Combine Notebook: Jon Gruden Kicks It Old-School; New Coaches Do the Dougie
INDIANAPOLIS — The first rule of coach-and-executive press conference day at the NFL Scouting Combine: Don't expect much from coach-and-executive day at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Team representatives cannot talk about buzzy free agents like Kirk Cousins because that would be tampering. They can't talk about their own free agents because that would reveal their super-secret offseason plans. They can't talk about the incoming rookies because they haven't even met them yet.
So what does that leave besides endless repetitions of the phrase "evaluative process" until it sounds like a gnat buzzing around your inner eardrum? Plenty! Today's combine review distills the filler and prattle to bring you:
- Jon Gruden's anti-Moneyball freestyle rap.
- Insights on the Marcus Peters trade, plus other news.
- In-depth analysis of the new head coaches to determine which one is the most Doug Pederson-like.
- Lots of evasive remarks about rookie and free-agent quarterbacks.
And much, much more!
Jon Gruden Wants You to Get Those Analytics off His Lawn
Welcome back to the future, Raiders fans!
One thing became clear when Jon Gruden met the media for the first time Wednesday: He's not a fan of analytics, sports-science data and other newfangled football developments.
"I'm trying to throw the game back to 1998," he said, when asked about analytics.
It sounded like a tongue-in-cheek Gruden zinger, but he kept going. He said that as a broadcaster, he saw stacks of analytical data at various teams' headquarters that no one even knew how to read. "It's one thing to have the data. It's another thing to know how to read the damn thing," he said.
"So I'm not going to rely on GPS's or all the modern technology." He conceded that he would get some people to help him interpret some data. "But I still think doing things the old-fashioned way is a good way. And we're gonna lean the needle that way a little bit."
Now, give Gruden credit for providing a blunt, honest answer instead of gibbering about "the process." And yes, the cart has gone before the horse with some analytical methods: There's lots of data out there that no one knows what to do with yet. Also, it's OK to find a little dose of old-school football refreshing, and talk like that should play to the Raiders fanbase nicely.
But there are two reasons to be discouraged by Gruden's too much data tirade.
- The data-driven Eagles just beat the data-driven Patriots in the Super Bowl, so two of the NFL's most analytics-based teams happen to be its two best teams. (Note: The Browns are thought of as the NFL's top analytics mavens, but they went Moneyball the way middle school kids go Goth.)
- When Jon Gruden became the hottest young coach in the NFL in the late 1990s, it's because he was a cutting-edge innovator, not a hidebound traditionalist. In going back to rehire their former wunderkind, the Raiders may have ended up bringing in someone resistant to the same types of ideas that once made him great.
Gruden is also struggling to adjust to the fact that NFL rules and culture have changed drastically in the decade since he left coaching.
"It's a lot different because you're not allowed to have any interaction with the players," he said of new rules that limit how much teams can require players to be at their facilities or work with coaches. "I've always complained about that since the new CBA came into place."
"What's most discouraging to me is that we have to make some decisions on our roster, on salaries, on players and their futures, and you can't even meet them. I don't know these guys. I've never coached them. I've never met half of them. That's been difficult for me, and I've been emotional at times."
The game has changed, coach. You had better change with it because turning back the clock isn't going to work.
New Head Coaches Graded on the Pederson Scale
Every new NFL head coach should strive to emulate Doug Pederson.
Two years ago, the Eagles head coach arrived at the combine looking like a shlubby middle manager who only got the job because the first four choices turned down the promotion. And while Pederson still comes across like a dad about to give you a tiresome lecture about not squandering your allowance, he's secretly a high-stakes gambler and an innovation ninja.
So how Pederson-like are this year's new head coaches (excepting Jon Gruden, who is following in his own footsteps)? It's hard to draw conclusions from brief press conferences. But we're here to do this kind of hard, vitally important work!
New Head Coach: Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears
How Pederson-like is he? Nagy is a former Chiefs offensive coordinator with deep Eagles roots, like Pederson. He acknowledged that the Bears offense will have some similarities to the Eagles offense, with "our own little spin on it." He also said there will be recognizable Chiefs elements. He even noted similarities between Bears running back Tarik Cohen and Chiefs playmaker Tyreek Hill. And Nagy stressed the importance of communication and collaboration.
By the standards of combine press conferences, Nagy practically overshared. He may be even more Pederson than Pederson.
New Head Coach: Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions
How Pederson-like is he? Dressed in a black hoodie and black Lions cap, Patricia looked more like a slacker filmmaker than an NFL coach. His trademark pencil jutted from behind his ear as if he could send it flying through the air by whistling, like Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy. And as a defensive-oriented Bill Belichick disciple, Patricia does not have many superficial Pederson traits.
But appearances can be deceiving, and the talkative Patricia displayed some Pederson-level candor when discussing his new job. "When you step into this role, you have to remember: Whatever problem or situation comes through that door, that's the most important situation to that person. And you need to address it that way."
Belichick doesn't even convey that much human emotion when he's coming out from anesthesia.
New Head Coach: Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts
How Pederson-like is he? Reich is heir to the Pederson throne (a modified Barcalounger), and he looked the part, from his dad jeans and gray loafers to the extra half-hour he spent answering questions after his press conference. Reich also quoted legendary Bills coach Marv Levy, revealing some of the deep roots of the Pederson culture. "A team's morale is directly proportional to the degree that they're prepared," Reich said. Preparation, morale and mathematics: Got it.
We'll see how high Reich's morale is after a few more weeks of doubletalk about Andrew Luck's shoulder.
New Head Coach: Pat Shurmur, New York Giants
How Pederson-like is he? Shurmur is an offensive coach with Eagles roots and an unassuming demeanor, all of which are Pedersonesque. But there's a fine line between a calm exterior hiding a fourth-down assassin and a calm exterior hiding just another coaching retread. We'll see which one Shurmur turns out to be. Or perhaps we already found out in the NFC Championship Game.
New Head Coach: Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans
How Pederson-like is he? Vrabel is much more Belichick-like than the bubbly Patricia, making him the least Pederson-like of the new coaches. Being Belichick-like is not a bad thing, but Vrabel spent his whole press conference flailing to differentiate himself from his Patriots roots. He was asked a general question about backup quarterbacks at one point, and he used Tom Brady replacing Drew Bledsoe as an example, quickly backtracking to state that he wasn't seeking to usurp Marcus Mariota in a similar way.
Pederson tells Brett Favre stories now and then too. But Vrabel hasn't quite found the balance between coming off as a second-generation Patriots subcontractor and establishing his own tone. Luckily, it's only February.
New Head Coach: Steve Wilks, Arizona Cardinals
How Pederson-like is he? Wilks is part of the extended Andy Reid coaching tree (by way of the Ron Rivera branch system), but as a defense-oriented head coach who emphasized establishing the run several times during his press conference, Wilks did not sound particularly Pedersonish. Then again, the whole point of being a Pederson is to make a deceptively unassuming first impression.
Wilks also emphasized installing a "system" instead of a "scheme" and adapting his tactics to fit the available talent instead of vice versa. In fact, many of the coaches who spoke Wednesday expressed this very Pedersonesque mindset. Maybe the whole NFL is getting a little more like Doug Pederson. If so, that's a good thing.
As the Quarterback Carousel Turns, Part 1: The Vikings
The Vikings have no experienced quarterbacks under contract for 2018. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins rumors are louder than a blast from that giant Norse horn thingy they blare when Vikings opponents face third down.
What Was Said
Vikings GM Rick Spielman did not beat around the bush in his Wednesday press conference, addressing the quarterback situation in an opening statement.
"Just to make clear: there have been no decisions made," Spielman said. "I know there has been a thousand reports out there on how we're going to move forward."
Spielman added that he had been in contract with representatives of all three unrestricted free agents from last year's roster. But he left the door open for pretty much any quarterback scenario you can imagine.
What Wasn't Said
Spielman needed a little coaxing to mention Case Keenum, then offered a guarded endorsement: "I know we've had some internal discussions with how he fits with what [new offensive coordinator John] DeFilippo wants to do. So we were very excited about what Case was able to accomplish." From all of the past tense verbs used to describe Keenum to the decision to not apply the franchise tag to him, it's safe to pencil Keenum in for a payday from some other organization.
Spielman couched his discussion about Bridgewater in budgetary terms, talking about the team's need to plan financially several years in advance. He also talked about the team's intimate knowledge of Teddy Bridgewater's injury and rehabilitation without clearly stating whether Bridgewater was 100 percent healthy or still somehow limited. It sure sounds like they may be looking to offer a low-ball, "prove it" type of deal for Bridgewater.
Sam Bradford didn't come up. On the one hand, that's not surprising, because Bradford never appeared to be in the team's long-range plans. On the other hand, Bradford opened the season as the Vikings' starting quarterback, coming off a year in which he set the single-season completion percentage record, and is a former No. 1 pick, the kind of talent that NFL personnel types used to compulsively throw money at. But now the NFL truly is a "What have you done for me lately?" league.
The Best Guess
The Vikings will pursue Cousins unless the auction gets out of control. Plan B is likely an incentive-laden contract offer for Bridgewater and a mid-round insurance policy at quarterback.
As the Quarterback Carousel Turns, Part 2: The Browns
The Browns' quarterback situation has been a tragedy throughout our society's living memory. This year, however, the team has the draft picks and cash to select any quarterback who will have them.
What Was Said
Browns head coach Hue Jackson, a three-year veteran when it comes to discussing the team's woeful quarterback situation, kicked things off by deflecting the obligatory roster tampering question: No, he didn't want to violate NFL rules by talking about AJ McCarron, thanks.
Jackson then provided noncommittal responses to questions about nearly every quarterback worth mentioning in this draft class. Yes, he would like to see Sam Darnold throw (the USC quarterback announced on Tuesday that he would not participate in combine drills) and learn why he fumbles so often. Yes, he hopes to sit down with UCLA's Josh Rosen and learn more about his personality and character. Yes, he planned to dig into the inaccuracy issues that plagued Wyoming's Josh Allen.
It makes you wonder what Jackson has been doing for the last three weeks if he hasn't gotten around to studying Allen's mechanics, Darnold's fumbles or Rosen's personality. Besides growing a beard that, like the Browns roster, needs work.
But seriously, Jackson did walk back past statements he made about having a 6'2" minimum height requirement at quarterback: "There's always outliers, right? There are guys playing in the league that are below 6'2", and playing really well."
Does that open the door for Baker Mayfield? "There's always that one player who's gonna be special," Jackson said. "This young man [Mayfield] may be that. But we don't know that yet."
What Was Not Said
Jackson never mentioned DeShone Kizer, only making some general remarks about "the quarterbacks currently on our roster." Jackson said he hopes not to draft a rookie and thrust him into the lineup right away (as he did with Kizer last year), so Kizer may stick around as a caretaker and hurdle for a top prospect to leap over in training camp. But the "quarterback of the future" bloom is already off the rose.
The Best Guess
The Browns will draft the quarterback their new front office wants, and Jackson will either like it or walk into his office to find Todd Haley redecorating with a sledgehammer.
(Note: This could happen anyway).
As the Quarterback Carousel Turns, Part 3: The Broncos
The Broncos have plenty of quarterbacks—Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian, Chad Kelly—and if they could scrap all three of them for their best parts and add some leftover John Elway bits, they might be able to build one decent quarterback.
What Was Said
Broncos coach Vance Joseph said, "We have to get better at the quarterback position" several times during Wednesday's press conference. So they aren't exactly shy about their need. When asked directly about the incumbents on the roster, Joseph took a deep breath to collect his thoughts before acknowledging that, yes, they exist.
What Wasn't Said
Just about every coach or executive with a need at quarterback stressed "the best fit for their organization," usually using those exact words. Joseph pointed out that the Broncos need a quarterback who fits their running-and-defense philosophy. But all the "fit" talk coming from so many different teams sounded like a league-wide reluctance to rewrite economics textbooks just to sign the not-quite-excellent Kirk Cousins. The soon-to-be-former Washington QB will get some tasty offers, of course, but the cap-tight Broncos won't survive the later rounds of a bidding war, which means that they may not bother trying.
The Best Guess
The Broncos sign Case Keenum and look to upgrade their offense in other ways, like finding skill-position players besides Emmanuel Sanders who can actually make big plays.
As the Quarterback Carousel Turns, Chapter 4: The Cardinals
The Cardinals have no quarterbacks under contract for 2018 and no plans to re-sign any of their 2017 quarterbacks. And because no one spreads gossip about the Cardinals or even thinks about them in the offseason, there aren't even any juicy rumors floating around.
What Was Said
New head coach Steve Wilks on the situation: "When free agency starts, we're gonna look to get the best one. And not only have a Plan A, but a Plan B and a Plan C. I think you have to be aggressive and not just wait for free agency but also look at trades. And then there's the draft. We're sitting at 15. Do we feel there's a guy we need to move up for?"
General manager Steve Keim expressed similar sentiments. "When you don't have [a quarterback], there's no other way," he said when asked about the team's no-stone-unturned approach.
In other words, the Cardinals are open for business, folks.
What Was Not Said
Keim appeared on Colin Cowherd's talk show after his Wednesday press conference. Keim talked about passing on guys with "red flags" when Cowherd asked about Baker Mayfield and praised Sam Darnold.
Watch the clip yourself, and you can see Cowherd tee up the questions for Keim to gush over Darnold while talking generally about players with character issues, with Cowherd (not Keim) leaning on Mayfield as an example. Make of that what you will. By the time NFL execs find red flags about every talented quarterback in the draft (grabs his crotch, had a hot tub in his dorm, didn't throw at the combine, mom is his de facto agent, etc.), we can look forward to a dozen Mike Glennon types starting next season.
The Best Guess
Look for the Cardinals to try to move up to take whichever rookie quarterback has the least red flags to them, then supplement the pick with a placeholder veteran. Teams picking in the top 10 that don't need a quarterback should buy Steve Keim some beers this week.
As the Quarterback Carousel Turns, Chapter 5: The Jets
Josh McCown is a free agent, and Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg are a pair of guys who couldn't wrest a starting job from Josh McCown.
What Was Said
Jets GM Mike Maccagnan started his press conference off by joking around with a veteran beat writer, who then quickly asked, "How much you gonna pay Cousins?" And so the tampering question was pushed aside early.
Maccagnan then said little of substance about his quarterback thought process. Then again, this is the guy who drafted Hackenberg in the second round, so what exactly did you expect to learn from him?
What Should Not Have Been Said
Maccagnan on the need for secrecy: "Everybody in the NFL, we all sit here and try to glean information. Honestly, we follow all the beat writers from all the other teams to find out who they like, and all that stuff."
Coaches follow beat writers to find out what other coaches are thinking? I AM DRUNK WITH POWER. Also, about all of those Doug Pederson "dad" jokes earlier: Just kidding, guys.
The Best Guess
It's the Jets, folks. Expect the unexpected.
Notes and Quotes from the Combine
Some quotes from Wednesday's press conferences, with combine-to-English translations.
Andy Reid on the Marcus Peters trade: "I can't comment on that. I'm sure you're going to attempt to ask, so I'm gonna be rude beforehand. I won't be able to answer questions on that until we get to the 14th [when NFL transactions are official]."
Translation: "I don't want to talk about that, so I will bravely hide behind a technicality!"
Sean McVay on adding talented players who are perceived as character risks, like (say) Marcus Peters: "I think, when you have an understanding of what makes a certain player tick, they respond to different forms of motivation: It always starts by building that relationship. ... I think it's about being around great examples. You look at our coaching staff, and you look at Wade Phillips and the way he's been able to connect with different types of players over the course of his career, and John Fassel—we've got great leaders on our staff."
Translation: "I'll take the guys you didn't feel like dealing with, treat them like adults and win a Super Bowl with them. Thanks!"
Doug Marrone on the Blake Bortles contract extension: "Blake has shown during the year that he was progressing, getting better. Obviously, when you give a player a contract now, we're looking for more, like we always are. ... I think it's a good situation and one where we're both working to get better."
Translation: "This is how much a lukewarm contract extension costs for a veteran quarterback we feel lukewarmly about nowadays. How do you expect us to feel about it? We feel lukewarm!"
Jason Garrett on Dez Bryant, who may be a cap casualty and has been chirping on Dallas radio: "We have a tremendous amount of love for Dez Bryant as an organization," Garrett said. "He's made so many contributions to our team. I personally have a lot of love for him as a player and more so as a person. The growth and development that he's made over the course of his career with us has been exponential and has made a huge impact on our team."
Translation: "The production-to-salary-to-headache ratio for Bryant is all out of whack. But personnel decisions are up to Jerry Jones, not me. Actually, make that all decisions."
Frank Reich on Andrew Luck: "He's not thrown a football yet. But he's continued to make the progress as expected with the weighted balls and working on the motion. And everything's going according to plan."
Translation: "All I have to do is talk about 'weighted balls' and pretend Luck is A-OK and just days away until Carson Wentz gets healthy in Philly. Then I will insist we trade for Nick Foles. So everything is indeed going according to my plan!"