It wasn't Warrick Dunn's work on the field that impressed the Bucs at the '97 combine, but his demeanor in the interview room
If you've ever been to a job fair, then you might have an inkling of what the NFL scouting combine is about. However, unless Arthur Anderson ran you through the 40-yard dash or IBM took your picture in nothing but a pair of shorts, you haven't got the full effect.
Over a long weekend beginning Thursday morning and drawing to a close next Monday evening, the National Football League's 31 teams will gather in Indianapolis for the annual combine, a chance for eligible draft hopefuls to demonstrate their skills for the entire league at once.
Though some of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' player personnel department are already in Indianapolis, including General Manager Rich McKay, the rest of the scouting staff will join them on Thursday morning. For the next four days, they will meet with hundreds of the NCAA's top players one-on-one, gather measurables such as height and weight and attend workouts to determine speed, strength and quickness.
For many teams, this weekend is a crucial part of each offseason's draft preparation. While the 40-yard dashes and shuttle runs draw the most media coverage, it is the sit-down sessions between players and personnel men that the Bucs find most useful.
"We already have an idea of who's a good athlete and who isn't," said Tampa Bay Director of College Scouting Tim Ruskell on Wednesday. "There are usually three or four guys who surprise you – guys who are slower or faster than you expected – but most of them run what you thought they would run. And at some positions, like offensive line, you don't care that much about their combine scores. One thing you can count on, though, is that you're going to get an interview with the kid and see how you feel about him."
Ruskell's department has an ever-growing library of game film to watch on every prospect, so a player's abilities are usually not in question. On the other hand, there are far fewer opportunities to gauge a potential draftee's mental and emotional makeup. The combine offers a concentrated block of time for Ruskell, McKay, Director of Player Personnel Jerry Angelo and Head Coach Tony Dungy to get to know the men that could be future employees. Many interviews last as long as half an hour and are prepared for well in advance.
"The key is not to ask just general questions," Ruskell explained. "We have a series of stock questions for every player, but we also have special ones for each individual guy. When we go into the interview, we already know what the problem areas are, if there are any. "We get a chance to ask specific questions about their lives, most of which we already know the answer to. That gives us a chance to gauge how forthright they are and whether they want to avoid any topics."
Which is not to say that combine interviews are about uncovering excess baggage. In most cases, the team wishes to get a feel for the player as a person, as the Bucs believe that character is as important as ability. Such interviews can sometimes cement a team's fondness for a particular player. Ruskell pinpointed two recent Buccaneer draft picks as players who improved their standings during interviews: RB Warrick Dunn ("just unbelievably impressive") and QB Shaun King ("a chance to hear about his history as a lifelong Bucs fan").
This year's Dunns and Kings, approximately 330 invited players hopeful of being selected in April's draft, will arrive on Thursday and begin taking physicals. On Friday, the physical tests, such as the 40-yard dashes, will begin on the famously neutral turf of Indianapolis' RCA Dome. McKay, who arrived in Indy on Tuesday to attend to such auxiliary league functions as meetings of the Competition Committee, which he co-chairs, will now shift his attention to player evaluation. The team's regional scouts, who spent several weeks in Tampa preparing for this weekend's event, will ready their stopwatches and clipboards and the club's training staff will be on hand to address any individual medical concerns.
Similar groups will be in Indianapolis from each NFL team, all potential employers getting a close-up look at the pool of applicants. It's just your average job fair...with a weight room and a track.