Each February near the end of the month the National Football League descends upon Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine. It’s the one time besides the Super Bowl this many people from all 32 teams are in one place together.
Of course the primary reason is to evaluate the 300-plus players invited to participate so the coaches, general managers and scouts can finalize their draft boards. But this is also when the national media can speak to most of the head coaches and GMs in one setting and update their readers, viewers and listeners on the latest happenings.
During my four days there I brought you stories about the more intriguing prospects being looked at and a behind-the-scenes diary from Lehigh wide receiver Ryan Spadola. Now it’s time to empty my notebook, starting with the head coach of the hometown Indianapolis Colts, Chuck Pagano:
BACK WHERE HE BELONGS
To describe the year Pagano had as a whirlwind would be an injustice because it was so much more than that. He went from getting his first NFL head-coaching job to drafting one of the most talented and hyped quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, to being diagnosed with leukemia three games into the 2012 season. His courageous battle and the way that the Colts rallied behind him and interim head coach Bruce Arians captivated the nation. The “Chuckstrong” campaign and Luck and two Colts cheerleaders shaving their heads in his honor were just a few of the moments that made headlines.
Pagano’s triumphant return to the sidelines for the final regular-season game at home against the Houston Texans was better than a Hollywood movie. Indianapolis rolled to a 28-16 victory to finish with an 11-5 record one year after going 2-14, but the Cinderella ride came to an end the following week in a playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
When Pagano stepped to the podium inside Lucas Oil Stadium last week, the line of questioning was quite a bit different than 12 months prior, his first press conference as head coach. He handled the 15-minute session with the same sense of humor and honesty that got him through the toughest times.
“Like (Colts GM) Ryan Grigson said, the hair’s coming back in,” Pagano said with a smile in his opening. “It’s a little gnarly. I haven’t found a gel yet that will quite calm it down. We’re still looking for one. My wife’s trying to help me out. I feel great and very fortunate to be back here and doing this combine deal.”
After confirming that he feels relatively normal while acknowledging that he’ll never be the same after this, Pagano’s humor returned when he was asked if there are any restrictions on what he is allowed to do.
“Very little media obligations, they (doctors) said. There won’t be anymore Wednesday pressers and Monday (pressers),” he joked. “Dr. (Larry) Cripe, you’ll have to talk to him. There are really no restrictions. Anybody else who has dealt with some form of cancer, leukemia or blood disease, you still have a process to go through. I have a couple years still of medication I’ll take for a couple of weeks every three months. You go in every six months for three years after that. If you’re still in remission after five years, they’ll give you a certificate and a badge and send you off and say you’re healthy and completely free of any more doctor visits.”
For now, Pagano will revel in the fact that he can go back to breaking down film and planning practice schedules for the upcoming season.
Arians became the first interim head coach to win the Associated Press Coach of the Year Award for the job he did in Pagano’s absence. The Colts went 9-3 during that stretch and it helped land Arians his first head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals. Perhaps his best quote from Indy came when he was asked what they could add to the combine to help his evaluation process. “Pads,” he said. “Let them play football. I don't think agents would go for that.” … New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan kept the jokes to the minimum during his session compared to years past in light of the rough season his team had in 2012. But when he was pressed on the possibility of the team trading Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis he did draw some laughs with this response. “Certainly, to sit down and say absolutely not, we’re not going to do it, I’m not going to say this player or that player, but if we got Jim Brown in that trade, we would probably look into it.”
In terms of keeping it light and drawing the most laughter from reporters, Alabama guard Chance Warmack took home that title. It started with the question about how he got his first name and when he explained that it came from a movie that his parents went to see where the name of the main character was Chance, he was asked what movie. “I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t born yet,” he said. Later on in his session he joked that if Alabama head coach Nick Saban scheduled a meeting for 10:30 he’d be there at 9 because he knew the consequences of being late. Finally, when asked how he comes to grips with not playing a glamorous position, Warmack quipped, “I’m not a glamorous person. Look at what I’m wearing. I love it, though. I love being big and mean. That’s what I like.” … West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and Spadola were on the same flight from Indy to Fort Lauderdale on Sunday and the two revisited the one moment during on-the-field drills that Smith would like to have back. It was during the gauntlet, when a receiver runs the horizontal length of the field catching passes from both sides of the alley in rapid-fire progression. Smith was firing the ball pretty hard and actually hit South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders in the head with a throw. Spadola alerted Smith to the fact that the replay was shown in slow motion multiple times on NFL Network and Smith smiled when admitting that he was asked to “take it down a notch or two.” … Smith’s lowlight was overshadowed two days later by Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas, who tripped as he crossed the finish line in his 40-yard dash and fell on his face. What was remarkable about that moment was that Thomas still turned in an unofficial time of 4.38 seconds (4.42 officially) and was the fastest safety at the Combine. His trip was reminiscent of Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard’s stumble last year in which he fell into an automatic timer at the 10-yard interval and knocked it down.