There are those that question the NFL Combine's purpose. Players spend money and time preparing, not only for the drills, but the critical interviews that can win people over -- or alternatively drop someone's stock. Additionally, there's not enough time for every team to meet with every prospect -- only 60 of over 330 players are interviewed per team, in 15-minute blocks. And considering that the interviews are prepared and coached, it takes away from the player reactions during the heat-of-the-moment, when games peak with intensity. Then again, that's the purpose of the scouting department, having already identified several of the team's targeted players.
"(Bengals special teams coach Darrin) Simmons, by the way, detests the format of the combine," writes Bengals.com. "Since the players can practice the drills and rehearse their answers, he thinks there is little evidence to grade a player in a sport that lives on adjustment and performance in the heat of battle amid changing conditions and fatigue. He does like the chance to put a face and personality with a number and to look in the eyes of a guy like Williams so he can know 'he has the look.'"
However, as former Oklahoma and current Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson pointed out last year, the Bengals use the interview process differently than most teams.
"One thing caught me off guard. I was meeting with Cincinnati, and I went in there and they told me to remember five things," said Johnson after the 2013 NFL Combine. "They just listed five things like a bear, a flower, a tree, a man and like a dog. And they told me to remember those terms, at the end of the meeting to see if I could remember them. And from that point on, they listed numbers. They said, like, 9167, and then told me to repeat them in reverse order. So that was probably the weirdest meeting I've ever been a part of."
The philosophy is two fold. Mental capacity and applying questions that forces prospects to think, not asking questions that they could otherwise prepare for.
"If a player walks out of there feeling a little unprepared or challenged, then we accomplished our goal," Bengals Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin told the Cincinnati Enquirer last March. "What we're not wanting is the player to tell us what he's rehearsed with his people prior to the Combine. The core of our interview is having the player come in not prepared and react to it. That's the core of what football is. How quickly can you think in unfamiliar circumstances? Football is thinking and reacting quickly and that's what we try to put the player through when we're interviewing him."
"You can’t find out everything about anybody in 15 minutes. But if you're going to get value out of the interview, you can uncover things that you want to find out more about later," Tobin says. "We blend cognitive skills, memory skills, background issues. We also do football and that's how we like to end the interview. It's not a bad thing when questions come from multiple people in multiple areas," Tobin says. "That gives you another opportunity to see how quickly they react in an unfamiliar situation. And that's what football is: reacting not only quickly physically, but thinking quickly on your feet when you see something different."
"Cognitive skills, background and football intellect are all tested in varying ways, and always within accepted interview protocol. We feel that predictable questions can lead to rehearsed, predictable answers, and those don’t advance our knowledge of the player much. Football is a quick-thinking and reacting sport, often to unexpected, challenging and surprising events. Poise, composure and accuracy in the face of these pressures are vital to success in the NFL, so if a player leaves our interview feeling challenged, surprised or even a bit unprepared, then we have achieved our goal. The vast majority of the players we visit with have fun with the process and enjoy their time with us."
Tobin, along with Marvin Lewis, is a significant reason for Cincinnati's recent successes in the NFL draft; build a team through the draft that's gone to the postseason in three straight seasons. This is just one stage in a multi-stage process towards that end.