Jets head coach Rex Ryan holds a press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine. AP Photo
INDIANAPOLIS – What labor issues?
Uncertainty may be the buzzword of this NFL offseason, given the tenuous talks between the league and its players union, which are now in federal mediation. But one thing, at least, is certain. Even if there is a lockout beginning March 4, there will be an NFL Draft come April 28, 29, and 30.
Before then, though, there must be a Scouting Combine. This year, as always, it is taking place in Indianapolis, in and around Lucas Oil Stadium.
While labor talks continued in Washington, D.C., there was virtually no talk of that subject here at the Combine. Reporters tried to ask some of the coaches, general managers, and team personnel executives who addressed the media on the first day of the week-long event, but they mostly remained tight-lipped.
"We're talking about something I can't talk about," Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbertresponded. "Honestly this draft is like any other. We're preparing the same way and whatever happens after that we'll adjust.
We're approaching this draft as any other. There's nothing different about it in our opinion."
"We're getting ready, preparing for the season. That's what we're doing. We can't control that. So there's no need to comment on that," echoed Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey.
The main focus, as it should be at the Combine, is about the players who will be available in the upcoming draft – regardless of what happens with the collective bargaining agreement negotiations (which will resume next Tuesday).
The setup and media access schedule for the week is similar to years past. The Baker & Daniels Club (similar to the Fidelity Investments Clubhouse at Gillette) is where the media are stationed, just beyond the viewing area of the field surface, where most of the drills and 40-times take place.
While most reporters aren't allowed inside the stadium to view the drills, all are allowed inside the Baker & Daniels Club for interviews with players and select team staff.
Today kicked off with offensive linemen, tight ends, and specialists, as well as various coaches, GMs, and personnel execs from around the league. Friday, the offensive skill position players will meet the media: QBs, WRs, and RBs. Saturday, it's D-linemen and LBs, and Sunday concludes with the secondary. Coaches and front office types will also be available each day.
Assessing the Pass Rush Prospects
Gailey had the honor of going first among the coaches and key decision makers to hold a press conference at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine. During the chat, Gailey said something that's good news to Patriots fans, lending legitimacy to what many observers were already thinking.
"Looks like there is a pretty good group of pass rushers," he declared of the '11 draft class. "Maybe more people will get a chance to have one this year."
Dolphins GM Jeff Irelandalso thinks that there is a lot of talent available along the defensive front in this year's draft class, including team's looking for hybrid 3-4 edge rushers.
"Quite a few guys fall into that group," Ireland said of the college defensive ends that project to 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. "It's a good group, real good group. There are some good guys that you can look at for sure."
The Bills currently own the third overall pick in the draft. So, if you're a fan hoping the Patriots could trade up for an elite talent – be it a pass rusher or otherwise – Gailey indicated that that's an option.
"We don't turn our phone off at night," he joked of taking calls on the pick.
Former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDanielshas the same title now in St. Louis. The head man there, Steve Spagnuolo, fielded questions from reporters, many of whom wanted to hear his reasons for hiring McDaniels, most recently the ousted head coach in Denver.
Asked if McDaniels' experience with Tom Bradywas a factor, since the Rams have a Brady-like up-and-comer in Sam Bradford, Spagnuolo was adamant.
"Yeah, Brady, and Matt Cassel. He's proven, in working with quarterbacks and putting together an offense, the way they've done it in New England and Denver, has been successful. So, that had a lot to do with it," Spagnuolo replied.
"We were looking for an offensive coordinator," he added. "First thing I did was, in the Rolodex in my head, try to think of the guys who were toughest to defend and Josh jumped right out there. Luckily for us, he was available.
"Josh is going to do what he's going to do. He's going to take the talent that we have and use it as best you can. We've got a good offensive staff of guys who've been there, so they know our personnel. I think that'll help Josh. As we go through this thing, we'll see which way it goes."
Daboll in Miami
Another former Patriots assistant, Brian Daboll, is back in the AFC East as offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins. He held the same post in Cleveland the past two seasons.
Daboll started as a defensive assistant in New England when Bill Belichick joined the team in 2000, before moving to the other side of the ball to coach New England's receivers from 2002-06.
Ireland commented on Daboll's joining head coach Tony Sparano'sstaff.
"Brian's track record for one was intriguing for us, his history with quarterbacks, his history being a defensive coach and offensive coach. Coach Sparano and myself were really impressed with the way he put a plan together for our offensive players on the football team.
"I wasn't necessarily looking at what his production was with Cleveland," added Ireland.
"I know there were some things there that were different, but we've got different personnel and the way he presented his play with us with our personnel was very impressive."
One of the lighter moments of the day occurred late morning, while Ravens head coach John Harbaughwas at the podium. His younger brother, Jim (now the rookie head coach of the San Francisco 49ers after leaving a successful stint at Stanford), was sitting at a nearby table awaiting his turn in front of the media.
As the elder Harbaugh's time drew to a close, someone asked if he had any advice for his kid brother. Which prompted this comical exchange.
"Jim, what advice did I give you about being a head coach?"
When Jim Harbaugh stood and paused, somewhat uncomfortably, John continued, "See, he can't name a thing," which drew laughs from the assembly, including Jim.
"We grew up in the same room, 16 years battling each other… put a little tape across the middle of the room, 'Hey, don't cross this line, don't cross to the other side.' Start a little fight sometimes … not really that often.
"I think we get along really well," he went on, turning serious. "(I have) tremendous respect for him. He doesn't need any advice, I don't think. He's a proven head football coach. He did something at Stanford that is unprecedented in the history of college football. People can downplay it or look past it, but no one has ever done in college football what he did at Stanford the last four years.
"I'm proud of the type of team he built, what that team stands for, what that program meant to the players and the parents. He built a family, and it was a family that ran over people at Stanford. They pretty much took USC to the woodshed two of the last three years. Sorry, USC, but that's a fact. I'm proud of that. That's the way it is. This is a competitive business. I think that's what our family is all about."
Rivera Reflects on Duerson Death
Panthers rookie head coach Ron Rivera, once a linebacker on the '85 Chicago Bears that beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, was asked one of the more serious questions of the day when a reporter sought his thoughts on the recent suicide of former teammate Dave Duerson.
The former Bears safety, 50, took his own life a week ago by shooting himself in the heart. That turned out to be an important detail because it was later learned that his requested, through relatives, that his brain be studied to learn more about the effects of severe head injuries.
"That was a very sad situation," Rivera lamented. "I was talking earlier with somebody who brought up the point, the 25th anniversary [of the Bears' championship], [defensive end] Richard Dent getting into the Hall [of Fame]... It's a very sad situation for all his former teammates, friends and family."
Lonely Long Snapper
It wouldn't be unheard-of for the Patriots to draft a specialist. They did so with great success with Stephen Gostkowski(fourth round, 2006) and Zoltan Mesko(fifth round, 2010).
Not so much with long snapper Jake Ingram(sixth round, 2009), who was cut mid-way through his second year with New England after struggling with his consistency. But that won't necessarily deter the Patriots from taking another flier on a player at that position.
If they're looking for one at the Combine, the pickings are slim. Virginia's Danny Aiken(6-5, 245) is the only long snapper to receive an invite this year. Aiken is unique in that he's one of the few long snappers to have received a full scholarship from the time he entered UVA four seasons ago.
The former high school QB and defensive lineman is clearly versatile, but he insists he didn't realize he was a legitimate NFL prospect until the midway point of last year, his senior season in Charlottesville. It finally sunk in, he said, when he received invitations to both the Combine and the Senior Bowl on the same day.
Here and There…
Jets head coach Rex Ryanwas asked if his team, after reaching the AFC Championship Game the past two years, has surpassed the Patriots. Unequivocally, Ryan answered, "No. They were the division champions the last two years. So, I would say without question we're behind them still."…
Ryan began his remarks to reporters by detailing the acting cameo he and Jets GM Mike Tannenbaumrecently filmed for the popular TV show CSI. "I'm just going to say this," Ryan joked, "that Mike Tannenbaum dominated the scene, I'm just going to put it to you that way. Now it doesn't come without a cost. As most of us know Mike, just say this about him, he's a diva. When he was complaining about his trailer wasn't as long as [actor] Gary Sinese's. You kind of get the drift."…
Good-natured new head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Hue Jackson, was promoted this offseason from his former role as the team's offensive coordinator. He offered a comical response to a reporter who wanted to know who his defensive coordinator will be. "You're looking at him," Jackson laughed. In fact, he added, he was still looking for one.