From Russia, with disdain, to the NFL Combine

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LLANO, Tex. —  I’m weary of writing about weather and hearing about weather and hearing people in denial about weather, as I experience Central Texas, where some days it’s been colder than the Winter Olympics on the Black Sea that looks like the Caribbean.

And this comes after I shivered in my boots on the day of the Super Bowl, which was being played so comfortably in New Jersey.

Climate change?  Depending on whether you believe more in science or in the Book of Revelation, greenhouse gases are punching holes in the ozone that insulates the planet, or it’s coming to an end in a flurry of natural (or supernatural) disasters.

Regardless of who or what is causing it, this is world climate turned upside down.  Can we agree on that?  Probably not.

       So what to make of Sochi?  I did not think it possible to have an ugly Winter Olympics, but the Russians pulled it off.   The pink eyes of Bob Costas are a metaphor for this eyesore of an Olympics. 

Stray dogs everywhere, two-man toilets, yellow tap water, dangerously curved slopes and awkward tumbles – makes you yearn for the days of Brezhnev.  Back then, when the Russians put on a show (their specialty was military parades), they knew how to make it look good.

This one makes me look elsewhere.   I give Sochi a short view, trying to glean the highlights and flipping off (yes, this is a double entendre) the curling whenever it encroaches on the screen.

I was wowed by the Russian skaters and American skiers and their mid-air multi-spins.  And I’m left wondering how much of Shaun White’s snowboarding debacle was due to declining athleticism and how much to the flawed course.   That was the scariest halfpipe I’ve ever seen,  indoors or outdoors.

So rather than outdoor sports in Russia I prefer to watch the Great Indoors, Lucas Oil Stadium in “India-no-place,” as some sports reporters (not me) call it, where the NFL Scouting Combine is convening.  The 300 young men thought to be the best prospects for pro football are assembling to be measured for heft, length, speed, lift, agility and brains, among other things.

       NFL Network has made this a media event, though it’s hardly compelling drama, athletic feats that could not be less Olympian.   I’m not so sure the vertical jump is more exciting than curling.

But the significance of the Combine, while not Olympian, cannot be overstated if you’re a fan of pro football.  This year, more than recent ones, the Combine will determine the order in which the top ten choices are made in the NFL draft.

That’s because this is the year – sorry, Houston – where there’s no clear standout.   Among draftnicks – and this is a cottage industry if ever there was one – there’s no consensus on who would be included in the top two or three or five or ten, should the draft be held today.

The Texans, by virtue of their well earned 2-14 record, have the No. 1 pick and have no idea what to do with it.  Sadly for them, the No. 1 is about the same as the No. 6.

John McClain, who for 3 ½ decades has covered pro football for the Houston Chronicle, tweets the Texans’ choice “will be a QB.”  But as well sourced as the General is, he doesn’t know whom they will choose, probably because they don’t know themselves.  Going into this week’s Combine, scouts are split among Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles in the quarterback rankings.

        The Texans are feeling massive pressure from their fan base to select Manziel at Texas A&M, a two-hour drive from Houston.  Johnny Football has vowed to make them regret it if they let him slip to a division rival, Jacksonville Jaguars waiting to pounce at No. 3.

Manziel is the most electrifying football player since, at least, Peyton Manning.  His highlight film could win the Oscar for special effects.  He can change directions faster than a rabbit.  But he has some alarming flaws.

Although his accuracy is Manning-like, his gunslinger mentality results in off-balance, desperation heaves.  He threw 13 interceptions in 300 passes, compared to Bridgewater’s 4 in 427.  Bridgewater, from the University of Louisville, is smoother and stronger-armed but is said to be “robotic” – the polar opposite of the wildly improvisational Manziel.

It’s Manziel’s wild improvisations off the field, his immaturity, his brushes with the law (minor though they may be) that could drop him from the top.  Texans owner Bob McNair is an Aggie, but he has always insisted his players have solid character.   Manziel’s off-the-field missteps are already legendary.

       If he cannot pass like Joe Namath, he’s proved he can drink like him.  If there are questions about his arm, there are none about his elbow.    

But there continues to be the issue of his size.  He’s two months into his legal drinking age of 21 and he has been growing.  He claims he’s up to 6-1, 210 pounds, which might be big enough for the top pick, at least this year.  Bridgewater, just a month older than Manziel, is expected to measure close to 6-3 but may be considered too frail at under 200 pounds.

If the Texans want a big guy with a big arm, they may opt for Blake Bortles of Central Florida.  Some reports have the Texans’ new coach, Bill O’Brien, leaning his way.

Bortles is 6-4, 230 pounds, and he rushed for 6 touchdowns last season.  But he’s not as accurate as Bridgewater or Manziel.   And he will have to show O’Brien and Texans GM Rick  Smith that he’s quickened his release after his 22 sackings in 280 dropbacks.

Aside from the Big Three QB’s, the other favored prospects are thought to be Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end from South Carolina, and Sammy Watkins, wide (but perhaps too short) receiver from Clemson.

       Clowney’s effort has often lagged, in his zeal to avoid injury.  But he will be at his best at the Combine, displaying all the athletic gifts he kept hidden and preserved most of the time he was in college.

           While the well-known try to measure up to overblown reputations, the overlooked will get their turn in the spotlight.  For example:  Jimmy Garoppolo, who smashed Tony Romo’s records at small-college Eastern Illinois.   Scouts like his size (6-3, 220) and his aim, and they want to see how he compares on the same stage to the big — and better-sounding — names.

Garoppolo goes to Indy pegged as a third-round pick, but he could rise.  Then again, he could be another Romo, who performed so poorly at the Combine he fell from draft consideration.   As Romo recalled it, “I was nervous, and I was terrible at everything.”

So the Combine may not be an effective  predictor of NFL success.  Then again, was Romo’s stumble on this stage a precursor to his big-game failures with the Dallas Cowboys?

The Combine is anything but definitive.   But more than anything else it will define the upcoming NFL Draft.

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