Shared opinions in the draft room are built during meetings in small rooms in Indianapolis
Room 102 at is just off the lobby to the left, at the beginning of a first-floor hall in the Indianapolis Crowne Plaza Hotel, which itself is just a few hundred paces from the RCA Dome.
It's a short walk to Room 102 for visitors, who spill out into the lobby from an elevator in the back, but it's not always a quick walk. During the evening hours of the six days of the annual NFL Scouting Combine, the cluttered and narrow Crowne Plaza lobby is often packed with people.
And not just any people. For the job applicants coming to visit Room 102, and any number of 31 other rooms just like it, these figures in the lobby are people who will help shape their professional careers. These are people they've seen on television, on the sidelines on Sunday, and will soon see in their face every time they blow an assignment or drop a pass.
This is the scene during the evening interview hours at the Combine, the portion of an intense week of prospect evaluation that many scouts consider to be most important. The 330 players invited to the Combine, all housed upstairs in this luxury hotel built into the shell of an old downtown train station, stream down to the 32 team-specific rooms around the lobby and sit down for 15-minute job interviews with one prospective employer after another.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in Room 102, which is obvious because a team flag covers up the window that peeks into the lobby. That's standard on all of the team rooms. And it's a busy space, on the verge of crowded, really. As the first guest of Thursday night steps into the room, led by a Buccaneer intern who has the unenviable job of tracking down one young man after another, he is suddenly in the sights of dozens of eyes.
There is a three-person table at one end of the room, at which Director of Player Personnel Ruston Webster, Director of College Scouting Dennis Hickey and Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Bill Muir are seated. They will lead the interview, with the player seated on the other side, but others will chime in. Those others include Head Coach Jon Gruden, who has arrived in Indianapolis just in time for the first interview of the night, Assistant Offensive Line Coach Aaron Kromer, Running Backs Coach Art Valero and several scouts.
The first visitor on Thursday is an offensive linemen, which is why Muir is at the head table. Over the course of the week in Indy, the Buccaneers' brass will interview players at every position, 60 of them in all. They already have 200 player interviews in the books, conducted at various postseason all-star games. There is no particular significance to this player being on the team's list on Thursday night, or this week for that matter; it's just the continuation of due diligence for April's draft.
In stark contrast to the hand-shaking and back-slapping that goes on in lobby, the interview rooms are all business, no bull. Players are asked to detail their college experience, noting the highs and lows, and to talk honestly about their strengths and weaknesses. "I'm a hard worker," or "I need to improve all aspects of my game," are not the type of resume-ready answers teams hope to get.
Players with legal issues in their past are asked to explain them in detail. If the scouts saw a bad performance on tape during a review the week before, they are quick to bring it up. Coaches ask pointed questions to uncover the depth of a player's motivation. Gruden, for instance, barely lets the first guest set down before firing a hard, "Do you like football?" at him.
With many of the players, it's obvious that they have been extensively coached for these important quarter-hour job interviews, which is to be expected. Many of the questions are anticipated, and the answers sometimes tumble out in what seem like long, rehearsed tales. Expecting this, the various interviewers come at the young man from different angles, seeking to loosen him up and elicit a genuine response. To the benefit of both sides, they often succeed.
"We want to make them tell us about what we already know," said Webster. "Get their side of the story. See them for who they really are. Get a feel for their personality a little bit. See how honest they are with you and with themselves. And, to their credit, most of them are."
The Bucs' first interviewee of the night is earnest and polite, and he answers every question. Topics range from football to family to internal motivation. Near the end, one of the coaches fires a string of specific and technical questions about formations and adjustments at the line, testing the player's mind for the game and the breadth of his experience.
As the coach begins this rapid-fire series, two short but loud blasts of an air horn echo through the hotel. This is the two-minute warning. The 15-minute time limits are strictly enforced, as it's the only way to make sure each team gets a fair shot at the players it needs to see. Two minutes later, a single, longer blast signals the end of one period. The Bucs' first interviewee is led back out into the lobby, shaking hands with each and every person in the room on the way out. He gets no more than two steps from the door before another team runner gently turns him in the direction of their room. There's a good chance the next 15 minutes will be a lot like the ones this man just spent.
And, believe it or not, they will be a useful 15 minutes. Despite the speed-dating feel of the scene and the work it sometimes takes to get past the polished answers, these interviews are generally pretty thorough and revealing. In many instances, the interviewers already know the answer to the question being asked; it's the manner in which the player chooses to answer that is revealing.
"It's actually not bad, the 15 minutes," said Webster. "You get more of a feel than you think you would in that amount of time. Plus, we've been doing our research, so we have a good feel going in. It just kind of reaffirms what we thought or, alternately, makes us go back and do a little more research."
On this night, the Bucs will not have another visitor to Room 102 until nine, which gives them 45 minutes to chat among themselves. On Friday and Saturday evenings, by contrast, the interviews will run virtually non-stop from six to 10:00 p.m., every 15-minute slot filled.
The time between the interviews, even if its just a few minutes as the next player is located, isn't wasted. Coaches and scouts discuss the impression made by the last interviewee as consensus team opinions continue to take shape, opinions that will be put into action in late April. These are informal but meaningful conversations, often turning excitedly to what the player did in the weight room or on the field earlier in the day.
Soon, though, a new job applicant arrives and the process starts again. With five dozen of these interviews to conduct, the Combine is just getting started for the Buccaneers.