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Five Takeaways From the NFL Combine, Day 1: Jon Gruden Sounds a Lot Like Joe Morgan

The once and present Raiders head coach isn’t sure how to pronounce “data,” but maybe he’s trying to throw us off his scent. Plus, more from Indianapolis.

Oakland Raiders Introduce Jon Gruden Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We can’t believe it either, but “Nick Foles, Super Bowl MVP” is old news. The 2018 NFL combine is already here, and a rotating cast of Ringer staffers will provide you with a collection of “five thoughts” from each day in Indianapolis.

1. Jon Gruden Either Hates Data or Loves Bits

The history of NFL coaches pretending to be afraid of technology is long. Bill Belichick once referred to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference as the “Northeastern analytics conference or whatever it is” despite dispatching his top executives to the event each year. His annual dad-joke of “SnapFace” or “InstaChat” is a further commitment to the bit. Few coaches use analytics concepts more frequently than Bill Belichick. In 2015, Tom Coughlin went on an extended rant about how he does not know how to work his cellphone’s GPS: “I don’t trust the lady in GPS.” And yet his Giants teams were early adopters of player-tracking GPS technology, and NFL sources have told me few teams studied the data more intently than Coughlin’s Giants.

So, we have to approach the Jon Gruden situation carefully. The new Raiders coach, who we last saw on an NFL sideline in 2008, went on a bit of an anti-analytics screed when he took the podium in Indianapolis on Wednesday morning. “Man, I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998,” he joked. Or maybe he wasn’t joking. He openly wondered how “data” was pronounced and said that he is “not going to rely on GPSes and all the modern technology.”

“I will certainly have some people that are professional that can help me from that regard,” he said. “But I still think doing things the old-fashioned way is a good way, and we’re going to try to lean the needle that way a little bit.”

This was backed up by a report by Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, who said that the Raiders were “lagging behind” when it comes to analytics and technology. As Robinson put it, “He very well may be working with the same tools he had the last time he was in Oakland.”

Of course, Gruden will make some attempts to modernize. A reporter pointed out that a copy of his old playbook is readily available via Google search—something that isn’t uncommon in football in 2018—and Gruden said he’s aware of how many former staff members of his have moved throughout the league and could spread the information.

”So, we’re changing the presentation of our offense,” he said. “You have to. I mean, you obviously have to change a little bit. But I think the roots, the foundation of what I know, is going to stay in place. We’re going to adapt to what the rules are and what our roster allows us to put out there every week and I think the uncomfortable thing right now is I don’t know what that is going to be.”

Last year, the Raiders drafted über-athlete defensive back Obi Melifonwu, who aced modern measurements of athleticism in combine testing, so it’s not the stone age. But if Gruden is not putting on an act and he’s truly going to relegate data to “some people” who’ll explain it to him as time goes on, that’s worrying. The game has changed since Gruden left—in fact, it’s changed many times over. The data revolution that’ll happen this year, the first in which NFL teams will receive comprehensive player tracking data for all teams, cannot be overlooked. You could make an argument for ignoring data (or is that day-a?) in the past, but you cannot now. Here’s hoping Gruden’s devotion to making it 1998 again only extends to wearing visors.

2. Linemen and Running Backs Were, uh, Measured

The NFL combine is the weirdest event on the NFL calendar. In a league full of scoreboards, the combine is one big gray area. Teams are given a handful of data points about a player, medical reports, a psychological test of their choosing, and a 15-minute interview that virtually everyone agrees is not enough time to get to know a prospect. There is a low bar for what counts as interesting at the combine, and Wednesday often failed to clear it. Half of the league’s general managers and coaches spoke to the media, but the only actual combine activities were measurements for offensive linemen, running backs, and special teamers. Here is the news that dribbled out from those events:

The focus on the offensive linemen did give evaluators a nice jumping-off point to talk about some of these prospects, particularly Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, a likely top-10 pick who Bengals executive Duke Tobin called “as fine a college football player as I’ve seen in a long time. As complete as I’ve seen.” Tobin talked generally about the “debatable” impact of a guard compared to a (theoretically more important) left tackle, but Tobin emphasized that Nelson could probably play any spot on the offensive line.

3. It’s All About the Quarterbacks

The quarterback draft discussion is always strange. The position is too important for rational discussion, and after years of NFL teams being unable to properly evaluate quarterbacks that come from spread systems, prospects and evaluators now face questions ranging from relevant to inane when they arrive in Indianapolis. Here’s the inane one: Andy Reid had to field a question about the idea Heisman winner Lamar Jackson should switch to receiver, an idea popularized by ESPN’s Bill Polian this draft season. Reid replied he’d make Jackson a quarterback, and his answer was dripping with sarcasm: “You probably want to try it there. … He’s pretty good. I’d give that a whirl. … I’d want to bring him in. Let’s exhaust that other thing that we know he’s good at.”

Now, for the more relevant: Browns coach Hue Jackson was asked about Josh Allen’s completion percentage. Allen, considered a top prospect seemingly only because he looks like a top prospect, struggled with accuracy at Wyoming. Jackson said it’s too early to dismiss Allen, but he wants answers: “I think we’re going to find out about why [his completion percentage] was 56.2 percent. I think that’s what you have to do. I think that’s why we’re here at the combine, and that’s what we’ll be doing over the next month or two is to find out why those things are happening and again have the player give us an opportunity to get an understanding from him and for us to keep digging into those things.”

Lastly, Jackson said he’d like USC quarterback Sam Darnold to throw at the combine (he won’t) but also said that wouldn’t change his evaluation of the player. The quarterbacks throw (or don’t) on Saturday. Get excited.

4. The Spread Offense Is Here to Stay

Reid repeated a line on Wednesday that he’s used in the past: Say what you will about the spread quarterbacks at the college level, but at least they are throwing a lot of passes and making the evaluation slightly easier by providing a larger sample size. The NFL has made a mess of the college-to-pro transition for quarterbacks, and coaches made it clear on Wednesday that they are trying to change this. “I look forward to watching Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen and these young quarterbacks, and seeing how they tore up the field, maybe we could steal some plays and some concepts that could help us,” Gruden said. Rams coach Sean McVay made similar comments about Oklahoma’s offense a few weeks ago. The more the NFL borrows from college, the better—and not just because the college game is more visually exciting at the moment, but because it will help a league that has largely had no clue how to develop spread quarterbacks for the past few years. Familiarity with the playbooks can only help, and this draft season will go a long way in determining how far NFL teams will go to incorporate schemes from the likes of Oklahoma.

5. Tomorrow, the Kickers and Punters Work Out!

It was an uneventful day in Indianapolis, but at least we all have the marquee event of the week to look forward to on Thursday. If you’re not into that, the running backs and linemen also do the bench press.