by Mike Tanier
Indianapolis, February 25. Day Two of the Combine.
Three inches of snow on the ground. Head pounding. The local microbrewery industry has been well subsidized.
Yesterday's effort to crash the "reception" following the labor meeting failed. By the time we mobilized, the meeting was over and the major participants had already slipped out the loading docks and away from the media. When we poked our head in the Westin, all we found were a few beat writers and a lingering miasma of contentiousness. According to later reports, there was no reception at all; it was the media equivalent of a Chad Pennington-worthy play-fake.
Undaunted, the FO team (Aaron Schatz, Doug Farrar, and I) dined our way across town, meeting various people from the scouting, coaching, and reporting worlds. By midnight, I was alone, and a stinging frozen rain was falling, pelting my head and coating the streets. Only a fool would keep barhopping in such conditions.
These are the Combine notes of a fool.
Lovie Smith led off at the podium, fresh from the announcement of his two-year contract extension. "Of course I feel great about the extension -- like I have every day I have been on the job," he said. Smith took the obligatory question about Jay Cutler's toughness in stride. "He's as tough as any quarterback in the league." Smith then made soothing noises about upgrading the team wherever possible. Smith did explain the decision to deny Mike Tice the right to speak to the Titans. While he wants to give coaches the opportunity to advance, the request came "a little late in the game."
A Super Bowl victory did nothing to open Ted Thompson's lips. Thompson said that he hoped to re-sign Cullen Jenkins, despite Jenkins' remark that he was 99 percent sure he would not be back with the Packers in 2011. After that, Thompson dismissed all specific questions about free agents like Daryn Colledge as "some sorta hypothetical," sometimes waving his arms like a malfunctioning robot as he said it.
Several reporters asked Thompson if the Packers would consider drafting a running back in the first round -- another one of those strange questions for a general manager who has Ryan Grant returning, discovered James Starks last year, and seems capable of turning pizza delivery boys into adequate running backs. Thompson gave an anything-is-possible type response, adding that "a good running back is hard to find." Not for you, Ted!
Tom Coughlin was unrecognizably pleasant. He joked with reporters about the snow and was drowned out by Texas Christian quarterback Andy Dalton, speaking at a nearby podium, at the start of his interview. For a moment, I thought it was all a ruse and that Jeffrey Tambor was standing in for Coughlin. I will never get used to the new reality of New York sports, where a Jets press conference is a rock concert while Coughlin speaks to stringers and tumbleweeds.
The coach said that injured lineman Rich Seubert is making "good progress" recovering from his knee injury and may be able to play next season. He said he wasn't sure if there would be any interest in Plaxico Burress when the receiver's prison sentence ends. When I asked about Jason Pierre-Paul's upside, Coughlin pointed to the ceiling, praising his ability to get past the ups and downs typical of a rookie season. Coughlin noted that Pierre-Paul was healthy, knocking on the podium as he said it. When a reporter apologetically brought up Coughlin's wound-too-tight reputation, Coughlin smiled and joked, "You should have seen me a few years ago." We did, coach.
Todd Haley spoke for eleven hours about nothing. OK, it was 15 minutes, but he only responded to about five questions. At some point during the oratory, he stated that he was not certain who would call plays for the Chiefs. Jim Zorn's heart started fluttering.
In one of the later interviews, Mike McCarthy explained that the Packers stopped scripting their first 15 plays last season because there was "too much emphasis on those initial plays." The Packers now only script for situations (i.e., short yardage). McCarthy was one of many coaches who admitted he was "very behind on the draft." That may just be a polite way to shrug off questions, but there is also certainly some truth to it. Coaches have lots of internal quality control to take care of before the scouts start pelting them with prospect information. Knowing that guys like McCarthy are still getting prospects mixed up makes me feel better about my own preparation level.
A.J. Green could not remember the exact measurement of his hand span, but those meat hooks are as huge in person as they are on the Georgia highlight reels. Green stuck to the script, emphasizing his work ethic and passion for the game, stating that he plans to improve his preparation habits at the NFL level. He characterized his suspension for unauthorized Girl Scout Thin Mint sales (he actually sold a jersey; about the same thing) as bad judgment. Green cited Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi as a mentor, though he noted that Massaquoi "doesn't like to talk about football much, so I have to ask him questions." Prolonged exposure to Eric Mangini has that effect.
Jake Locker said that he is working with Ken O'Brien to perfect his mechanics. Blaine Gabbert, who will run tomorrow but will not throw until his Pro Day, is learning from Terry Shea in Arizona while working out (and fishing) with Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. Gabbert characterized Mizzou's offense as a "three-to-four progression" scheme and said that he has the ability to sell play-action despite Mizzou's shotgun-based scheme. While I was writing this, Christian Ponder said something at a faraway podium about being more of a dog person. I may have picked the wrong presser to attend.
Delaware quarterback Pat Devlin answered some predictable questions about Joe Flacco, then said that he models his game after Matt Ryan. "I love purple. I love Minnesota," he said to a Vikings reporter asking him if he might fit with a team that has no quarterback (or stadium). Devlin worked exclusively from the shotgun at Delaware but is working on his drop with coaches in the offseason. When I left Devlin's table, he was talking to a reporter from NFL Japan. Perhaps the Vikings are thinking outside-the-box for new stadium locations.
Mark Ingram's father played for both the Giants and Dolphins, so Giants and Dolphins reporters wanted him to express preference for their cities. "I didn't have a favorite team growing up. I was more a fan of the game," Ingram said with the wisdom of Solomon. Ingram ended injury speculation at the start of his interview. "The knee feels great. It's not an issue," he said. Ingram described his favorite play, an inside zone play called Gut and Blunt, and talked about getting hit in practice by everyone from Marcell Dareus to Rolando McClain. "We thud up the runner," McClain said of Nick Saban's drills. "It taught me how to practice, and practice hard."
The fellow from NFL Japan showed up at the end of Ingram's interview. "Are you ready to be an international superstar?" he asked.
"Hopefully," Ingram replied.
Dr. Margot Putukan, a member of the NFL Head, Neck, and Spine committee, addressed the media about the league's new concussion assessment tool.
The assessment tool, which includes symptom evaluation and return-to-play procedures, is currently only a guideline, not a mandate. Developed based on the latest research and a 2010 survey of team medical staffs, the tool builds upon the concussion detection procedures used by individual teams. Those procedures, in turn, are typically based upon the Consensus Statement on Concussions, or Zurich Statement, which requires medical staffs to focus upon the injured athlete's symptoms, cognitive functions, and balance, plus other neurological factors.
The new tool standardizes the cognitive evaluations currently in place. Players are given words to remember, numbers to recite backward, asked to recite the months backward, and so on. Putukan said they are also asked standard awareness questions called Maddox Questions. "Where are we? Who are we playing?"
Balance testing requires players to adopt three different stances and maintain equilibrium. Trainers establish each player's baselines during minicamps, so a player who cannot normally maintain balance very long with one leg in the air or recite the months backward would not be misdiagnosed. These baseline procedures, as well as variations on the balance test and Maddox questions, are already in place for most teams. In addition to these cognitive and balance assessments, team doctors and trainers ask athletes specific questions about spinal pain and tenderness to diagnose potentially serious neurological impairments.
Putukan recommends that the new tool be administered in the locker room because it is a quieter setting than the sideline. Otherwise, implementing the tool would cost teams little in terms of time and manpower. The tool also standardizes return-to-play guidelines. The NFL Neck, Head, and Spine Committee designed and distributed a concussion education poster for team locker rooms last season, and that poster quickly found its way to college and high school locker rooms, even though some of the guidelines were designed for adults. Similarly, the new tool could trickle down to lower levels of competition, though Putukan notes it is currently designed for the "adult, professional athlete."
Putukan and the committee plan to refine the tool in the weeks to come. There is no indication yet whether the tool will become official policy. When asked if an athlete should consider retirement after a fixed number of concussions, Putukan said that there is no magic number, but that "That's an individualized decision to made by the athlete and their family."