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Why What You Don’t See At The NFL Combine Might Be The Most Important Thing

A draft prospect’s talent can largely be gauged from video, but it takes much more to figure out if he is the right kind of guy.

NFL Combine - Day 4 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The NFL Combine is often referred to derisively as the Underwear Olympics. Coaches, scouts, and other team executives from all the NFL franchises will gather in Indianapolis to watch the best prospective draft picks get measured, take the Wonderlic, and go through various drills and skills evaluations. And a surprising number of viewers will tune into coverage on the NFL Network.

The combine was originated as a way to do these evaluations once and make the results available to all teams, with a level playing field for the prospects. Given that the proceedings are recorded, it seems somewhat old-fashioned to have so many staff go to watch things from the stands.

Well, that is not why all those scouts and coaches are really there. Something that is not recorded are the face-to-face interviews that the teams have with the prospects. In many cases, this is the only chance the teams have to interact with those players prior to the draft. And for both sides of those conversations, it may be the most important thing that happens at the combine.

This is a big thing for all NFL teams, but the Dallas Cowboys may put a bit more emphasis on it than most. Under Jason Garrett, the team has striven to bring in his “right kind of guy”, players who are team-oriented and dedicated to doing whatever it takes to help the organization as a whole, even if it may not be the best thing for their individual stats. There was no greater example of this than the remarkable announcement by Tony Romo that he was going to be filling a backup role to Dak Prescott. It is hard to imagine many other NFL quarterbacks, especially ones with the Pro Bowl on their resume, not only going along with the plan, but making a public statement of support (or at least acceptance). As unusual as Romo’s speech was, it was in many ways no more than Garrett wants from all his players.

After all, the Cowboys have a very recent experience with what just one or two players who don’t buy into the message can do to a team. The 4-12 2015 season was sandwiched between a 12-4 campaign and last year’s 13-3 record. Most of that has been placed on Romo’s injuries - but in a recent article at DallasCowboys.com, Garrett revealed to Jeff Sullivan that there was another factor that may have been just as important.

The same team chemistry cited for playing such a role in 2014 and this past season was simply not the same in 2015. And as Garrett explained, when a team doesn’t have one another’s backs, they tend to fall apart in the final minutes of close games.

There is no need for specific names. It’s just important to understand who this team was and is, and more importantly at this point, who this team must remain to be successful going forward.

“We made some moves in 2015 with the hope of them adding value to our team, and at the end of the day, the chemistry just wasn’t the same,” said Garrett. “We were all responsible for what took place in 2015, but when you are having some struggles as a team, and everyone is not on the same page, the culture of the team is altered.

“Here’s what we needed to do to change the culture. And here’s what we need to do going forward to keep that culture we had in 2014 and again this past season. We need to have guys who love to play football and love being great teammates. We need to build a team that every single person associated with the team can be proud of. We need a healthy team culture where people hold one another to a high level of accountability. We need guys who believe in what we’re trying to do.”

At the conclusion of the 2015 campaign, several prominent players told Garrett point-blank in their exit interviews that the team needed to move away from the few who were causing the issues. The Cowboys were headed in that direction anyhow, but the players’ input only further validated the organization’s mindset entering the offseason.

Sullivan may decline to name names, but it would probably be a safe bet that Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain were brought up by those veterans. Both were absent last year, and the team certainly seemed to benefit.

This, of course, is another intangible. That makes it something that cannot be really quantified. It is also different for draft prospects. With Hardy and McClain, the Cowboys knew about their previous issues (and hopefully have learned from how things turned out with them). For those college players looking to move up to the next level, there may or may not be accurate information about their character. Many schools, particularly in the “Power 5” conferences, are not just reticent about such things, they sometimes actively hide them (see: Baylor University). Good NFL scouting departments put as much emphasis on digging out this kind of information as they do on breaking down game video. The Cowboys are reputed to be one team that works this way, according to one scout who has discussed this with me.

And the combine interview is another way to try and get a measure of the man. It is of necessity a brief exchange, and does not always reveal the true character of the prospect. But these coaches and scouts have been around players like these for a long, long time. They have a great deal of experience that can help them tell the difference between when a prospect is just mouthing what they think the interviewer wants to hear, and when they are expressing their real values. Sometimes, players are remarkably naive about how they come across as well, revealing all to easily that they are more concerned with their own numbers, that they really don’t like to work all that hard, or that they think they can get by as they have in the past on superior natural talent rather than honing their craft.

The Cowboys had some extra opportunities last year to interact with Prescott since they were coaching at the Senior Bowl, but by all accounts he was very impressive in all their meetings with him. The coaching staff was especially struck by him, and as Phillips mentioned in the article quoted above, Garrett is more involved with the draft process than all but a small handful of head coaches. Character can jump out at you, and it looks like it did for Prescott, which was great for Dallas.

Details about who dazzles and who flubs things are hard to come by, as teams never like to share this kind of information, at least prior to the draft. But this is one reason why part of the annual draft coverage here at Blogging The Boys includes an attempt to identify every visitor the Cowboys have in between the combine and the draft, and we try to find out as much as we can about who they talk to in Indianapolis as well. The Dallas staff is looking hard for players who aren’t just talented, but who will fit comfortably into the culture that Garrett has been working for years to build. Those interviews at the combine are one of the very few chances they get to sort that out. It makes them extremely valuable to all involved.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB