INDIANAPOLIS – Sean McDermott jokingly had an invitation for a reporter this week at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Asked who sat in for the 15-minute interviews NFL teams can hold with up to 60 prospects during the league’s scouting combine, the Buffalo Bills’ head coach said: “Do you want to come to our meeting tonight?”
Although that invitation was made in jest, McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane did pull the curtain back a little bit on the highly secretive interview process.
“They've evolved over time, like all of this process,” McDermott said. “It used to be you just kind of went in with a couple questions and you'd get to know the player more on a broad-based surface level. Now it seems like it's evolved to more watching film. A lot of teams seem to have gone that direction with watching film and drilling down as opposed to drilling out.”
Not surprisingly given their background, the Bills’ approach is modeled after what McDermott and Beane are familiar with from their time with the Carolina Panthers.
“We watch a lot of film in there,” Beane said. “We sit the player down and the reason we do it that way is they don't know what plays are coming. They don't know what clips are coming. They don't know what question the position coach is going to ask. A lot of the talking is the position coach and the coordinator and then Sean and I will jump in if we don't feel it was answered correctly.
“For 12 of the 15 minutes, we're watching film, probably. Then we'll ask
them a few (other) questions but we can get the other stuff, your family and your career, at another time. We just want to make this intimately about ball.”
Beane and McDermott are the constants in the media room, and after that position coaches and scouts will rotate in based on where the player is from and what position he plays.
“Every team still does things differently. If you walked down that hall, some teams are watching film, some are not,” Beane said. “Some people are giving tests, talking to a psychologist. There's so many various things teams do. That's how we're choosing to do it.”
It’s impossible to fully understand what makes a person tick in 15 minutes, but Beane said even in that short amount of time, teams can learn some important details about a player’s personality.
“How do they handle it when the mistake is pointed out?” he said. “Do they blame somebody else? Do they take the blame themselves? How do they take coaching? What's their football smarts? How do they communicate? Are they comfortable? Are they backing down? Do they not know anything? Some guys are very confident when they come in the room and they want the laser pointer, and they're not only pointing out what their job is but the guy next to them and the guy next to him. They're pointing out the front on defense. So you can pick up a lot about their knowledge and their personality just by the way you talk to them in the room.”
It’s when the answers to their questions aren’t deemed satisfactory that more work is created.
“Guys that struggle with stuff you think would be basic football, sometimes you've got to find out what was asked of him at his school,” Beane said. “If he was never asked to know what the defensive front was, you can't blame him. That doesn't mean he can't learn it. So you've got to dig into that. Sometimes we'll have follow-up things to do based on what he says he was taught. We may circle back and ask the position coach, ‘was he taught that?’ We don’t necessarily have every answer when they walk out in 15 minutes because it is a short time. But you do have a lot of questions answered."
From the player's perspective, nailing the 15-minute interview has become an art form.
"The formals, it feels like forever when you're in there, but then when it's over, it feels like it went by fast," said LSU center Will Clapp. "It's a lot of stuff coming at you, that you've got to take a step at a time and not get nervous. A lot of practice interviews, mock interviews, that all helped."
Combine interviews have become known for some of the wackier questions that leak out. Clapp said the strangest one he had received was a team asking if he knew who Jesse Owens was.
"Of course I know who Jesse Owens was, so that one worked out for me," he said. "Nothing has really thrown me that far off."
McDermott explains staff changes
Even though they’re coming off a playoff season, the Bills weren’t shy about making staff changes. That includes the coaching staff, which will have a new offensive coordinator and three position coaches.
“"Look, I don't like to make those type of changes,” McDermott said. “But it's all about us becoming better at all different levels. It's the player level, it's the coaching level, so that was one end of it. Sometimes, early on, you need to go through some of that until you get it right, because you don't always have the option in your first year of what's out there. But in this case, it felt like we had a chance to get our hands on some good coaches.”
Few fans had any issue with the switch from Rick Dennison to Brian Daboll at offensive coordinator after the Bills’ shortcomings in that regard last season, but it was a surprise to see defensive backs coach Gill Byrd let go. He was replaced by John Butler.
“There were some things we certainly did well, but there's room for improvement in there, as well,” McDermott said. That was an area where I guess people are saying, 'Hey, we did some good things,' and we did. I don't want to take anything from that. That said, we've got a lot of room to improve and grow in the second year. Looking at Tre'Davious White coming into his second year. I'm anxious to see his offseason and how he's doing. And then with Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and now adding Vontae Davis to the mix, I think we're off to a good start as far as that goes.”
Even though Butler and McDermott both attended La Salle College High School outside Philadelphia, their time there did not overlap, so it’s a misconception that the hire is simply one friend helping another.
“Did not know him in high school,” McDermott said. “I knew of him, because when I came into the high school, I got there as a junior. He had already left, so I knew of him, but did not have that relationship that we've built since being in the pros.”
McDermott said he considered hiring Butler last season.
“Any time you can get your hands on a good, quality defensive backs coach, I think it's hard to do,” he said. “It's such a critical position. John's got a really good feel for combinations, and you watch what he's been able to do developing players, mostly at the Texans, albeit he was in college as a coordinator and so forth, I think that speaks for itself.”
The Bills also let receivers coach Phil McGeoghan go to take the same job with the L.A. Chargers, hiring veteran coach Terry Robiskie to replace him.
"You hope that those are win-win, all these are win-win situations at the end of the day, for them and us," McDermott said. "And in this case I feel good about Terry. Terry has a proven track record over the years of being able to reach players at a very challenging position on the offensive side of the ball, where you have different personalities ... similar to the defensive backfield room on the defensive side. You've got some different personalities in there, and I think Terry has proven that he's done that over the years at the different stops that he's had. So that was important in this case. That's one of the reasons I felt like it was the right fit for us."
The last position switch featured Bill Teerlinck taking over as defensive line coach for the retired Mike Waufle. Teerlinck served as Waufle's assistant last year.
"To be able to promote from within is the key," McDermott said. "That's what you'd like to do in a lot of areas. If you're training guys and developing guys the right way, that's no different than the players with the depth chart, to be able to take the second-string guy and put him in the first-string position. In this case, we were able to do that with Bill Teerlinck. He's been around the game a long time, growing up in the game. Really has a nice feel for the position."