The roughest event on the football calendar

Every year the world's best prospects gather at the Combine to try out. Many will never put on an NFL uniform

Published November 24, 2013 4:00PM (EST)

    (AP/Julio Cortez)
(AP/Julio Cortez)

Excerpted from "Collision Low Crossers"

He seems very strong. Did you notice his torso?
—Preston Sturges, "Sullivan’s Travels"

The year really began in the last days of February, at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. The Scouting Combine is an annual invitation-only event at which more than three hundred of the country’s most promising draft-eligible college football players gather to audition for NFL teams by running, jumping, lifting weights, taking intelligence tests, and sitting down for private interviews, where each one might be asked about almost anything, including his injured shoulder, his bar brawl, his decision to save himself for marriage, and, as had happened the year before with the receiver Dez Bryant, whether his mother was a prostitute. When Eric Mangini led the Jets, he sometimes began a Combine interview by requiring the ten or so people in the room to introduce themselves to the player, after which the coach turned to the player and asked him to repeat all the names he’d just heard. This did not always go over well. LSU’s Dwayne Bowe, now a Chiefs receiver, believed Mangini was trying to humiliate him, and he shut down, producing a lengthy awkward moment that Jets officials still can’t recall without shuddering.

The Combine was a spectacle that had elements of other spectacles: it was a football screen test; a football beauty pageant; a strongman contest at a football county fair. Jets receivers coach Henry Ellard, a former NFL star, thought back to his own Combine experience and remembered the queasy feeling of standing on display, “only in shorts,” for crowds of men who tugged and pulled at him “like a piece of meat.” Ellard, like most Combine attendees and most NFL players, is black. The majority of the people evaluating the players are white, creating a dynamic the Jets coaches warned me I might find disquieting: “It looks like a fucking slave auction,” one coach said.

The Combine was also exactly what the word proclaimed it was: an NFL harvester that winnowed the field of ripe young football players and separated them into wheat and chaff. Two months after the Combine, at the end of April, the threshing would be completed in New York, when two-thirds of the contestants would hear their names called at the NFL draft ceremony. For the players, the Combine loomed the way the MCAT did for their classmates who hoped to become doctors, and most of them prepared just as assiduously. These study sessions were often conducted by agents, who helped the players to have ready responses for just about anything anybody might ask them to do or say.

The Jets had been preparing too. In Florham Park, after a season spent living in the moment, coming within a game of reaching the Super Bowl, the Jets coaches and team officials had stepped back, evaluated the team, assessed its deficiencies, decided what had kept them from the championship, and then discussed whom they could find at the Combine to deliver them. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, for instance, hoped to discover “a bitch-kitty pass rusher.” By this he meant a defensive end or, in a 3-4 alignment, an outside linebacker who would smell a warm quarterback and become an insatiable, unblockable, pocket-infiltrating force of war-daddy bedlam. In other words, a sacking specialist. A fundamental fact of a defensive coordinator’s life was that a sack reduced the chance of the opposing team’s scoring in any drive to 7 percent. For all their reputation as a pressuring defense, the Jets didn’t generate many sacks, leading to the perception that they lacked a real pass rush, were doing it with mirrors. Their basic problem was that there were not many large men capable of accelerating off a mark at high speed and then making a feline curve around the edge of pass protection by dipping their shoulders low enough to the grass that you could imagine them passing beneath a café table without disturbing the vase of tulips on top before raising a little backfield harm.

Attending the Combine was the University of Wisconsin defensive end J. J. Watt and the Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller, and either would have been the answer to Mike Pettine’s (and Rex Ryan’s) prayers. But because the Jets had been the NFL’s third-best team the year before, their position for the seven rounds of the upcoming draft was low—they would pick thirtieth out of the thirty-two teams. Watt and Miller would be drafted by other teams long before that thirtieth slot. So Pettine was looking elsewhere. Pettine had watched cut-ups, collections of film footage on a common theme chosen from various games of the college careers of all the defensive players the Jets scouts and front-office people had graded draft-eligible. In his best moments on film, Temple University’s Muhammad Wilkerson had impressed Pettine as much as any lineman in the draft. He weighed 315 pounds, had arms that were three feet long, and he looked like a Volkswagen when he sprinted. But Pettine worried that on too many snaps, Wilkerson needed “a little gunpowder in his Wheaties.”

For the coaches and front-office people, the Combine was an industry convention. Downtown Indianapolis teemed with contingents from all the NFL organizations. Everybody knew everybody, and there was a reunion feel. At hotel lobbies and in restaurants and bars, you could hear scraps of conversation particular to the time and place: “You can’t coach nasty”; “He’s only six three”; “Optimal hips!”; “Josh McDaniels thinks he invented football.” McDaniels had been hired in 2009 to be the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Only thirty-two and another protégé of Bill Belichick, McDaniels was then the young NFL coach of the moment. But in December, with the Broncos a 3-and-9 dead horse, he’d been fired, and now there was a different ascendant NFL leader who also happened to be the undisputed king of the Combine—Rex Ryan.

The combination of his coaching success, his charm, and a star turn in the 2010 season of HBO’s training-camp documentary Hard Knocks as the smack-talking, life-loving profane fat dude with motivating charisma—“Let’s go eat a goddamned snack!”—had earned Ryan first-name recognition out in the world: Rex! For him there were now invitations from the likes of Letterman, Sandler (a movie cameo), and Doubleday (a memoir). His popularity had only increased with Deadspin’s discovery of fetish videos in which Ryan praised the feet of his pretty wife of nearly thirty years, Michelle. Ryan was not only gregarious but also a happily married inamorato! (Around the facility, when the other coaches teased him about this episode, Ryan would retort affably, “I’m the only guy in history who gets in a sex scandal with his wife!”) Within the well-insulated facility, one could still believe that things with Ryan were as they had always been. Out at the Combine, it was clear that much was different.

In Indianapolis, as soon as Ryan was free of his long schedule of meetings, he was all over town, as he always was at the Combine. Only this time, everybody wanted to join him for a cheeseburger—or lob one at him. He’d given a press conference in which he’d guaranteed a Super Bowl victory for the Jets.

As for the Jets defensive coaches at the Combine, after hours of asking players to diagram their college base defenses and showing them cut-ups of themselves making good and poor plays on the field—clips chosen to stimulate a revealing discussion, assess the player’s football acumen, and measure his responses to uncomfortable situations—the Jets coaches would gather for a late meal or drinks and conversation. They discussed peekers (a player who so badly wanted to please that every time he made a mistake, he looked to see the coach’s reaction). They discussed various methods used to defend the back of the end zone (a discreet hand to a receiver’s hip to “help him out-of-bounds” was one). They discussed Stanford defensive players (“Buyer beware!”). The coaches worked together closely year-round, so it was understood that, in the interests of group harmony, they would not discuss politics, religion, or wives. The dating exploits of the unmarried coaches were, however, fair game, and questions arose on the order of what was the appropriate interval of time to let pass after breaking up with a woman before one asked her roommate out.

And then there were the ongoing adventures of young Mike Smith. Smitty had been a Ravens linebacker until a severe shoulder injury ended his career. With the Jets, he was still officially a defensive intern, but Pettine deemed him a promising enough coach to lead the Jets outside linebackers. He was a dark-haired Texan with a big, cheerful arm-around-the-shoulder manner, and in a community filled with strong, physical men, there was something sweetly unmenacing about Smitty. The others enjoyed telling Smitty stories in front of him, partly because the stories were so amusing and partly because Smitty’s policy in the face of less than flattering personal history was to smile and tell himself, You just have to take it. A year earlier, Smitty had prepared to celebrate his thirtieth birthday, only to realize on the birthday morning that actually he had just turned twenty-nine. Reporting the oversight to Pettine, Smitty used the word “forgot.” Another day, Smitty’s car was discovered parked at such an angle that it consumed two facility parking spaces, one of them not Smitty’s. When confronted, Smitty claimed all ignorance, said he’d left the car perfectly parked. Smitty was a native of Lubbock, Texas, where the gusts were such that sometimes locals seemed to walk at a forward lean. That explains why, on the subject of his askew car, Smitty ventured this speculation: “The wind must have blown it crooked.”

At the Combine, Smitty’s hotel roommate was Jim O’Neil, with whom he also shared an office at the facility. O’Neil was Pettine’s extremely competent quality-control vizier, and he also assisted Dennis Thurman, the Jets secondary coach, which made O’Neil a slow young white guy in charge of some very fast black guys. If this intimidated O’Neil, he never showed it. He had tremendous self-confidence grounded in a belief that his capacity for preparation would always win the day. You looked at O’Neil’s big, pale face, jug ears, and upturned chin, and you had the idea that as a kid he must have spent a lot of time down in the family basement lifting barbells while listening to Tom Petty. In another life, he would have been the union boss buying beers for his guys down at a bar called Jimmy O’s. Except that he hated unions.

O’Neil’s affection for Smitty did not keep him from revealing to the others that his roommate preferred showering in the dark. Or from putting Tabasco sauce in Smitty’s can of Skoal chewing tobacco. Or from telling Smitty that O’Neil’s Pennsylvania high-school team would have kicked the Texas out of Smitty’s. That was a dropped handkerchief Smitty could never resist picking up. O’Neil had played at Central Bucks West, in Doylestown, for Pettine’s father, a storied coach who rated aggression above all football qualities—as did O’Neil. Time after time, O’Neil lured Smitty into these debates with assertions whose sheer unprovability seemed to deter neither of them.

O’Neil: “Dude! Our fullback was two hundred and fifty pounds! How you gonna stop him?”

Smitty (indignant): “I’d have woodshedded him with my shoulder!”

O’Neil (going in for the kill): “Dude, we’d have ruined your shoulder long before you got to the NFL and ruined your shoulder.”

And so on.

The Combine was a business trip, and one that had the distinctive energy that develops among a group of work colleagues who are traveling together as a unit. In a sport like football, where people are constantly shifting teams and group identity is everything, this was how they owned their present colors. During one Combine meeting with a defensive lineman, the Jets coaching and front-office contingent was looking at the player’s inconsistent film with him, and Terry Bradway, a former Jets GM who had stayed on with the team as Tannenbaum’s senior personnel consultant, said that the tackling and effort needed to be better if the lineman was going to play in the NFL. When it was the defensive-line coach Mark Carrier’s turn to speak, he said, “I agree with Mr. Bradbury’s point.” The little malapropism was received with much hilarity; it provided the sort of moment the coaches lived for. Bradway, of course, became Mr. Bradbury for the duration of the Combine and well beyond, and his name was worked into conversations with regularity whenever Carrier was in the room.

The prize moment in that year’s Combine meetings involved Ryan. These daily sessions went on for long hours, and to keep his energy up, Ryan ate many snacks. He was working through a stack of cookies while the Jets interviewed Clemson defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins. At the table, Mike Tannenbaum received a text from someone across the room telling him to look under Ryan’s chair. A swarm of ants was enjoying a cookie-crumb banquet. Tannenbaum sent out an e-mail to all the Jets people in the room alerting them to the sudden ant-farm developments; the subject line read “Right Now.” Soon everyone was shaking with laughter, except Jarvis Jenkins, who didn’t flinch—which earned him high interview marks from the Jets for Composure.

Not that anybody was going to fall too hard for a player because of anything that happened at the Combine. The team’s draft personnel were still recovering from the debacle of 2008, when they’d held the number-six pick. Then, as now, they had been in search of a bitch kitty, and during the 2007 college season, an Ohio State defensive end named Vernon Gholston caught their attention. Gholston had just set his university’s record for sacks in a year—fourteen—and one of them was against Michigan tackle Jake Long, the lone sack that portcullis of a lineman had allowed as a senior. In Indianapolis, wearing only shorts, Gholston looked not so much sculpted as quarried. Mangini was still the coach, and what he and other Jets executives were thinking after they watched this 266-pound man run a forty-yard dash in 4.65 seconds and bench-press a Combine-best thirty-seven reps of 225 pounds was that they’d just seen, as one of them said, “a Greek god who jumps over buildings.”

As so often happens when people look back on the history of how they made terrible decisions, the Jets possessed all the information to warn them away from Vernon Gholston. That information simply didn’t prevail. The Jets knew that Gholston had begun playing football very late, as a high-school sophomore; that he was on the field for only two seasons at Ohio State; that half his college sacks were compiled in two games; that he didn’t seem like a “natural” football player so much as an “analytical” athlete who appeared to process every action before he committed to it; that Gholston’s impressive Combine measurables might indicate only that he was “a workout warrior.”

All players have flaws. NFL draft mistakes often come down to the team’s inability to know if a football player will continue to display a relentless desire to play and to improve at the game after he’s signed a contract for a great deal of money. As soon as Vernon Gholston joined the Jets, put on his pads, and began playing live football, it was clear to many Jets players that the rookie had little feel for the game—that he lacked both a passion for it and “the good awareness,” as Darrelle Revis put it. Moving straight ahead, Gholston could charge hard and fast, but football is a game of angles, and sudden changes of direction drained his momentum. As plays began, Gholston had no instinctive ability to limit and refine the possibilities presenting themselves to him. “In football, no matter how fast you are, you have to see before you see,” said the Jets linebacker coach Bob Sutton.

When they came to the Jets, Ryan and Pettine had no more luck improving Gholston than their predecessors had. As the Jets defensive coaches evaluated Gholston’s practice and game film, his reactions were routinely so stiff, somebody in the room might yell, “Get the oil can!” at the screen. It was Jets special-teams coach Mike Westhoff who crushingly observed, “If he touched a hot stove today, he’d scream out tomorrow.” Occasionally in practice, Gholston would display the astonishing speed and power that reminded the other players why he’d been a top-ten draft pick. But in 2011, he’d just completed his third professional season, and, as in the first two, he hadn’t made a single sack. When the Combine ended, the Jets were going to release him.

Every organization makes mistakes, but this flagrant one was a cautionary tale for the Jets. The most discussed player at the current Combine was Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, and even he elicited restrained commentary from the Jets. They were detached, letting the process play out in full. The Combine was only one chapter, a bewitching spectacle that needed to be treated with skepticism. For all the reports and films and algorithms and studies and formulas and statistics inundating NFL personnel departments, there was no reliable science to predict the professional success of college football players. Gholston, the quiet man who never sacked anybody, was the team’s metaphor for the inside/outside existence of the NFL. Out there, in shorts, he was still the picture of an NFL player. Inside, the image blurred.

Excerpted from "Collision Low Crossers: A year inside the turbulent world of NFL football" by Nicholas Dawidoff. Copyright © 2013. Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

By Nicholas Dawidoff

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