Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Impressions From Jon Gruden's QB Camp As The NFL Draft Approaches

By Charlie Scaturro

Whoever had the idea of putting the top quarterbacks from a given draft class in the same room with Jon Gruden and a couple of cameras was definitely on to something.

Even if you disregard the fact that Gruden is still bitter about the way he left the NFL and that he has yet to get back into coaching, the feature is pretty amazing.  From the lead-in where Gruden is shown fumbling around his quarterback camp set at four in the morning to the quote "You know what I love about this guy?  He's tough as a two dollar steak" to Gruden being portrayed as the foremost football mind since Vince Lombardi, the show does a good job of balancing unintentional comedy with some great NFL commentary.

Gruden skips most of the pleasantries with these young quarterbacks and gets them talking about what they did in college and what they can expect in the NFL.  He isn't shy about getting on their case if there's something they need to work on and instead of treating these guys like they're the future stars of the NFL, he treats them like the unproven rookies they currently are.           

Gruden trying to intimidate these 21-year old kids and looking like a raving lunatic who still hasn't gotten over Brad Johnson's amazing hard count was great, but what I really like about the show is that you get a chance to see who these guys are and what they're all about.  Each players time with Gruden was trimmed down to a 30 minute episode but you can learn a lot about a person just from listening to them talk and seeing how they react to someone like Gruden who is trying to ruffle their feathers a little.    

It's hard to say how much Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Mallett, Andy Dalton, and Jake Locker got out of their meeting with coach Gruden this year, but the show provides the viewer with a better feel for these young quarterbacks and how they think about and approach the game of football, which is a very important part of being an NFL quarterback.

This isn't to say that these young quarterbacks will or won't succeed in the NFL because of how they interviewed with Gruden, but there's something to be learned from their time in front of the camera.
Here's what I took away from their interviews.

Ryan Mallett: 

Photo Credit: Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images North America
First Impression:  It's not very difficult to see why some people have their doubts about Mallett's character.  The first thing you notice is that he doesn't sound like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady and while that has absolutely nothing to do with how good of an NFL quarterback he can be or what kind of a person he is, the fact that Mallett doesn't have a polished way of speaking seems to have unnerved some people.  I don't know if it had anything to do with the fact that he didn't sound like Peyton Manning, but it seemed like Gruden was skeptical of who Mallett was just from listening to the questions he asked and way he talked to the young quarterback throughout many portions of the interview.  The other thing you notice immediately is that Mallett is huge, and even though he's sitting down for most of the interview, it's pretty easy to tell that he's instantly going to be one of the biggest quarterbacks in the NFL.

Funniest Moment of The Interview: It's more than a little ironic that Gruden decided to bring someone like John Daly (who has struggled with substance abuse) to sit in on some of Mallett's interview considering that there are rumors flying around about Mallett's drug use.  There's nothing funny about substance abuse but after Daly gave a lecture to Mallett about letting your body be the best it can be, the professional golfer was forced to sit there and listen to Gruden and Mallett talk about football while he pretend that he knew what the hell either of them was talking about.  Depending on how Mallett's NFL career turns out, the footage of him staring idly at the table in front of him while Daly lectures about being a professional athlete could be a very surreal clip about five years from now.

Most Telling Moment of The Interview:
After reviewing the now infamous footage of Ryan Mallett's media session at the combine in which he refused to talk about the character issues that some have raised about him, Gruden asked Mallett in a very general sense if everything was ok.  To which Mallett predictably responded that everything was fine.  But it certainly says a lot about the rumors which are swirling around Mallett that Gruden felt the need to ask him if everything was ok.           
Final Impression: After looking over the film that Gruden had of Mallett and then watching him on the practice field, it's obvious that Mallett has an incredible arm.  At the same time, Gruden ripped into Mallett at one point because he wasn't pushing himself during the workout which is both surprising and disappointing.  Mallett ran a pro-style offense at Arkansas so he should be more NFL ready than some of the other quarterbacks in this draft figure to be right out of the gate.  While I mentioned the criticism that Mallett has received for the way he talks, he went up to the white board and sounded very confident and knowledgeable about the X's and O's of the game, to the point where it made you forget that he didn't sound like Manning or Brady.  On the other hand, Mallett did seem a little immature and it will be very interesting to see if he's ready to handle all of the criticism that comes along with being an NFL quarterback.

You really can't question Mallett's arm, but having a strong arm isn't the only thing that determines how successful a quarterback is in the NFL.  Whether or not it's true, the allegations of drug use that are connected to Mallett aren't a good sign for a player who is supposed to be the leader of your team and one that your organization is going to have to count on for many years to come.  The things that have been said about Mallett are just rumors at this point and you never want to pass judgment on a kid who might have just made a few mistakes as a teenager, but there's something unsettling about Mallett's maturity level which is almost reminiscent of Ryan Leaf.  And we all remember how that experiment turned out.  


Cam Newton:

Photo Credit: Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images North America
First Impression: Newton definitely has a presence about him when he walks into a room.  Although some of his counterparts decided to dress down for their meeting with Gruden, the former Auburn quarterback showed up sporting a shirt, tie, and sweater vest combo which took Gruden all of 30 seconds to crack a joke about.  You can instantly tell that Newton has plenty of confidence in himself as both a leader and quarterback, a trait which could serve him very well as a pro if harnessed correctly.  One of the first comments Newton makes is about the fact that you have to command the huddle as a quarterback regardless of what is going on, a definite sign that he understands how important that aspect of the position is.  After the first few questions that Gruden asks Newton it's pretty easy to see that he has played the game in a simplistic way his whole life because of how athletically gifted he is.     

Funniest Moment of The Interview: At one point, Gruden asks Newton what he thinks about people who have been criticizing him and Newton responds with an answer which involves him using this criticism as ammunition for a gun.  A response which probably sounded better in his head than he articulated it, which prompted Gruden to respond with, " you use- say that again?"  I think everyone understood where Newton was going with the analogy but he stumbled with the delivery a little and Gruden definitely didn't give him a pass.  

Most Telling Moment of The Interview:
One particular segment of the interview got plenty of attention and for good reason.  Gruden puts Newton on the spot by asking him to give an example of a typical play he called at Auburn directly after he finished talking about how complicated certain plays and protection schemes are going to be in the NFL.  Not only did Newton seem taken aback by the question like Gruden had asked him a delicate personal secret, but the Heisman Trophy winner didn't give Gruden any kind of play call whatsoever.  This exchange led Gruden to make a point about the difficulty which awaits Newton in the NFL in terms of adapting to the verbage and made it pretty clear that he's going to have a lot of work to do at the next level.           

Final Impression:
Everyone knows that Newton is an incredible athlete with a very good arm who possesses the necessary intangibles to be a true team leader and face of an NFL franchise.  At the same time, it became very clear throughout the course of his interview that Newton has never had to rely on schemes or great play calling to be successful on the football field up to this point in his life.  The immense success he had at Auburn, where they rarely huddled up or used complicated NFL-style plays or reads, is a testament to how physically gifted Newton is.  But with the way the NFL game is structured, it's going to be nearly impossible for Newton to be successful without changing the way he plays the game and he needs to become more of a thinker and less of a reactor on the field.

At Auburn, Newton was a results oriented player, meaning he didn't care how his team won or scored a touchdown as long as they got it done.  You have to like that kind of mentality but in many instances the NFL is about putting yourself in the position to get the desired results even if they aren't always achieved.  It seems that Newton will be the first pick of the 2011 draft which says a lot about how much potential and talent he possesses, but it isn't going to be an easy transition for him.  You can tell how much Newton enjoys the game of football from hearing him talk about it and whatever motivates him to work (be it fame, fortune, or simply the love of the game), you really can't question his desire to win and succeed.  Whether his immense physical gifts and desire to be in the spotlight equates to a successful NFL career is yet to be determined.       


Andy Dalton: 

Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images North America
First Impression: One of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard anyone say about anything is that Andy Dalton might not make it as a starting quarterback in the NFL because he's got red hair.  Contrary to whichever NFL executive made that statement, it's pretty easy to tell that Dalton knows the game and what it takes to be successful.  He and Gruden start talking about how the football culture at TCU has recently changed and that Dalton played a big part in the school's transformation.  Being a four-year starter and winning as many games as Dalton did at TCU is an impressive accomplishment but we saw that similar collegiate success didn't help Colt McCoy's draft stock very much last season.  Judging from his demeanor and how he talked with coach Gruden, Dalton seems like a very steady guy who doesn't get too high or low about anything. 

Funniest Moment of The Interview:
The fact that Dalton's got red hair wasn't going to escape Gruden and he uncorked this gem, "You know what they say about red headed guys don't you?  They say they got a temper."  Not sure what that has to do with anything but you could tell Gruden enjoyed giving him a hard time about it.

Most Telling Moment of The Interview:
  There wasn't actually a single most telling moment of Dalton's interview, but his seemingly instant rapport with coach Gruden was very impressive.  While some of the other quarterbacks were a little hesitant or uncomfortable interacting with Gruden, Dalton was on the same page as him and didn't have a problem talking about the game.  Dalton wasn't concerned with being something he isn't during this interview and the fact that he knows a lot about the game of football was evident.  The best part about Dalton's interaction with Gruden was that after the initial questions, the young quarterback didn't need to be prompted by Gruden to speak, he simply carried on a dialogue about what he's doing/seeing/looking for when he's on the football field.  In addition, Dalton seemed very knowledgeable when he was drawing formations up on the board and it was clear that he knew his terminology.

Final Impression:
  Andy Dalton won't be the first or second quarterback off the board in the 2011 draft, but he definitely knows the game and possesses the tools to have a very solid NFL career.  Dalton is 23 years-old and it was apparent in the way he talked with Gruden that he's more mature than some of the other quarterbacks in the class.  His decision making and accuracy were highlighted during the interview and although Gruden harped on a specific check down that he missed, Dalton can be counted on to make the right decision more often than not.  His track record at TCU speaks for itself and shows the kind of leadership that Dalton will bring wherever he is drafted in the NFL.

Like some of his counterparts, Dalton will have to adjust from being a spread quarterback to playing under center in the NFL, but because of his intelligence and the way he thinks about the game (which was on display during his interview with Gruden) it seems like this transition might not be as daunting of a task for him as it could be for others.  Dalton isn't the biggest, fastest, or strongest armed quarterback in the class but he approaches the game the right way which pairs well with his knowledge and experience as a winner.                 

Blaine Gabbert:   

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
First Impression:  Blaine Gabbert didn't have the same presence that some of the other quarterbacks displayed in their interviews. Instead of sounding fired up or excited to be there, the former Missouri star was quiet and understated during most of his time with Gruden.  It wasn't that Gabbert was unsure of himself or what he was talking about, he just had a very reserved demeanor that you wouldn't expect most football players to have.  At the same time, Gabbert had a confidence about him when speaking with Gruden which didn't require him to be flashy or bold in anything he said or did.  After noticing how low key Gabbert was, Gruden quickly questioned his demeanor off the field but Gabbert insisted that he has what it takes to be a leader in the huddle and in practice.        

Funniest Moment of The Interview:
One of the things Gruden is preparing these potential draft picks for is how physical and dangerous a place the NFL can be.  So when he told Gabbert:  "I don't think James Harrison is going to have any problem tearing your face off."  It was a statement which must have resonated with the young quarterback when you think about a guy like Harrison getting free on the edge and unleashing one of his infamous fine inducing hits. 

Most Telling Moment of The Interview:
After their interview with Gruden, every quarterback went to the practice field and threw a couple of passes to cap off their episode.  Gruden ran them through a couple of drills but what he had them doing wasn't anything too challenging and it seemed like it was done more for the sake of having some live footage of them throwing the ball than anything else.  As every quarterback went through their drills, Gruden shouted out some encouragement or let them know when he thought they did a good job, but the things he said to Gabbert seemed more complimentary than what he said to the rest of the pack.  It's no secret that Gabbert has a great arm and it wouldn't be a stretch to say that he's the most complete quarterback as draft day approaches.  Gruden's praise for Gabbert's performance would seem to confirm how good of an all-around quarterback prospect he is.     

Final Impression:
There are a lot of things to like about what Blaine Gabbert figures to bring to an NFL team.  From his superior accuracy, to his arm strength, to his mobility, there aren't very many limitations in terms of his pure throwing ability.  As I mentioned earlier, it was somewhat unsettling to see how laid back Gabbert was pretty much throughout the interview with Gruden and he didn't necessarily seem like the kind of guy who was going to seize control of a huddle.  One of the only times Gabbert did get animated was when Gruden asked him about dealing with receivers who might complain that they're not getting the ball enough.  Gabbert responded quickly while showing plenty of conviction and confidence in his response, despite the fact that he was still relatively reserved.

At the same time, someone like Peyton Manning would also probably seem pretty laid back in a meeting, only to turn into one of the fiercest competitors in professional sports out on the football field.  I found it interesting that Gabbert's "football intelligence", which is rated as one of his best quarterback specific traits, didn't really shine through during his time with Gruden.  But we're only looking at an edited version of his interview so it's tough to say why that might be.  After getting over how laid back he was, Gabbert seemed to possess a quiet confidence in the way he thought and talked about the game which when combined with his other positives, makes him a very intriguing prospect in the NFL.                


Jake Locker:

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
First Impression: Jake Locker might no longer be the premier quarterback prospect he was a year ago, but he said and did the right things when he met with coach Gruden.  You can instantly tell how much Locker loves the game of football both by the way he talks about playing as well as from watching footage of him at Washington.  From the second he sat down at the table with Gruden, Locker was upbeat, positive, and ready to talk about his time in college as well as what transitioning to the NFL is going to be like.  Locker was more than comfortable fielding questions from Gruden and he even threw a couple of jabs back at him.  You also immediately notice that Locker's built more like a linebacker than a quarterback and although he isn't as big as Ryan Mallett or as physically imposing as Cam Newton, he's got plenty of strength and weight on his frame. 

Funniest Moment of The Interview:
This required a little bit of digging on my part as there were no ridiculous answers by Locker or amazing quotes from Gruden, but as the first commenter posted on YouTube click here for the video of the interview and mute the sound from 1:53-2:03.

Most Telling Moment of The Interview:
It's no secret that Locker is one of the most competitive guys in the draft and he's also great at making things happen outside of the pocket with his feet.  Unfortunately, Locker took his share of hits during his time at Washington, to the point where some have questioned if he will be able to stay healthy when he starts playing in the NFL.  Gruden was quick to show multiple examples of when Locker should have gotten out of bounds or made more of an effort to protect his body in the open field.  Locker's response to this was that he plays the game hard and that he never wants to walk off the field and feel like he didn't try his hardest on every play.  A great example of what a competitor and hard worker he is, but it's also a mentality that could end up hurting him in the NFL.

Final Impression: Locker is an easy guy to like; he's poised, intelligent, well spoken, and his love for the game of football showed as much or more than any of the other quarterbacks Gruden talked to.  There are certainly questions about his accuracy and the fact that he didn't continue to develop during his senior season as many scouts had hoped, definitely contributed to his draft stock slipping from where it was a year ago.  Even still, the way Locker plays the game should inspire his teammates and the fact that he made the switch to a pro-style offense later in his collegiate career should make his transition to the NFL a bit easier.

You got the feeling that Locker was eager to learn everything he could about playing quarterback in the NFL and that he knew there were things about his game that he needed to work on.  With all of the great things Locker has going for him, the concerns about whether or not he will be able to stay healthy in the NFL certainly seem legitimate after hearing him talk about the mentality he plays every snap with.  If he's able to play the game smarter and avoid putting himself in high risk situations on the field, perhaps Gruden's point about just enough people doubting Locker will be the perfect motivation he needs to have a successful NFL career.

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