2-24-2001 BY GEOFF HOBSON
INDIANAPOLIS _ Today's NFL scouting combine diary with Bengals asssistant coach Mark Duffner.
Duffner, the Bengals' new defensive coordinator who went to bed five hours ago after his last prospect interview, waits for the Westin Hotel restaurant to open.
Duffner, new cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle, director of pro/college personnel Jim Lippincott and Bengals owners Mike and Pete Brown are talking about the laser surgery Duffner had on his eyes Thursday.
Lippincott, who recalls Duffner said he'd be on the sidewalk selling pencils if the operation failed, congratulates him.
"I don't see you on the street," Lippincott says.
Actually, Duffner needs his eyes and ears today. The bulk of the defensive workouts in the RCA Dome take place Sunday. But this morning's weigh-in of the linemen and interviews of linebackers and secondary the rest of the day loom as large in Duffner's mind.
There are those even in his own organization who think the interviews with players are bogus. They just give the same stale, programmed answers. Plus, there is a video session sent to all teams.
But Duffner begs to differ. Duffner, after all, is the guy who knows the cell phone of a prospect's uncle and the pager number for a girlfriend, but forgets where the elevators are in his hotel.
"People are a dynamic. They change every day," Duffner says. "There's no such thing as not enough information. The more you know, the better you are."
Duffner may take some good-natured heat from his peers about his meticulous interviewing technique. Such as asking a guy who just can't flat-out play in the NFL if he wears soft or hard contact lenses.
But let's face it. The two best finds for the Bengals on the scouting trail the past three years have been undrafted linebackers Adrian Ross and Armegis Spearman. They are players who were scouted, wooed and cultivated by Duffner as linebackers coach with the same intensity he brought to his 11 years of recruiting as a college head coach who won 80 games.
Now it's a different deal. Now he has to look at every defensive player.
And that means more phone numbers.
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Duffner is looking at feet. Flat feet. High arches. Wayward toes. Gnarled nails.
"Feet can tell you something about body structure," Duffner says. "Feet are important. You might be able to find out if a guy can or move You look for scars from surgeries, too."
There are 25 or so defensive linemen stripped to their shorts. Fat tackles. Sleek ends. Short nose guards. Large linebackers wedged in pro purgatory.
They call it the meat market and here's why.
In front of a crowd of about 200 NFL executives, coaches and scouts, the prospect parades through a variety of stations.
A scout backs the prospect against the wall and announces his height: "Six. Zero. Two. Three. Six. Zero. Two. Three." Which means he's just about 6-2 and a half.
Then the prospect gets on the scale and another man barks, "Three. Zero. Nine. Three Zero. Nine." Which is 309 pounds.
Then the prospect goes to the next station, where another man stretches out his arm and announces his reach: "33 and one-fourth. 33 and one-fourth."
Then the man pulls down the arm, puts his hand on a table and announces the size of the hand: "Nine and one half. Nine and one half."
Then the prospect finishes his stroll across the front of the room when he's met by a man softly clamping a device to his chest. Then his abdomen. Then his thigh. Which computes body fat.
"Were you born on 2/16/ 78?" another man asks, mercifully ending the parade.
Everyone from the Brown family to Duffner is jotting down the numbers in notebooks. Duffner, with the benefit of a chair next to the body fat guy, is making his own notes next to the boxes of numbers.
"Loose in the middle," is a Duffism for "fat slob."
"Hey, I wouldn't be the worst guy in this group," he says.
There's a scar on a left shoulder. Small thighs, flat feet, ripped (defined muscle tone).
What's the difference between a guy with a loose middle and the shortish Casey Hampton, the Texas tackle who is a projected first-rounder at 6-1 and about 310 pounds?
"Hampton's stout, thick. Look at his legs," Duffner says. "He's got the thickness."
A large part of the process is weeding out the NFL strong-side linebackers from the college defensive ends.
"Oops, that guy has put on too much weight," says Duffner, who spent time with the player at one of last month's all-star games. "I had him down as a SAM backer, but not now."
The guy whips his head around with a puzzled half smile at Duffner, and Duffner rebounds nicely.
"Hey, make sure you come to our room today," he says.
There is only one question about Missouri end Justin Smith, a 6-3, 270-pounder with 19 sacks the past two seasons. How high will he go in the first round? Maybe as high as the Bengals picking at No. 4.
"I don't know. I can't make that statement. There still needs to be a lot of study," Duffner says. "He's a candidiate, I can say that. There's no fat on him. None. He's explosive. A tough kid with good muscle tone."
Duffner is trying to make his way out of the RCA Dome to the players' hotel, where each team has a conference room in the lobby to conduct interviews.
That's no mean feat at an event that is as much coaches convention as anything else. If you forget a guy's name at the combine, just say "Coach," and you're OK.
"Hey Coach, how we doing?" Duffner says as he walks quickly. He gets congratulations for the new job and he hands one to Bob Casullo, special teams coach of the playoff Raiders and a former college colleague from back east.
It's the kind of weekend where Duffner can bump into an old William and Mary teammate in Notre Dame offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers at noon time and in a split-second set up a reunion lunch.
This is how important the player interviews are to Duffner. He chooses not to watch the linemen lift in the weight room, opting to get a head start on interviewing linebackers and secondary and avoiding the crush in the evening.
In the world of the combine, this is huge. With all 31 teams and the league jockeying for 15 minutes with about 330 prospects, getting a guy into your room is a science.
Some teams, like the Bengals, bring people just to pick off players and get them to interviews. On this trip, it's assistant video director Kent Stearman.
But the coaches will take anybody, like bengals.com.
"Hey," Duffner says, "stand here until I get back in a minute. I want everybody, so put us on all the lists. Who ever comes through that door."
Trying to get players into a room has resulted in some of the most celebrated confrontations in combine history. Everybody hates the Giants because they keep players for two hours, and once last year two officials on the same team scuffled when their interviews stalled.
"Yeah, the great life of a scout," grouses a scout. "I'm 46 years old and begging a 21-year-old kid who's about to make $20 million to please come into my room."
Actually, Duffner has made the process easier this year with the "Duff Card." It's a laminated roster card of all the combine prospects.
"I stole the idea from another team last year," he says.
Duffner is making hay today as the defensive players fill out his form. Which has questions like, "Name the two teams you played your best game against," "What are your goals after football?" and a multiple choice question asking players to characterize their course work.
Now he's sitting in between cornerbacks Robert Carswell of Clemson and Renaldo Hill of Michigan State.
Just that morning at breakfast, Coyle and Duffner talked about how they loved the tape showing Hill and Michigan wide receiver David Terrell going at each other so physically on every snap.
Duffner puts his arm around Hill and says, "We really love that tape. It was fun to watch. That's the way you have to play in this league. Keep it up."
Why even look at linebackers? It's the strongest part of the Bengals' roster. They probably won't draft one, although they will sign at least one college free agent.
"What if something comes up?" Duffner asks. "What if Mike says, 'Can we do this?' I've got to have an answer for him. You've got to know everybody."
Plus, in this age of free agency, it pays to make impressions because you never know who will be on the waiver wire or on the market in a few years.
It's a small world as Florida State linebacker Tommy Polley fills out a Duffner form. Duffner recruited Polley hard out of Baltimore as the head coach of Maryland.
"You know you broke my heart, Polley," Duffner says, "when you went out of state."
Now maybe Duffner's got too many guys in there. Tight ends coach Frank Verducci is talking to a guy, Coyle is talking to two, and Duffner has two.
Duffner has just found out why a kid was raised by his uncle and the best phone number where he can reach the prospect. Duffner even has a spot on the form for a girlfriend's phone number.
But even Duffner is thrown by one guy. The kid writes on the form he wants to be a therapist.
"Oh, what kind?" Duffner asks.
"Sex therapist," the kid says.
Duffner is floored. He's looking for the next question after, "Why?"
"Well," Duffner jokes, "you lied. It says you don't have a girlfriend. Come on."
Then there's a guy Duffner kind of likes as a player. In fact, this guy might be the next Ross or Spearman. In fact, Duffner is spending a lot of time with a guy who doesn't have a huge name. In fact, Duffner is already saying he'll fly into town the night before the prospect's pro workout so he can spend more time with him.
"Yeah, you're right," Duffner says about the sex therapist. "That's a new one. But what's wrong with more information?"
Duffner emerges triumphantly around a corner with Justin Smith. That means he'll get two sessions with him. Now and after dinner, when Smith talks with Krumrie.
Duffner sits across the table from Smith, slides him the form, and officially gets excited immediately when Smith tells him he's willing to long snap even though they didn't ask him to do it at Missouri.
"Could you do it in a game right now?" Duffner asks.
"Definitely," Smith says.
Duffner starts smiling as Smith answers the background questions. He grew up on a ranch with 1,100 head of cattle in Fulton, Mo.
"That sounds just like our line coach," Duffner says. "He grew up in Wisconsin and now lives what I would call a farm. You're just like him. He played 12 years for the Bengals, went to a couple of Pro Bowls, and was just a tough, tough aggressive player. We think you're a tough player like that, too."
Duffner asks Smith about his pass rush moves and the answer is no different than what he tells the reporters.
"I've got plenty of moves," Smith says. "I work everything off the speed rush. From the speed rush, work to inside moves, fake inside out and outside in. Once I've got them dancing on their heels, boom, I try to run their butt over. Then after you run their butt over a couple of times, you can start playing with them."
This isn't exactly a conversation of pulled punches. Duffner tells Smith the Bengals need "a butt-kicker," who can rush the pass rusher all out, all the time. He emphasizes the Bengals, 'are a lot closer than a lot of people think," and a guy like Smith can be a difference-maker who could be one of the pieces.
Plus, there's the fact that Smith says Missouri ran zone blitzes 70 percent of the downs in a scheme similar to Cincinnati's.
Smith seems to enjoy the straight talk.
"I'd love to play for him," Smith says. "He paints a little clearer picture. He tells you exactly what he wants, what the team needs, a little bit more than just, 'We're interested.'
"They need somebody to come in and contribute right off the bat," Smith says. "They're not looking for a guy to come in and grow into it. They're looking for a guy to make the Bengals better right away and that's the way it should be with any first-round pick."
But Duffner has no idea who that pick will be. Right now, he has to pick a restaurant for dinner.
"Make sure we see you tonight," Duffner says to Smith.
There may be another morsel of information waiting.