INDIANAPOLIS – Thursday marked the opening of the 2018 Scouting Combine for the 336 players who were invited to Indy. Running backs, offensive linemen and specialists kicked off the proceedings by meeting with the media in the afternoon.
Close to 40 coaches and general managers spoke at the podium yesterday, and one of the central themes throughout the day was the continuing advancement of analytics in the NFL. Several of the coaches were asked the influx of numbers and metrics into the game, and some offered some interesting takes.
Count Oakland's Jon Gruden among those who were asked about the trend but didn't necessarily show signs of embracing it.
"Are you talking about the analytics, the GPA, all the modern technology? Man, I'm trying to throw the game back to 1998," Gruden said. "It's one thing to have the data -- or DAY-tuh – it's another thing to know how to read the damn thing. So, I'm not going to rely on GPSs and all the modern technology. I will certainly have some people that are professional that can help me from that regard. But I still think doing things the old-fashioned way is a good way, and we're going to try to lean the needle that way a little bit."
Bills coach Sean McDermott chimed in with thoughts of the sharing of data tracking information and took a different view.
"I believe building awareness is important, whether you use it or not," he said. "It's one of the variables in the overall equation, whether it's analytics or, in this case, the tracking. If it helps people prevent injuries and player safety, I think that's important. So there's a lot of different angles within that. I think that's important to our league.
"You always enter into that conversation with overload. It's a component or variable in the equation. I don't think analytics in my case doesn't make the decision for me but it's part of the equation. It's football-based, football analytics. It will not be involved on the business side at this point. It's about us growing, us evolving and becoming better. It's a part of what we'll do. It'll be involved, whether it's personnel, game management, it's just about information gathering and building overall awareness on whatever it might be. I'm confident it'll help us get to the next level in some areas."
New Lions coach Matt Patricia offered a response similar to many of his answers from his days as Patriots defensive coordinator, when he frequently kept things close to the vest under Bill Belichick's watch. Patricia added Evan Rothstein to his staff to assist with research and analysis, and was asked about it on Wednesday.
"He's going to do a lot of research and things like that," Patricia said when if he could explain Rothstein's position.
Got it, Matt.
San Francisco general manager John Lynch went from the TV booth to the front office last season and Gruden is making the transition in 2018 as Raiders coach. Both discussed the benefits of the different perspective garnered from covering the league from the television perspective.
"You know, really as a broadcaster, I went around and observed every team, asked a lot of questions, took a look at the facilities, how they're doing business, there's a stack of analytic data or DAY-tuh, however you want to say that word, people don't even know how to read it," Gruden said.
"As a broadcaster, you get to see the game through a different lens," Lynch said. "Sometimes you can learn a lot by listening."
Another big topic among the coaches this week has been some proposals the competition committee is reviewing. One deals with the controversial catch rule, which seems destined to at the very least be modified for next season. Another possible move being discussed is a change to the pass interference rule, which if modified would make the infraction a 15-yard penalty instead of a spot foul.
Many coaches were asked their thoughts on the proposals and offered some insight.
"Well, I got a lot of thoughts on that, but I don't know if I want to get involved," Gruden said. "I'm not on the committee. I do know the catch needs to be cleaned up and interference, should it be challengeable? I mean if it's a 51-yard penalty? Can I challenge that? That was my argument when I was coaching. I bet the NFL's glad to have me back because I'll be raising hell about all these issues. I've got enough problems. I don't have to worry about the catch or DPI right now. I've got try to find some players to help us win."
"That's a hot topic out here, right?," McDermott said. "I'm just looking for consistency. Whatever they decide, and I'm sure we have a long way between now and then, and respecting that process, is the consistency, whether it's that rule or any rule.
"For all those questions my answer is the same. Let's define the rule and let's be consistent."
Niners happy with Marsh
The pass rush-needy Patriots traded fifth- and seventh-round picks to the Seahawks for edge player Cassius Marsh at roster cutdowns last September.
Little more than two months later, New England cut Marsh after he struggled against the run and offered little to the pass rush for the Patriots defense in his short-lived stint in Foxborough.
Marsh subsequently was claimed by the 49ers, where he recorded two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles over the final six games of the 2017 season. That resulted in San Francisco rewarding the four-year veteran last month with a two-year contract extension worth up to $7.7 million with $3.1 million guaranteed.
Lynch explained what he saw in Marsh to warrant the extension for a player who never found a way to settle into a role for a New England defense that was desperately undermanned on the edge of the front seven.
"I think he found an environment that No. 1 fit his skill set. We have that Leo position, an edge rusher," Lynch explained. "And everyone is looking for an edge rusher. And maybe it was a better fit for him in terms of the scheme. And then I think he just felt comfortable in our culture and in our locker room. He played well for us. When guys play well and we can see a future for them we're going to do our best to sign them. We did a deal that I thought was fair for him and fair for us and that gives him a lot of upside if he really performs. We think he has an opportunity to do that now. It's incumbent on him as a player to make that happen. We're pleased to have him as part of us moving forward."
While the Patriots continued to search for pass rushers throughout last season – including signing aging Steelers castoff James Harrison in late December to play a pretty significant role into the postseason – Lynch sees Marsh as filling that key role in San Francisco.
"He's also a great special teams player. He could play some Sam linebacker. But really we see him as an edge rusher," Lynch concluded.
Daboll back in Buffalo
Former Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll spent 2017 as the offensive coordinator for Alabama, where he was won part of the staff that won the national championship. Daboll was hired by McDermott to run the Bills offense, meaning he will be back in the AFC East in 2018.
"There's a lot of benefits to adding Brian Daboll," McDermott said. "Obviously he's been around winning, much like I have, been around a great coach like Bill Belichick and then myself with Andy [Reid]. When you look at his experience in the college game, adding to what he already had in terms of his acumen and knowledge of the pro game. For us it was a good fit. Him being from Buffalo was an added benefit as well."
Patricia, who spent many years working alongside Daboll in New England, offered his thoughts on going against his former colleague when the Lions take on the Bills in 2018.
"Yep, and we've had that situation before," Patricia said. "Brian and I, we've gone through that in previous years when he was at Cleveland. Brian Daboll is an outstanding coach. Very, very smart, extremely well- prepared. Does a great job of attacking from an offensive standpoint what you do defensively. Really will analyze your weak points and try to exploit those to the fullest.
"He's going to do a lot of things that kind of, you know, give you some cause to have to make quick in-game adjustments also. So it's really difficult, and again, being from kind of the same mind, same school standpoint, knowing each other so well as we do, it gets very difficult when that comes into effect. We also played against each other in college too, so we actually go way, even a little bit further back than that."