The Bengals coaches trade in their Xs and Os for question marks this weekend at the NFL scouting combine when they punctuate their first look at the prospects with the all-important first impression.
In an effort to crack the B.S. Barrier, they'll come up with their favorite list of questions to cajole, coax, trick, joke and shock the truth out of the players so they can find out what exactly they're going to be getting for the next three to five years.
Drug addict or workaholic? Diva or grinder? Blue collar or red flag? Locker-room lawyer or clubhouse chemist?
You can go the straight line route with defensive line coach Jay Hayes: "What have you done that you'd be ashamed to tell your mother?"
Or you can get technical like special teams coach Darrin Simmons interviewing a punter: "If you're going to have 15 punts in your workout, how many are you going to turn over?"
Both questions are designed to get a handle on a guy they just barely met and that's not as easy as it once was in an age when players now prepare for the combine at what amounts to expensive monthlong boarding schools. St. Marks of the Shuttle Drill. The players' agents have not only set them up with coaches for the 40-yard dash and three-cone drills, but have also supplied them with more talking points than Fox and MSNBC combined.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has been going to these things for the past 19 years and the Q-and-A sessions have become more rehearsed B and S. Plus, in the last five years the combine has cleaned up the mob scene for getting players into the interview rooms by making each team sign up to interview 60 of the 300 or so prospects over scheduled 15-minute intervals.
"Any more," Bratkowski says, "so many of these guys are trained what to say and what not to say. You've got to realize what is a canned line. You've got to get questions that throw them off. Try to get something that they haven't anticipated answering."
Here are some of the old reliable questions the Bengals coaches will be tossing this weekend. (Knowing that this is only a toe in the water and that much more exhaustive questioning is on the way at pro days, campus visits, and over the phone):
THE FRAT ROW QUESTION: "What have you done that you'd be ashamed to tell your mother?"
Courtesy of Hayes, the Bengals eighth-year D-line coach who may have had the single greatest interview in combine history when he spoke with Georgia Tech defensive end Eric Henderson in 2006.
Suffice to say that Henderson didn't have an answer for that one. Hayes, instead, found out that Henderson's mother died when he was 10 and after his grandmother died while he was in college he smuggled his younger brother into his dorm room and raised him while he was going to school and playing.
When Henderson didn't get drafted, Hayes and the scouts were all over him right away and the Bengals gave him one of the biggest college free agent deals. A spate of injuries limited his career to two games, but the Bengals were a better team for having a man like that on the roster.
"When you interview these guys," Hayes says, "you find out things about their lives and you have no idea what some of these kids go through to play the game. Sometimes they're sad. Sometimes they're happy. Sometimes they're somewhere in between ... they tell you. They're pretty truthful ... I try to make guys at ease so they're more willing to open up."
THE UPON FURTHER REVIEW QUESTION: "How many game-winners have you made and how many have you missed?"
This is what Simmons asks the placekickers because "I guarantee you the good kickers can tell you in detail about all the kicks they've made and all the ones they didn't," he said.
Of course, Simmons knows the answers so when the kid might not have mentioned the miss against Big Rival U. and Simmons asks him about it and the kid says, "Oh yeah, that one," then that tells Simmons something, too.
"What else are you not telling me?" Simmons wonders. "I'm asking different questions than the other guys. Punters and kickers are different. I'm going to be spending a lot of time with them. I've got to be able to trust them. They don't have to do as much film study as the other positions, so I'm asking a lot of questions about technique."
THE PUCH UP MADDEN 10 QUESTION FOR A WIDE RECEIVER: "Give me your favorite play. Start with the formation. The motion. Your assignment. What you know about the quarterback's reads."
Bratkowski can't really spring that one on a kid in an informal setting. But that's one of his favorites because he saves it for the 15-minute session, where the Bengals have film of the prospect's offense waiting for him to evaluate it.
"It gives you an idea of how much the player can retain and how much he knows the game," Bratkowski says. "You don't have much time. By the time you ask him who is his agent, his phone numbers, if he's ever been in trouble, you don't have much time left. Plus, it's a question he's probably not expecting. I also like to ask him to take a play, tell me the name of it, tell me what he sees from the defense, and what his responsibilities are.
"And since it's quick, when he leaves the room we also make quick notes. Like, 'Sharp. Remembers well.' Or, 'Doesn't seem to have great recall.' "
It was one of these discussions in '06 that sparked what Bratkowski still calls the most impressive combine interview he's ever attended. When Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander asked LSU left tackle Andrew Whitworth about the technique he used against one of his foes, "Whit was off and running. He could have gone on for another hour," Alexander said.
And when the Bengals debated Whitworth before taking him with the 55th pick, it was a quick discussion made quicker by Bratkowski's interview observation. He says a bad interview won't get a guy eliminated, but it won't help.
"If there are red flags, we'll put in our notes, 'We've got to look longer at this guy and dig into him.'"
THE MARTHA STEWART SKED QUESTION: "What was your schedule on Wednesdays during the season? Start with when you woke up and through the end of the day."
This is a question usually offered by head coach Marvin Lewis, but it greatly interests Bratkowski because it gives the coaches a sense of prospects' organizational skills and priorities.
"What does he do and when does he do it?" Bratkowski says. "That's a good question because it's one you really can't rehearse."
THE OPRAH BOOK QUESTION: "Who is the most important person in your life?"
This is a standby for assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi in his first meeting.
"It gives you an idea of his character and his background and what he's been through," Cioffi says. "It helps to get him to open up and talk about himself."
Another Cioffi starter: "What were your three best games?"
"It's a good starting point," he says. "You obviously look at more than three games, but it gives you an idea of how he sees himself."
THE START YOUR ENGINES JIMMIE JOHNSON QUESTION: "How do you feel after you really put it on somebody? After you've made a devastating hit? How do you feel?"
This comes from the pit road of linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, NASCAR enthusiast. FitzGerald isn't so much interested in what's going on down the straightaway. He can see that. He wants to know what's going on in the corners.
"We've got the hard data," FitzGerald says. "And we don't have a lot of time, so I'm not going to ask him like some guys, 'Do you like football?' What's the kid going to say? So I try to ask things that tell me if he likes it."
Oh, FitzGerald will ask about blitzes in the A gap and recognizing offensive formations. But he's just as likely to ask about a guy's demeanor before a game. Does he yell or is he quiet? What does he think about practice and what does he think about playing all three spots? Tell me your mindset.
"OK, you get beat for a touchdown in a close game. It could be the difference. How do you react? What is your demeanor coming off the sidelines?"
No surprise. FitzGerald wants no caution flags. He wants quick answers so he'll come from all angles. "How old is your brother?" may be followed by "What do you do with the motion man?"
"I don't want them to think about what they might have planned to say," he says.
THE CHEECH AND CHONG WEED QUESTION: "Do you like smoking pot?"
Simmons actually asked a kid that when he knew he had been suspended for failing a drug test.
"The answer was 'Yes,' " Simmons says. "Yeah, I crossed him off. He's not in the league."
That kid was done either way because even if he had said, "No," when it was clearly "Yes," Simmons takes him off his list. He'll do that with the guy's record in hand and knowing he's been arrested, he'll still ask. If the guy denies it, Simmons may keep asking him questions but only to be polite.
"It gets back to trust," he says.
THE GIL BRANDT GURU PERSONNEL QUESTION: "How do you rate yourself as a receiver, runner, blocker, and put it in order for me."
What better way to end this Q and Q with the dean of NFL assistant coaches, Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson? This is going to be Anderson's 27th straight combine with the club, so he's talking to kids who were born when Ickey Woods was rushing for 1,000 yards right after his own combine.
"It tells you how he sees himself and in your mind, you know how he plays," Anderson says. "I just like to hear how he sees it. Yes, it does give you a sense of their reality. Do they give you what they think you want to hear, or what they truly think and what is out there? And I like it because that can lead me into asking what they can bring to special teams."