The Texans and Hackenberg,
Sittin' in a tree,
Many of the top quarterback prospects for this year's draft spoke to the media at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday, which naturally turned the press pool into a bunch of matchmaking busybodies.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien coached Christian Hackenberg when Hackenberg was a Penn State freshman and O'Brien was fresh off his stint as the Patriots' quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. Hackenberg needs a job. O'Brien needs a quarterback. So O'BrienBerg 'shipping is the new Chip Kelly-Marcus Mariota Chip-iota 'shipping.
We might as well lock Hackenberg in as the Texans' first-round draft pick, right, Coach O'Brien?
"He's got a strong arm. He's a big guy. He's smart. He was able to learn quickly when we had him at Penn State," O'Brien answered. "And you know, I'll be honest with you, I talked to a few other guys at that position—not to get into all of the list of guys that I've spoken to—that are smart, that have good arms, that seem to be quick learners."
Now, there's a bucket of ice water for your HackenBrien (the name is a work in progress) 'shippers. O'Brien is playing the field. And Hackenberg—like most of this year's quarterback prospects—has baggage.
Hackenberg, a freshman phenom under O'Brien in 2013, regressed in two seasons under James Franklin. When Hackenberg thanked just about everyone in Happy Valley but Franklin for their support when he decided to enter the 2016 draft, it raised eyebrows about friction between the quarterback and the coach.
Hackenberg stressed on Thursday that there were "no hard feelings" between him and Franklin, explaining his perceived "snub" of the coach who replaced O'Brien.
"It was one of those times where it was really emotional, the decision I was making," Hackenberg said. "I didn't have anything written out, so what came to mind was the people who spent a lot of time with me, the people that brought me to Penn State. Coach Franklin and I had a conversation, and I thanked him personally. I think that was best for our relationship."
As for the noticeable step backward he took as a quarterback under Franklin (he looked like the next Carson Palmer as a freshman but appeared undraftable at times last season), Hackenberg blamed the sanctions that hamstrung Penn State's recruiting and scholarship totals, as well as inconsistent footwork he developed, which resulted in a loss of accuracy.
Like every quarterback prospect in combine history, Hackenberg wants to put a positive spin on his college experience.
"The most important thing is that I'm trustworthy," he said. "I've been through adversity and I've been battle-tested. I feel like I haven't flinched and I'm still willing to work. … I think my potential is here [raises his hand high], and I'm on the right path to reach it."
As for the O'Brien love connection: "I think it's a great opportunity, but at the end of the day, I'm just trying to be the best prospect I can be and impress as many teams as I can."
So hold the corsages and limo reservations.
Hackenberg wasn't the only young quarterback answering tough questions. Connor Cook arrived at the combine with an appetizer sampler of quasi-relevant personality issues to address.
"There's a lot of misconceptions about me, and I think I can settle those in the team meetings," Cook acknowledged.
What sort of misconceptions?
"That I'm a cocky football player. Arrogant. Stuff like that. It couldn't be further from the truth."
Cook addressed the specifics of those misconceptions point-by-point:
• On not being a team captain at Michigan State: Cook said he was one of a 12-player "leadership council" that selected rotating captains for each game. Cook was named captain for four games in his final season, including the Big Ten Championship and the Cotton Bowl. "If you want to go back and talk to any of my teammates and ask them if I was a great leader, they would say yes," he assured.
• On deciding not to participate in the Senior Bowl: "I had somewhat of a dinged-up shoulder. I didn't want to risk anything further than that."
• On barely shaking Archie Griffin's hand after receiving the B1G Championship MVP Trophy: Cook admitted that "it did look pretty bad" when he brushed past the two-time Heisman Trophy winner before a television interview after the conference title game. Cook apologized profusely to Griffin on both the B1G Network and personally after the game. "We won our football conference. We were Big Ten champs. And the last thing that's going through my mind at that time was to try to disrespect someone, let alone a man like Archie Griffin."
Captaincy questions and GIF-exacerbated brouhahas aside, Cook sounded like an NFL quarterback when talking about his craft, whether discussing various drops and offensive concepts or stressing the "subtle movements in the pocket" he is striving to perfect.
Judging a quarterback by his speaking ability at a press conference is a bad idea. Judging him by handshakes during award ceremonies is much, much worse.
California's Jared Goff is another top quarterback prospect with questions. Goff's size and strength are issues. He looks lanky on tape and weighed in Thursday at 215 pounds on a 6'4" frame.
Goff acknowledged that he is working to get a little thicker. "I can always put some weight on," he said. "I gained about 10 pounds every year since I was about 14. I'm 21 now and I weigh 215. Maybe when I'm 24 I'll be 245."
"I can always improve on that," he added. "But at the same time, I was pretty durable during college. I took a lot of hits, took a lot of sacks, and I was able to get up from every one of them."
Goff also fielded questions about his nightmarish five-interception performance in an October loss to Utah.
"That game went about as bad as it could go," he said. "I used it as an opportunity to show that I can bounce back."
Carson Wentz's questions weren't really about Carson Wentz. The North Dakota State quarterback played at the FCS level, where nationally televised bad games or controversies are rare. Therefore, Wentz fielded the standard questions about level of competition that are tossed at every FCS-level quarterback.
"Obviously there's going to be a jump," Wentz said in response to one of many questions about adjustment to the NFL. "An NFL playbook is probably twice the size of what we did or more. I'm excited for that. I'm a student of the game.
"I think the biggest challenge that myself or anybody else standing on this podium is going to say is just adjusting to that speed. You put on some NFL tape or you watch Monday Night Football, Sunday games or whatever, you realize these guys are playing fast."
Earlier on Thursday, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco spoke at length about the process of scouting FCS-level players. Telesco always looks for film of the one or two games per year that small-school prospects played against a larger program and places extra emphasis on those games. He also focuses on any All-Star practices and games in which the small-school prospect participated.
"You have to be able to dominate the competition, whether at Division I-AA [now called FCS], II or III," Telesco added. But ultimately, as when the Colts drafted Pierre Garcon from Division III Mount Union, a team has to take a leap of faith. Telesco said the final decision on Garcon was, "We'll never know if he can do it until he gets here."
Wentz has some solid (not spectacular) two-year-old game film against Iowa State on his resume, plus lots of playoff film against the top FCS teams in the country, programs not that far below the typical mid-major also-ran. He had an impressive Senior Bowl week.
"I think I went in and proved that I could handle it," Wentz said of his week of practice against big-program All-Stars. A pair of national championships is pretty good evidence of "dominance."
Of course, Wentz is being talked about as a top-five pick, which is an awfully big leap of faith, even for an impressive size-arm talent who looks and sounds ready to make the jump.
Cardale Jones of Ohio State is a run-oriented quarterback in an option-heavy system who spent the 2015 season in a complicated quarterback rotation with J.T. Barrett. Jones also has a bubbly personality and a lively Twitter feed. He once asked Ronda Rousey out on a date when he saw her on an awards show and (less amusingly, to an NFL executive) changed his profile to "3rd String QB @ The Ohio State University Oh Wait, 2nd String" in the midst of 2015's quarterback carousel.
In other words, Jones is more potential juicy ribeye for the Cam Newton bashers.
Jones did what all quarterback prospects with "issues" must do during his Thursday press conference. He acknowledged some past mistakes while stressing how much he has matured. He defended himself against "negative stereotypes and things people may project."
As for concerns about whether some fans might write Jones off as (in an interviewer's words) "a goofball," Jones said, "Probably so. But people don't see the 90-plus hours each week I put in to perform on the weekends."
For all of the Thursday talk of awkward handshakes, ill-advised social networking, public snubs and small hands (more on that last item in a moment), what the game film shows about these quarterbacks matters much more than what they said. Cook's film is sometimes brilliant and sometimes baffling. Goff looks solid if you skip the Utah game, which no NFL team will do. Wentz film is tricky to find and sometimes looks like he is scrimmaging at the local high school. Jones' is electrifying but wild. Hackenberg's film looks best if you run his career in reverse.
It's a lot to sort through, which is why it's best to put all the matchmaking on hold for a while.
A Show of Hands
Here's a multiple-choice quiz for you. Don't worry: It's not the Wonderlic, and your results will not be leaked.
Question: The phrase "Nine-Inch Hands" refers to …
A) That awful '90s techno cover band that's always playing at Thursday Happy Hour at Tipsy McFooligans.
B) The lamest Tinder brag ever.
C) The traditional NFL minimum requirement for the span of a quarterback's throwing hand.
The correct answer is "C" of course, and combine-watchers were all aflutter on Twitter on Thursday morning when prospect Jared Goff measured in at precisely 9" from pinkie to thumb. It was the biggest news since Teddy Bridgewater crossed the finish line with a 9 ¼" throwing hand two years ago, if you define "big news" as "loopy conversation about a young athlete's anatomy."
"I just heard about that yesterday," Goff said about his hands. "I've been told I have pretty big hands my whole life."
Veteran scouts and insiders will tell you that when a quarterback prospect's hands measure at or below the 9" threshold, it triggers (for most teams) the same protocols that a wide receiver who runs a 4.6 40-yard dash might face. Scouts and coaches review film of bad/cold-weather games to see if the quarterback has trouble gripping the ball in tough conditions. Teams take a second look at the quarterback's fumble rates. Eventually, they determine whether the small hands are a major, minor or non-factor among the dozens of factors that every team considers when drafting a quarterback.
Goff fumbled 23 times in his career, though just four times in his final season. Potential suitors will probably take a look at every fumble. They will not rip Goff's name off their draft boards and throw it in a furnace, and they wouldn't have done it if Goff came up just short at 8 ⅞", either.
Not every talent evaluator takes hand length very seriously. Duke Tobin, director of player personnel for the Bengals, said that his team has no benchmarks in place for hand length.
"There are some measurements that I think are accurate, and there are some that sometimes aren't," he said. "It's amazing the change in hand size from one event to another."
Tobin then spent an extended period of time holding his hand up and repositioning his fingers. "That's an eight-inch hand," he said with his fingers together, "and that's a 10-inch hand," he said with fingers splayed. Tobin stopped just short of gesturing the press pool to Live Long and Prosper.
Hand length is always measured with the fingers extended. But that's not the point for Tobin.
"It's a little bit useless as a measurement," he said. "I think when you shake a guy's hand, you know whether he's got a big hand or not."
But Broncos general manager and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway does pay at least a little attention to hand measurements. In fact, he said he measured his own hand three months ago "just to see what he was looking at." Elway's reported hand length: 10 ⅛".
Big, if true.
It only goes to show you that there is nothing about obsessing over the size of a man's hand that doesn't come across as a little creepy when you do it for too long.
Odds and Ends
Peyton Watch: John Elway stayed on message through numerous questions about Peyton Manning's possible retirement and its ramifications for the Broncos, free-agent quarterback Brock Osweiler and a salary-cap crunch that would look much less crunchy without Manning's salary on the ledger. A somewhat exasperated Elway tried to finally squelch the topic with one final statement:
"Here's what I'm gonna tell you about Peyton," he said. "We're going to give Peyton the time Peyton deserves because of 18 years. He deserves that. And I don't mean to leave it out there. Peyton and I have talked, and we said, 'You know what? We'll get back together in a week to 10 days and see where you are, and then we'll go from there.' So I don't have anything else to say on Peyton, other for the fact that we're going to respect the fact that we're going to give him some time and let him enjoy it."
But if Manning decides that he wants to keep playing, a reporter followed up, does that put Elway in a good spot or a difficult spot?
"Any other questions?"
The Non-Running Man: Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell chose not to run the 40-yard dash at this year's combine. Here's what he said on Thursday about the decision: "I just didn't have enough time to prepare. Was training at one facility, switched facilities in the middle of the training process—just wasn't getting the work I needed to run my best time."
Before you believe the conspiracy theories that Treadwell could lose a foot race to a garden slug, keep in mind that the 40-yard dashes we will watch all weekend are manufactured events that require specialized skills, like releasing out of a crouch on the blocks and running in a straight line with no thought of eluding a defender or turning for a pass.
A player who hasn't mastered these not-really-football skills at a performance academy risks losing one-tenth of a second or so. A wide receiver whose 40 time is one-tenth of a second slow will hear about nothing else for the next seven weeks or so. He will get stuck in the same category as the small-handed quarterbacks. So there is a lot to this "switched facilities" story.
And Finally: It's a well-known fact that teams ask prospects weird questions during interviews in an effort to get the players "off script" and determine how they think on their feet. Here's a doozy of a weird question, as retold by Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty, one of the less-heralded (but still interesting) prospects in this year's draft class:
"One team asked me: If I'm on a hill in Alaska, driving a bus, and I'm going 100 miles an hour, and as I get to the bottom, going down this hill, all icy, it's cold, I realize I don't have any brakes. Where are you sitting on the bus?"
"I was like, 'Man, I'm gonna be the driver. I'm gonna hit the emergency brake and we're gonna get off this dang bus!'"
Good answer, Brandon! You may be a late-round pick, but when it's time to reboot the Speed movie franchise, you are the first choice to replace Keanu.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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