What The Hell Is Up With These Bizarre Combine Questions?

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It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find stories of NFL hopefuls being subjected to a bizarre NFL Combine interview process. From overly personal inquiries about prostitute moms or sexual milestones to  to bizarre binaural theatrics, teams at the NFL combine seem to be more like a struggling North Hollywood improv group and less like a group of football experts vetting future multi-million dollar investments.

So what are all these histrionics for? I have a hard time believing that NFL executives are simply wasting their precious 15 minutes with their prime draft targets. To make sense of it all, I had to venture outside my own experiences. I don’t have any managerial experience, much less experience in the hiring process. Luckily, my father is a business consultant who specializes in management, including extensive experience teaching people this very skill. So I called him to ask about these situations, and almost all of this article is based on information he gave me. Job interviews in the business world and NFL draft interviews differ some, but his insights are valuable nonetheless.

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This interview strategy exists outside of just football. Behavior-based interviewing is designed to get to the core of who a person is, and predict their behavior in adverse situations. By asking a player an insensitive or racially provocative question, you can get a sense of how thick their skin is. If cracks start to show, you may get an idea of how that player will behave when Josh Norman or Pierre Garçon is constantly berating him.

Some of the interview processes make sense. Quarterback prospects are asked to draw up play structures and explain X’s and O’s. Players are often asked about off-field issues, if applicable. But other players get the weird stuff, like a strange obsession with murder. What’s this for? Often, these questions have hidden meanings. My dad listed five qualities – personality, morality, technical skill, cultural fit and work ethic (which he mentioned twice, due to either emphasis or senility). While technical skill can be deduced almost entirely out of the interview, some of the cultural aspects are difficult to surmise. He also spoke on coachability, or a player’s ability to learn new things. These can explain some of the odd lines of questioning- for example, the linked murder question to retired Jaguar Austen Lane:

if You had to murder someone: Would You use a gun or a knife?

This completely bizarre line of questioning actually has a function. Some may use a knife, since it’s quieter, and easier to get away with. A gun, however, is more humane. Further, a player could color outside the lines and say they’d never kill someone. Some teams may be endeared by an outside-the-box thinker, and some may be deterred by a potential freelancer. Either way, the information is useful. Most questions like this are meant to weed out rare, but major red flags- in terms of play tendency, teams have hours of tape and mountains of analytics that can give a better impression than even the best interview question. But if a player says they’d rather use an inconspicuous knife, you’ve got a huge red flag, not only with a “me-first” attitude, but a detrimental lack of situational awareness. A couple more examples:

If you could rob a bank and get away with it, guaranteed, would you?

This seems like an easy, leading question – any competent interviewee would say of course not. A lot of these questions are designed to highlight “abnormal” behavior. Sure, most players will nail this layup, but for the one that doesn’t, that’s very important to know. In 15 minutes, it’s hard to get much more out of someone than “nope, not a murderer.”

When did you lose your virginity?

The idea of one’s first sexual experience may seem irrelevant to football, but getting overly personal can tell a lot about a player’s character. You may not be interested in a character that jumps at the chance to boast about a (likely exaggerated) sexual conquest, or maybe you are. Maybe you’re more interested in a player that navigates the question with dignity and respect for their partner. Or maybe you’re trying to gauge how open a player will be with his teammates. This gets at one of the biggest points my dad hammered home, workplace culture (locker room culture for sports). If you have 60-some testosterone-filled, machismo-obsessed alpha males in a locker room, it’s best to tailor that environment for compatible personalities. That’s not just to avoid fights, it’s to foster a growth-encouraging culture. You want employees to push and encourage each other to get better so you don’t have to train every single person on every single skill yourself, and football teams are no different.

Similarly, some players this year were asked to complete a staring contest– a request that would be done on purpose to test obedience. Coaches want to understand that you’ll listen to their orders, even if you can’t see the logic behind them.

If you dive into the linked article about behavior-based interviewing, however, you’ll see that their suggested questions seem much less frivolous or irrelevant. They ask targeted, thought-out questions about past experience and challenging situations, rather than play card games. Why can’t NFL teams keep the interviews to football? Rather than odd murder questions to see if a player will freelance, why not ask them if they’d break from their assignment to pursue a big play? That’s no layup of a question and can give you the same information.

The reasons for the weirdness are twofold: One, time is of the essence. Most of these questions are open-ended, for example, “give me a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem.” This encourages the interviewee to tell a detailed story, maybe take some time to think through their answer. Keeping things within the relevant field allows the player to be rehearsed. Asking them about highlight plays or coaching moments allows them to give you a story they’ve thought about and prepared. To get to the true core of a person’s morality and personality, throw them for a loop.

These theatrical antics certainly have reasoning behind them, and aren’t gruff alpha-male posturing. But do they work? Perhaps, if given more time to meet and interview, teams would be better at avoiding locker room cancers or unsavory situations. But perhaps better questioning and strategy could make better use of the allotted time. Young, inexperienced college boys may not give the perfect answer to a question about murder or their virginity, and you as the interviewer might lose some valuable information to nerves, youthful inexperience, or simple poor interview skills that won’t translate to the field. Asking football questions may get rehearsed responses, but is it so bad a thing to reward preparedness and awareness?

Take Cordarrelle Patterson, for example, a player who did not live up to expectation in part due to a slow learning capacity. That could have been vetted in his combine interview by asking something like, “Tell me about a time where you didn’t know what to do. How did you handle it, and what would you do differently next time?” Unfortunately, the answer to that might eat up too much of the allotted 15 minutes. But, “have you ever been confused or not known where to go on the field?” may have a similar effect with a shorter answer. If he denies that ever happening at all, you know he’s trying to deceive you- that happens to everyone- and would be a huge red flag. If he blames the coach, or a teammate, that’s telling of a different problem. If he tells you about a time where he messed up, but he’s trying to improve every day, you’ve got yourself a coachable player.

Perhaps lost in all these theatrics and hazing rituals is a simple, pure goal. Teams want to find out “character” and “personality”, but don’t have enough knowledge about how to directly access those traits in a prospect to achieve in in 15 minutes. Obviously, more time would help, but unless that becomes a real discussion among owners and league figures, teams should constantly be seeking to improve their interview processes. The fact that teams seem to be content with the shaky results of their bizarre performance art is concerning to say the least.

Thanks for reading!

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