QBs must pass the mind games

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Sports,NFL,Redskins,John Keim

Learning capacity key in the scouting process

Robert Griffin III spent three months crafting highlight plays, slipping from the pocket and whipping touchdown passes, juking defenders left lunging at air and leading Baylor to unfamiliar success. Then he won the Heisman Trophy. He crafted a strong resume.

And yet to complete the buzz, there's work to be done. Now the trick for Griffin -- and every other quarterback in this year's NFL Draft -- is to show not what he can do, but what he knows. Griffin is going to be drafted high regardless. But the better he interviews, the more teams (like Washington) will be enticed to trade up for him.

Here's a warning to teams that don't want to be tempted:

"I hear he'll ace it because I hear he's brilliant," said former NFL scout Russ Lande, who now heads the Sporting News' draft coverage.

With the NFL Scouting Combine starting Wednesday, another evaluation phase begins. It's not just about 40 times and bench press reps, it's about learning capacity. So the most important aspect will be the 15-minute interview sessions teams can have with players. For quarterbacks, it's imperative to show what they know when it comes to understanding a playbook as well as defenses, especially if -- like Griffin, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and a few others in this draft -- they did not play in a pro-style offense.

"It's critical to resonate confidence and look people in the eye and show them you can be a leader and be the face of a franchise," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "The more you show the aptitude to learn the more it will help you."

Not that they can show everything in 15 minutes. But it's a start. And they'll have to show a lot more when they visit teams' facilities or meet with them at their school.

"The player can only understand what they've been taught [in college]," former NFL general manager Charley Casserly said. "There are quarterbacks who weren't really smart, but they played really well because they had great instincts and had a great desire to learn and coaches adapted to what they could do."

The combine really serves as a getting acquainted session, almost a form of speed dating.

The real grind comes in the visits after the combine when teams can spend hours with a potential pick. They want to gauge how much they understood their own offense and how quickly they can pick up another. Under former coach Joe Gibbs, the Redskins would give the quarterbacks their system, showing what sort of routes they call, where they break them off, how deep they are and how they adjust to certain coverages.

"Then you go back and take it off the board and then ask them questions about what you just put up there," Gibbs said. "I always like to ask them what audibles did you have in your system. Jason Campbell was very knowledgeable about what Auburn was trying to do. You start picking up how football smart are they."

Why is that important? Coaches want to know that a player understands why a play worked -- or didn't -- under pressure.

"I remember Doug Williams walking off the field and I'd go, hey is that two-deep [coverage]," Gibbs said. "He'd say, 'No, let me tell you what happened. The safety fooled me and started to look like two-deep and then he went back to the middle of the field.' Mark Rypien was one of the brightest people I've ever been around. Joe Theismann was extremely smart."

And Gibbs won three won Super Bowl titles because of that group.

Does explaining an offense always translate to NFL success? No. In 2002, Patrick Ramsey wowed teams with his ability to diagram an offense. He shot up the draft boards in part because of it. But he's never become a consistent starter.

One league source said former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford was behind most quarterbacks, largely because of the system he played in at Oklahoma. But the source said he showed he could remember plays in the X and O session.

"The guy who gets a deer in the headlights look, those are the guys you're terrified of," Lande said. "But you can grind out as much as you want, but they're so well-coached that it'll be hard to trip these kids up -- unless they're not that smart."

And here's the reality: Even after seeing them play and interviewing them and putting them through grinding film sessions, mistakes are made.

"People miss. They miss all the time," Gibbs said. "It's hard to pick a quarterback."

jkeim@washingtonexaminer.com

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