GIANT STEPS was given a behind-the-scenes look at the team’s work at the combine. It included sitting in on player interviews, accompanying scouts and coaches as they watched workouts, and spending time inside the team suite.

Written by Michael Eisen
Nothing satisfies an NFL fan’s yearning for offseason action like the annual NFL Scouting Combine. Sure, the draft provides its own suspense and solves the mystery that has been the obsession of everyone from general managers and coaches to season ticket holders: for which teams will the best college players suit up? But those answers are determined in part by what happens at the combine.

After three or four seasons demonstrating their abilities on the field, draft-eligible players can gain an advantage – or lose ground – while running, jumping, lifting and executing drills specific to their positions at the combine. The numerous drills have become invaluable tools in helping coaches and executives determine which players are most worthy of being selected in the draft. They can validate that a player should be a top-five selection, or they may create enough skepticism to drop a high-pick hopeful right out of the first round.

The evaluations made at the combine have become a significant piece of the puzzle in helping all 32 teams prepare for the NFL Draft, which will be held from April 26-28.

Before the team’s football decision-makers departed for Indianapolis, general manager Dave Gettleman sat down and discussed some of the goals the team hoped to accomplish at the combine.

The Giants arrived in Indianapolis on February 27. In addition to Gettleman, Giants on the scene include assistant general manager Kevin Abrams, head coach Pat Shurmur, the assistant coaches – including coordinators Mike Shula, James Bettcher, and Thomas McGaughey – scouts, athletic trainers and physicians.

Our first point of access is inside the Giants Team Suite...

GM Dave Gettleman and head coach Pat Shurmur watch player workouts from the Giants’ suite at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

The Giants’ command center here is Suite LS 36C, which is located directly above section 236 in Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts and the combine. It’s there that Gettleman, assistant general manager Kevin Abrams, head coach Pat Shurmur, the team’s scouts, assistant coaches and medical personnel gather every day. But not everyone is there together. For example, the offensive assistants watch the drills pertaining to their players, and then return to New Jersey. As they do, the defensive assistants arrive.

Each team is assigned a suite. LS 36C has 16 padded seats up front, and room with a table and stools directly behind and chairs facing the three televisions on the wall. Anyone in the suite can connect his laptop to a TV and watch any game or player highlight(s) he’d like.

And yes, everyone is well-fed. A catered lunch is served every day.

The team personnel in attendance can watch drills on the field below them from the suite, or they can descend to the stands, which are crowded with dozens of men in official NFL apparel using the ancient tools of scouting – notebooks, pens and stopwatches.

Virtually everything that is monitored in the stadium by the executives, coaches and scouts can be seen by fans, thanks to the NFL Network’s blanket coverage of the combine. The 40-yard dashes, weightlifting, vertical and broad jumps, throwing and catching and the numerous other position-specific drills can be viewed by anyone with a television or laptop and a desire to get an early start on identifying the next generation of NFL stars.

But an aspect of the combine that decision-makers consider just as vital as the physical tests are conducted far from the public eye. They are the private interviews each team conducts with individual prospects. Every franchise is allowed to hold up to 60 of these one-on-one interrogations. With time limited and more than 325 draft hopefuls in attendance, the interviews take on the feel of speed dating. Last Thursday evening, the Giants met with 16 players in four hours – one every 15 minutes. But quality is never sacrificed for speed. The Giants try to get as much helpful information as possible from every prospect during the interview.

“You are looking for a player’s football intelligence,” Gettleman said. “You are looking for how aware he is and how smart he is. You saw we had a guy in here that just spit it all right back out. Knew everyone else’s jobs. That is what you are looking for. The bottom line is: smart guys win. The big, dumb football player is a myth. You have to play this game smart. You have to know what you are doing. That is the whole purpose of this process.”

“It’s really to figure out, can they learn?” said Chris Pettit, who has been a Giants scout since 2005. “Is he an intelligent player? How much game do they know? That’s the base, that’s what you want to get out of that. Because we’ve already done pre-work on a lot of these guys, interviewing them on their personalities, their background. But if there are some other questions that we didn’t feel good about background-wise, we’ll ask those. But really, we want to know about their overall intelligence and if they can they learn.”

The bottom line is: smart guys win. The big, dumb football player is a myth. You have to play this game smart. You have to know what you are doing. That is the whole purpose of this process.

GM Dave Gettleman

The Crowne Plaza Hotel is a unique structure not only in Indianapolis, but in the United States. Not because of its architecture – the light brick building gives it the look of a non-descript warehouse. But the 273-room hotel features 13 renovated Pullman rail cars, making it the only hotel in the world with train cars in the physical structure of the hotel.

There’s a good chance the NFL personnel gathered for the combine neither know nor care about that bit of train trivia. They are far more concerned with what happens on the hotel’s first floor.

It is a rather unremarkable location for gathering intel vital to 32 NFL teams and, by extension, their millions of fans, particularly the fervent fan base of the Giants, who happen to own the second overall selection in the draft by virtue – if that’s the correct word – of their 3-13 record in 2017.

Each team is assigned a room on the hotel’s first floor in which to conduct their interviews. For this combine, the Giants have settled into Room 117. Like all teams, they have a big banner with their logo – the famed ’ny’ – hanging next to the door.

The room is bisected in the center by a wall. In the back, the bed has been removed, though both night tables remain where they always are, as if burglars stole the bed but left the room otherwise untouched.

This is the room where prospects meet with Giants executives for their NFL Combine Interview.

The ironing board has been set up against the back wall, where it is used as a … snack table. On top of it sit boxes of pretzels, cookies, nuts, and trail mix. The closet is stacked with many more boxes, as if someone had made a Costco run and didn’t know where to put everything. A small refrigerator is stocked with water and soft drinks.

The front of the room is cluttered with a haphazard sampling of furniture, including a sofa, loveseat, and numerous types of chairs, including those normally seen around an office conference table, and several others on wheels. A television sits on a dresser, and in the front of the room is a white board to be used if a player is asked to diagram a play.

Members of the Giants’ front office and coaching and scouting staffs meet prior to player interviews at the NFL Combine.

The interviews begin at 6 p.m., but everyone who is supposed to be there is in the room or just outside well before the start time. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula arrived early for two sessions last week, as did Mark Koncz, who was recently hired by Gettleman as a draft consultant. The two men worked together for the Carolina Panthers when Gettleman was their general manager. Pettit ensures that the connection between the laptop and television is working, and that the correct player’s body of work is loaded and ready to go.

The rest of the hierarchy arrives – Gettleman, Abrams, Shurmur, more scouts and coaches. Each interview is conducted by that player’s position coach. Craig Johnson does the running backs, Bill McGovern the linebackers and Shula, who will be working with the quarterbacks, questions the players who play that vital position.

“Since I’ve been here under Jerry (Reese) and under Dave, it’s always the position coaches that run it,” Pettit said. “The scouts will prepare them with specific questions and if not, scouts are free to ask questions. But running the tape will always be the position coach.”

Not every scout is in the room for every player.

“If we’re interviewing a guy from your area, you’re in there for that reason, to provide the background and provide any questions that need to be asked,” Pettit said. “And you can learn more about the player. It’s for the scouts to learn, too, because it’s part of their evaluation. You want scouts to have different opinions. You want the core beliefs to be the same, but you don’t want guys with the same opinion, because if you’re all wrong, you’re screwed. You want a good conversation to get going.”

Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula scouts players on game film prior to a Combine interview.
Front office staff, coaches, and scouts meet prior to player interviews.

The assistant coach leading the interview and the player he will be testing sit in the chairs directly in front of the television. Everyone else sits behind them in a semicircle, save for Pettit, who remains within arm’s length of the laptop next to the TV.

In the recent past, these player interviews often focused on off-the-field issues. But that prompted a backlash from players and their agents, and teams’ queries are now almost exclusively about what happens on the field.

“You can’t get a guy in there and just talk to them about their background for 15 minutes,” Gettleman said. “Because you know a lot of it is canned. They’ve been prepped by the agents. It’s like watching a presidential debate. They’ve got the answers already, and you can ask them a question and they’re going to give you some canned answer, some canned response that doesn’t even apply to your question. So we make it a football interview. We want to get into the kid’s head, find out how football savvy he is. Obviously, in 15 minutes, you can’t do that, but it gives us a little taste.”

The interview begins with the high-piercing sound of an air horn, which reverberates throughout the Crowne-Plaza’s first floor. That commences 15 minutes of questions and answers that are heavily loaded with football jargon:

What is the name of this play?
“Con double right Z half.”

Was that your guy? Would the line try to pick him up there on the back scan?
“Depending on what the coverage is. If I see him rotating out, I might have to change the line protection and slide to the left.”

What is this formation?
“Cutting devils left 94. Scat 73 Miami.”

What is scat 73?
“It is the protection. I have to see any guys that come in on my left side. Three to the back. These guys are man on. He has to go on the flat and he has to make an end cut or option route basically.”

Tell me, how far is that guard going to come to your hip before he levels back in to help the center?
“Once he sees that everyone outside is dropping, I am overtaking the guy. That is when he starts hand-helping the center.”

What is the center or off guard and the combination to get to the linebacker?
“I am in on the four. I should have a cage 40. It is a high cage to 40. We always pull to have a high pass ID, which is 13 at this point.”

And on it goes. Coaches and scouts may interject with questions – Shurmur asked some players about their favorite plays, or to use the white board – but most of the interviews involve the position coach and the player holding what is essentially a one-on-one conversation with knowledgeable and interested observers. Interruptions are few. Well, except for Gettleman’s cell phone ringing in the middle of one interview. He raised his eyebrows, smiled, and stopped the noise.

The players respond, hoping to demonstrate both their football acumen and determination to succeed. One allows that, “my coach always told me to have tight feet.” Another says, “I think I have really good hands, but it’s something I have to work on.” A third player answers with great conviction that, “I’m ready to compete at the highest level. I’m ready to go against the best.”

Gettleman said these brief interviews are a valuable aid in determining a player’s fitness to succeed in the NFL. “It is a little bit of a pressure situation,” he said. “I don’t know how many kids do it this way. We have had plenty of guys come in here kind of shocked at what we are going to do. It puts them in a little bit of a pressure situation. You see how they react, too. It is about football intellect. I really believe that we are going to get the biggest bang for our buck by doing this.”

Another blast from the air horn signals the two-minute warning. The third and final piercing sound means the session is finished and the player must leave. It is considered unsportsmanlike conduct to keep a player beyond the allotted time.

Within seconds, the hallway is jammed with players hustling from one room to another, like rush hour commuters in Penn Station – wholly appropriate, given the train cars in the hotel. In the few seconds between players, those in the room engage in a quick review and/or preview, while the presiding assistant coach settles into his seat. Shurmur’s instant review of one player was “super sharp.”

And when there’s time, those in the room squeeze in a little comic banter.

“Coach, what is the fine for a phone going off in a meeting,” Abrams asked Shurmur, who wisely said, “I don’t think you fine the general manager.”

A player can brilliantly answer every question and responded to every intellectual challenge presented to him. But if he can’t block, or tackle, or catch a football, none of that matters. Which is why Gettleman believes the combine, for all its thoroughness, is only a small part of the evaluation process.

“I am just an old grunt,” he said. “I believe it is about what the guy does between the white lines. That is going to be the biggest indicator. A guy either has NFL talent and is a legitimate NFL player, or he is not an NFL talent. I will say this, the smart guys are going to rise to the top. You take guys that have entered this league as undrafted free agents and have had eight, nine, 10-year careers. I promise you all of them were smart.

“A million years ago when I was on the road, there were a lot of veteran scouts on the road, and they were all wonderful and they would share information. They would talk philosophy or whatever. They all had the same opinion. It is about production on the field, and multiple years of that production.”

Gettleman is keeping an open mind as he prepares to make the second overall selection – or perhaps trade it.

“I have no preconceived notions,” he said. “None. You have to have an open mind. The other piece of this is that I was in my very first draft with the Buffalo Bills. I am an intern. We are in the draft room and we had the third pick of the draft that year (1987). That was the year that Rod Woodson, Shane Conlan, Vinny Testaverde, Cornelius Bennett (were drafted). We were talking about who is the third-best player. We had a veteran DB coach by the name of Dick Roach. Everyone was talking about this guy being the third best and that guy being the third best. Dick said, ‘That is not the question we should be asking.’ The question we should be asking is, ‘Is this guy worthy of being the third pick in any draft?’ That conversation was 31 years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. It just makes perfect sense. I was talking to Ernie (Accorsi) today. He said ‘That is it.’ Dick just verbalized it so well.”

On April 26, the Giants will use their accumulated knowledge to make perhaps their most important draft choice in recent memory.
©2018 New York Football Giants, Inc.