only guy who doesn't have a howling technical issue," Farrar said. (Read Doug's scouting report on Sherrod here.) Sherrod confirmed that he has spoken to the Ravens, Colts, and Bears.
I interviewed Virginia long snapper Danny Aiken, worried that the kid might be lonely. In fact, there were seven of us, including someone with a television camera, interviewing the only snapper at the Combine. Aiken was a quarterback/defensive end/long snapper in high school. At a prep academy, he moved from snapper to punter, then back to snapper to cover an injury. He models his snapping after Patrick Mannelly of the Bears. He is impressed by Mannelly's "trick snap" ability to fire the ball through moving car windows, but Aiken never tried those stunts himself. "I can't get anyone to loan me their car," Aiken joked.
I also spoke to Nebraska kicker Alex Henery, whose resume includes a 57-yard field goal against Colorado and a 12-for-12 career record in bowl games. Henery either has the best or worst mentality for a kicker. He's retiring and soft spoken, answering questions with shrugging responses like "that's just kinda who I am." The low boiling point may help pressure roll off his back, but some teams may decide they'd rather have a Willie or a Sam.
Looking for the most obscure players possible, I spoke to Schuyler Oordt, a tight end from Northern Iowa roughly in the mold of Clay Harbor of the Eagles. Oordt, a 6-foot-6 receiving tight end who hopes to impress with his 40-yard dash time, spoke to 18 teams on Thursday and was quizzed on his knowledge of route running. Northern Iowa runs a West Coast Offense, and Oordt told me he spent a lot of time in the slot, which was good experience for a guy who projects as a late-round flyer who could stick as a seam stretcher. I planned to ask Oordt if he wanted to wear uniform number "00," but then the Rex Ryan press conference started and we were nearly trampled by the other reporters.
Ryan, of course, guaranteed a Jets Super Bowl victory after yucking it up for a minute about his appearance on CSI: New York. No one laughed at the "actor" jokes, and it was clear that many of the reporters had no idea what he was referring to and thought that maybe Gary Sinise had joined the team as a quality control coach. Ryan is funnier when he ad libs, like when the loudspeaker kept announcing the arrivals of obscure prospects when he was in mid-rant. ("I was on a roll, too," he complained after one interruption.) The guarantee caused a rippling murmur in the room. I almost said "murmur" just to feel a part of something, but Ryan's guarantee forced me to switch gears and prepare a blog post for my other employer. Love Ryan or hate him, he fed the beast at his press conference, and we all got to send our editors something other than "no comment" collections and profiles of nice young men named "Oordt."
Tonight, there are rumors of some sort of reception, gala, or Cotillion at the Westin. All of the survivors of the labor briefing are supposed to meet, like Civil War soldiers freshening up after a stint at Andersonville and heading straight to the debutante ball. It sounds too good to be true. I shall endeavor to crash. More to come.