Heavy emphasis placed on interviews

Skill drills and 40 times are key, but interviewing has become a huge part of the NFL Scouting Combine.

Updated: February 19, 2004, 2:45 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Maurice Clarett will be sought after for interviews by NFL teams this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, but at least he won't need a U-Haul to carry excess baggage home.

Interviews are one of the most important aspects of the annual pilgrimage to Indianapolis. Though the 32 teams usually are disappointed many of the first-round draft choices attend but don't work out, a lot gets accomplished during the one-week session that began Wednesday and lasts through next Monday.

Maurice Clarett will do more talking than running this week.
Physicals are the most important aspect of the trip. By coming to Indianapolis, a player isn't subjected to going around the country visiting team doctors. Teams share medical reports. Each doctor has a chance to poke and probe leg joints to their hearts' content to make sure a player is physically ready for the NFL. As a result, this could become a humbling experience for Clarett.

For Clarett, who opened a dangerous legal loophole by suing the NFL to gain eligibility, the interview process will be his most important assignment. He gets to talk to as many teams that show interest, trying to improve a perceived draft rating of the second round or lower. What he will find is an improved system of interviews by teams that won't force him to check pounds of baggage at the airport.

A year ago, organizers of the combine got smart. With the league expanded to 32 teams, the process of players getting together with teams was ridiculous. Talk about chaos. Teams brought their most physical and hustling employees to Indianapolis to shag players into hotel suites to be interviewed by coaches, general managers and scouts.

Remember, the NFL is competitive. Each team wanted to meet as many players as possible. Over the course of the week, around 350 players will fly into Indianapolis. Getting players to the rooms was ridiculous. Players had the freedom to pick and choose the teams to see, but knowing this trip was a basic job audition, players said yes to everybody.

Anger raged if a team took too much time with a player, setting back the schedule. Things got so bad representatives of teams got into fights over players.

The other crazy aspect of the old Indy combine was the gifts. To lure a player into a room for an interview, teams would give souvenirs that had their team's logo.

"It started with everybody giving the player a hat," Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "Then it was a hat and a T-shirt. Then it became a hat and a shirt and a duffle bag. Pretty soon, you'd see the player walk out with all of his stuff jammed into the team's duffle bag that was the biggest."

No more.

Teams are limited to 60 scheduled interviews. However, late entries such as Clarett don't have to be included in the 60. The same applies to Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who declared last week. Because of Clarett, the NFL has to keep a new application date of March 1 for anyone interested in seeking NFL eligibility, but it's not a guarantee that the applicant will be invited to the combine.

Clarett's interview schedule will be controlled by those running the combine. It will be up to him and his new agents whether he will work out and how well prepared he is for this job audition.

"The interviews are very important," Dolphins general manager Rick Spielman said. "You get to learn what a player is about. You get to find out about his personality. We take a little bit of the pressure off of the Indianapolis combine by getting a lot of the interviews done in the all-star games. We interviewed all but two of the players at the Senior Bowl."

Compared to many of his new peers, Clarett is at a disadvantage. He's spent his recent time training individually at Ohio State and going to classes. Many of the top players in the draft have been working with individual trainers who are schooled on preparing players for the combine.

Not only are there physical trainers, but there are teachers who prepare their clients for the interviews. Bucs vice president Bruce Allen used to be an agent and he was in the forefront of getting his clients ready for the draft. He'd bring his clients to Phoenix and have them work with a trainer. He'd get a copy of the Wunderlick Test so they could score well psychologically.

Tom Condon and Ken Kremer of IMG have their clients work intensively in the IMG facility in Florida. Along with getting the best in state of the art training, the clients are prepped for the interviews.

"It's so funny because a lot of the interviews are getting so choreographed by the agents," Reese said. "That's why we ask a lot of unique questions to catch them off guard. It's not as simple as asking 'Who's your favorite player?' or 'What's going to get you angry at a coach?' Players have been coached in how to answer those questions."

Many teams employ psychologists to help them with their questioning. For decades, the Giants have had one of the longest and most beneficial psychological tests for players. Those who fail those tests might be taken off the Giants draft board or discounted.

The interviews are very important. You get to learn what a player is about. You get to find out about his personality. We take a little bit of the pressure off of the Indianapolis combine by getting a lot of the interviews done in the all-star games.
Dolphins general manager Rick Spielman

After all, a team invests a lot in a draft choice. For a first-rounder, it's millions of dollars. If they draft the wrong character, it's going to cost the jobs of those who are selecting. With players being so prepared for these interviews, expect the tricky questions to increase just to neutralize the advent of the choreographed answer.

Clarett is entering the NFL at a time of increasing sophistication at the combine. Thanks to the 60-player interview schedule, teams have gotten their acts together in getting to know the players. Agents are getting their acts together in preparing the players for what's ahead.

In fact, you have to wonder where the prep cycle is heading on the agents' part. Agents have to spend in excess of $60,000 to get a player prepared for the NFL. They pay for a personal trainer. They have to pay for living accommodations for the players while they prepare for the draft.

And agents do this with no guarantee of which round the player is going to be selected. Many agents go in debt on a player if he is chosen on the second day of the draft. And there isn't a guarantee the player is going to stay with the agent who trains him. He can leave the agent and wait 30 days to hire a new one.

Welcome to the pre-NFL, Maurice Clarett. You may have won a court case to open your door to the NFL, but now the education begins. Just don't feel hurt if you don't get to take home pounds of souvenirs. It's not that the NFL doesn't like you, it's just the combine has done a better job of managing the flow of players getting to interview rooms.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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