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Behind the Combine curtain: Player interviews

Posted Feb 24, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS - Most of the year, the Crowne Plaza Downtown at Union Station provides visitors to Indianapolis the unique opportunity to sleep in a room on an authentic Pullman train car.

The hotel resembles a busy train station during the NFL Scouting Combine, but there's little time for sleep.

Long days at Lucas Oil Stadium across the street give way to long nights, as the Panthers and 31 other NFL teams conduct up to five hours of player interviews in their specially designated rooms at the Crowne Plaza each evening.

What goes on behind those closed doors has at least as much to do with what will happen at the NFL Draft as the televised, scrutinized on-field drills that begin Saturday.

"I think the interviews are the biggest part of the combine," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "This is the first chance you really get to talk to the kids at length.

"You get 15 minutes with them. It's not a ton, but you get a feel for their intelligence as far as football goes and their feel for the game."

Beginning Thursday evening and continuing through Monday evening, Hurney and other Panthers personnel will interview their top 60 or so targets at the Crowne Plaza and possibly as many as 200 more at the nearby train station.

The train station interviews resemble speed-dating, with each team shuttling prospects to their circular table in the warehouse-like room.

"The train station is pretty crazy," Wake Forest wide receiver Chris Givens said. "Everyone comes and grabs you from all directions."

The Crowne Plaza interviews are speedy as well but a bit more intimate.

At 7 o'clock each evening, an air horn sounds to signal prospects to head to their first scheduled interview of the evening. In a hotel room missing its bed but not its headboard, Hurney is joined by head coach Ron Rivera, director of college scouting Don Gregory, the appropriate position coaches and coordinator, as well as team scouts.

After 13 minutes, a two-minute warning sounds. After 15 minutes, the player moves on to his next room, and the Panthers move on to their next player.

"What we started doing about three years ago is making some highlight tapes of their plays - good and bad. We'll go through each play and have them explain the formation, the play, what his assignment is and what happened," Hurney explained. "If you have a guy in the room that has some teammates here, you'll ask him about them. You'll ask an offensive lineman who's the best defensive lineman he went against. You try to get as much information in any way you can."

Rivera said the goal is to figure out the best way to get at the heart of what the player is all about.

"Our job is to throw them for a loop a little bit, to make them think a little bit," he said. "We've got to come up with something to get them off of rehearsed answers because most of the guys have prepared for this process with their agents. We've got to get them off their game to get to know them a little better."

The combine was in its infancy when the Chicago Bears selected Rivera in the second round of the 1984 NFL Draft. That year, the National Invitational Camp as it was originally called didn't even draw all 28 NFL teams to New Orleans, plus there was a competing camp in Seattle.

"It was a long, drawn-out process," Rivera said. "Now things are scheduled, but then they would just grab you. You could be milling around, and someone would come running up to you and say, ‘Hey, can I talk to you?'

"It wasn't as structured then, but now it's a machine. Plus, I think the stakes are a lot higher now with the money involved in it."

When draft prospects walk into the room adorned with a Panthers helmet, the purpose of their trip becomes obvious – business, not pleasure.

"It's a job interview, and those guys want to put their game face on and put their best foot forward," Gregory said. "This is the Carolina Panthers' investment, so we want to make sure we get the right players for the city of Charlotte."