Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese doesn't like to just scout the NFL scouting combine. He likes to be in it.
"I like to stand right next to the guy," Zampese says. "I want to see the ball come out of his hand. I know it sounds strange, but seeing it from the stands or from behind a fence isn't the same. I want to stand where I want to stand so I can see all the angles the ball is coming from.
"I just want to feel it."
The bulk of the Bengals contingent is expected in Indianapolis on Wednesday at the combine, where prospects are prodded like cattle, tested like pilots, and coached like campers. The players don't take the field until Friday and even then the nuts and bolts of the event won't see the light of day despite the bright lights of the NFL Network.
"What you don't see is really more important than what you do see," says Jim Anderson, prepping for his 29th combine as the Bengals running backs coach. "There are the physicals, the interviews, and everything that goes along with it."
Zampese, helping run the drills at quarterback, is one of several Bengals coaches that are part of the hidden game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Darrin Simmons is the senior special teams coach overseeing the punting and kicking workouts. Strength coach Chip Morton, as he has since 2000, helps lead the stretching and flexibility regimen that warms up all 328 prospects.
"I like to see how these guys react to the pressure up close," Simmons says. "Everyone knows what's at stake. They know it's the only time in their careers they'll be in front of all 32 special teams coaches, head coaches and decision-makers at the same time."
Morton likes to stretch character as well as calves while keeping an eye on individual showdowns, such as the heavyweight title fight waged last year by Georgia's A.J. Green and Alabama's Julio Jones at the top of the receiver board.
"It's hard to keep it together all day down on the field," Morton says. "It's not like an interview where they know what they're going to say. Down there while they're competing they're going to be more like themselves. You can see how they respond and take direction."
Also in on the drills are defensive line coach Jay Hayes, tight ends coach Jon Hayes, and making his combine debut is James Urban, the club's second-year receivers coach.
Which may turn out to be quite fortuitous since the Bengals could take a receiver in the first couple of rounds of the NFL Draft. But that's 63-65 days away, an eternity to decide if Baylor's Kendall Wright is fast enough, or if South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery is fit enough, or if Rutgers junior Mohamed Sanu is polished enough.
(History suggests the Bengals won't be seduced by Steelers restricted free agent Mike Wallace or probably any unrestricted free agent receiver. They aren't in the habit of giving up first-round picks via trades or compensation and after recent forays on the receiver front in free agency have netted Laveranues Coles, Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens, it hasn't been exactly fertile ground.)
So the 63-day push begins Wednesday.
The coaches, who can volunteer for combine work, all have different approaches this week. Anderson has run several running backs drills during campus pro days that take place in the next two months, but he prefers to be in the stands this week keeping notes on a legal pad broken into his own categories. Zampese, on the other hand, views it as an extra two hours with prospects but he also says this week isn't the end all and be all.
"It's a very small piece of the process," Zampese says. "But it's a piece and they have to all be added up."
If anyone has been through the wars, take Zampese last year at this very moment in time. The Bengals were less than a month removed from finding out their franchise quarterback wanted out and they needed the next one fast. That left just two months to sift through a field of about eight candidates in what is regarded as the NFL's most difficult position to scout and project. The Bengals emerged with one of the most successful rookie quarterbacks of all-time in TCU's Andy Dalton.
"We're in a different place," Zampese says. "But that's not the only time we had with them. There was the Senior Bowl, the school visit, the visit to our place, and some of them we went back for private workouts."
Last year much was made of the completion percentages during the quarterbacks throwing session in Indy and no doubt they'll be breathlessly spit out again like the daily Dow Jones. But given that they are throwing to these receivers for the first time and against no defense and pressure, it's hard for Zampese to take stuff like that seriously.
"If you're doing it on completions and incompletions, then it's very hard to judge," Zampese says. "A grain of salt looking at it. It's real silly. The guys that keep score at the combine know very little about it. It's not about that. You can keep score at a game, or during the course of the season when he's with his own guys, OK. But the combine? Come on."
Zampese is looking for zip, trajectory and the ability to throw a change of pace in a window. The coaches running the passing drills rotate, taking one quarterback and leading him through the three-, five- and seven-step drops along with various rollout passes, as well as throws sliding in and out of the pocket. Zampese can't remember which individuals he had last season, but he was close enough to them all to get a feel.
"They get two or three throws at a time in the route period," Zampese says. "If he misses one on the out throw, does he know how to fix it the very next time? Or has he totally lost it, put his head down? How do they correct themselves? It all gets back to poise."
Which is where Dalton carried the day. But Zampese also liked the feel of his throws. Zampese had already made sure that a month before at the Senior Bowl he had scheduled his daily North quarterback meetings so he could be at the South practices to watch the quarterbacks. But even then, he was behind that dreaded fence for most of the workouts.
But at Indy. Dalton "was good," Zampese said. "You could see it. He'd make a throw and you'd say, 'That's an NFL throw.' When you started to add up all the pieces, he was a guy you really liked."
Simmons likes being on the floor of the combine for the same reasons. It's not so much that he can hear the ball coming off a kicker's foot or feel the buzz of a long snap, but what he sees after a bad kick or snap. He figures it is about 25 pro days rolled into an economical two-hour block.
"If you're not coaching the Senior Bowl, it's your first contact with these guys," Simmons says. "A lot of it is about the intangibles. It's the interviews the night before and then kicking the next day and how do they respond to the competition?"
Simmons, who has been head coach Marvin Lewis's special teams coach for all 10 seasons, thinks he's been doing the combine kicking drills as long as any coach in the league. It was the last drill, he says, that was conducted by scouts and not the coaches.
"Now it's more what the coaches would like to see," Simmons says. "Not running the 40-(yard dash) or doing the vertical or back pedal. It's drills more specific to what is asked of kickers and punters nowadays."
Morton and assistant Jeff Friday also get a unique look because they see all the prospects as they warm up and stretch. Although Morton agrees there is no set agreement on "what is an appropriate level of flexibility," he calls it a good chance to "cross reference" medical reports on such body parts as shoulders, knees and hamstrings. Plus, on such exercises as the stand-and-reach, it's a good chance to ferret out any inconsistencies or extreme performances good or bad.
But what Morton and Friday really love is the chance to mingle with prospects before and during the workouts. They've got a list of names from the personnel department to keep an eye on and Morton has his own checklist.
"I've been asking my kids for the last five years or so if there's anybody they like. Anybody they want me to say hello to and give them a message," Morton says of the guys they watch on Saturdays. "The year David Pollack came out my son said he really liked him and when I talked to Pollack he was, of course, great. A lot of energy, engaging. He liked (Jordan) Shipley, too, and it was the same thing. Pleasant. Engaged. Serious. And it's funny; those are two guys we were able to get."
And then, there was Florida's Tim Tebow a few years back.
"He stood out. He was very patient and he had everybody grabbing at him, but he took time to talk," Morton says. "You can tell a lot. You can see who guys naturally gravitate to, which guys emerge as leaders, who can take direction, how they respond."
It might not show up in a box with a number, but the coaches can pass on what they hear and see.
Last year they had a ring-side seat for Green-Jones, wideouts that ended up going fourth and sixth, respectively, in the draft. Green, of course, is now a Bengal and may be the best player coming out of that draft as the first rookie receiver to make the Pro Bowl in eight years.
"That was an interesting battle," Morton says. "It was unspoken. But everybody could sense it. They were going at it, there was no question. Julio showed more outwardly. He wore the warrior label on his sleeve. As I saw here, A.J. was really quiet and intense."
Jones had a great combine but it wasn't enough to get past Green, which in the end shows this week is only a piece. Jones reportedly went past Green on some teams' draft boards in the days after the combine. The Bengals were supposed to be one of those teams when in actuality they never wavered with Green as their No. 1 receiver.
Welcome to another part of this two-month process:
Smoke and mirrors.
They start trying to cut through it all this week in the hidden game.