INDIANAPOLIS — Bruce Arians can almost see his reflection in the words as they pass through the air. They’re too polished.
The game has changed. The players and their agents are too savvy. They already know the answers to the test. Like everything in the NFL these days, the interview process at the combine has become too homogenized.
This used to be the venue where teams were able to sit down, drill a player with questions and get a feel for his intelligence and personality. But with agents prepping their players for every possible question they might face — as they should — and the players memorizing the answers — as they should — it’s become harder for teams to find out who is under the helmet.
“The agents have done a great job in the past five or six years of prepping them for every single question,” Arians said. “I can’t say what I ask because I’d probably get fined for it. But I’ll ask them stuff that’s not in the book. I promise you, just to shake them. You want to see them shaken up a little bit, see how they recover.”
Saints coach Sean Payton took it one step further in comments made to the team website.
“Sometimes you’ll sit in an interview and feel like you’re getting a pageant answer from Miss Texas,” he quipped.
The interview process is one of the most important aspects of the combine, along with medical examinations. The workouts still matter, but many teams place limited stock in how players time out in various drills, assuming they finish within an expected range.
Before heading Lucas Oil Stadium for the combine, the Saints set their draft board to protect against being too influenced by what happens here throughout the week, assistant general manager Jeff Ireland told the team website earlier this week. That includes not being overly swayed by the interview process, but there’s little question players need to make teams feel comfortable before their name is called during the draft.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht admitted that he doesn’t like drafting a player until he hears them laugh. It’s almost a requirement for entrance into Tampa Bay.
“You have to be able to laugh at yourself, and you have to be able to own up to your mistakes and let things roll off your back,” Licht said.
Why is that so important? It’s the only way to cut through the polish.
“They are coached up on how to do these interviews. Just like most of us getting our jobs, we’re coached up on how to interview with our bosses,” Licht said. “But you can tell when a guy is genuine, usually. You look for some humility, a sense of humor — just being genuine and owning up to their mistakes, if they’ve made some, which most of us have.”
For players who have tough questions to answer, being genuine in the interview process can make or break their draft stock.
New Orleans already did some homework on one of those players by having lunch with pass rusher Noah Spence, who landed at Eastern Kentucky after being dismissed from Ohio State for failing multiple drug tests, last month at the Senior Bowl.
If he aces all of his interviews, Spence has a chance to be drafted early in the first round. If he doesn’t, then his stock will likely plummet.
Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who was part of a bizarre incident that led to him falling out of a window earlier this offseason, is another player who will need to answer questions about his character and convince teams whatever happened was an isolated incident.
“As we got through this interview process with the players, that’s one where you connect and figure out whether if it’s 15 minutes or you schedule some time afterward to find out more about another and if it’s a good fit,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Those interviews that take place are really important.”
When a player has something checked in his past and passes the first interview at the combine, teams will typically do more research on the prospect, evaluate whatever information they gather and then schedule another visit. Those talks will ultimately decide a players’ fate with certain teams.
Arians has been there before. Like most teams, he was smitten with Tyrann Mathieu’s ability heading into the 2013 draft. But after the former LSU safety had a lengthy battle with marijuana use, which caused him several problems, the player had to convince the team he had learned from his mistakes.
Mathieu let his guard down and was able to articulate how he grew from his experiences. Arizona ended up drafting him in the third round and was rewarded for its faith.
“He knew he made a mistake,” Arians said. “He owned up to his mistake. He had a plan on how he was going to go forward. You knew he was on the right path, not sitting there and making excuses about what happened, blaming someone else.”
This is a big week for a lot of players who have questions to answer. Being polished is the best way to shine, but sometimes too much polish can create a slippery situation. The players will need to find a way to maintain their footing when teams try to trip them up.