I wrote a while back on my annoyance with idle, unconfirmable rumors against college football prospects, so it should mean something that I'm a little let down by Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett's interview at the Combine on Saturday.
To summarize, he just doesn't appear to have helped himself much with the interview. Naturally, he immediately got peppered with questions about his off-the-field issues (which seem to be zeroing in on drug abuse), and his first response was to laugh it off. Once the questions continued, he began flatly insisting that "NFL teams know what they need to" and, in response to another round of those questions, ended his interview without preamble.
That's going to make Mallett look like he has something to hide. Admittedly, the only way to avoid that look was to come out and talk about the allegations, and there could have been valid reasons not to do so right now. But he and everyone else knew that the focus of this interview would be those off-the-field flags, and the abrupt ending to the interview didn't depict a guy who felt comfortable with himself. He came across to me as simply having lost his cool. (Watch for yourself here and here.)
His remarks about the teams "knowing what they need to" came across as holding himself above the draft process, rather than the other way around. Teams were always going to do their own due diligence on Mallett, but for him to stand behind that cog so rigidly - well, it rubbed me the wrong way. He's not in control of the draft process. Owners and general managers are - big shots who are expecting certain things to be said and not said. But so are the media, for good or ill. It didn't strike me as a humble thing to say, or a very wise thing. Teams might appreciate a guy who will keep his mouth shut about sensitive topics in front of the media, but "When I heard about that stuff, I just laughed about it" might not be what they have in mind.
Cam Newton, on the other hand, struck just the balance of honesty, professionalism, and aw-shucks likeability that he needed to win over the media. He started out by immediately addressing and giving context to the "icon" remarks earlier in the week. This showed that he cares about maintaining a good image and has a good handle on what others are thinking. He recognized that he's at the mercy of others in all this. It also had the effect of giving him a certain command over the interview, rather than letting the reporters dictate the course of the questions. That's a subtle dynamic with any social situation, something a lot of people overlook.
It needs to be remembered that Newton faces serious allegations of his own. It wouldn't be the first time that a personable face serves to disguise deeper issues. This is where I don't put too much stock into body language or facial expression. Those things are harder to change. Mallett didn't come across as a punk like some say, at least not to me; his personality is simply different. But his cavalier remarks and his abrupt ending to the interview do say something, and it might not have been something that owners and GM's wanted to hear. Teams will still do their homework on both players as the draft approaches, but Mallett could have benefited from a lot more goodwill as this process went on.
I personally was surprised by Mallett's interview. I felt that the people around Mallett were going to get a hold of him, train and educate him very thoroughly on what he needed to show today. I figured this would be one of those "said all the right things" interviews. Instead, Mallett rode on his personality a little too much, without regard as to what works and what doesn't. This will only give ammunition to his critics, of which I am not one.
I've made very clear my stance on the actual allegations facing Mallett. They've been carried via nothing but lazy journalism and irresponsible Twitter-mongering. And if all the "muhahaha"ing and smug knowingness behind some of these rumors turn out to be nothing but accusations of drug abuse, we're in for a serious anti-climax. Is that seriously all people can come up with? Drug abuse? I was expecting something a lot worse - was being primed by the media rumor machine for something a lot worse. In that light, and in the light of the unsubstantiated nature of these rumors, you could certainly look at the way the Combine reporters badgered Mallett over them and call it unfair.
But you know want to know what else is unfair? The blitzes Dick Lebeau will throw at Mallett. They'll be smart, relentless, pitiless, completely predictable, and there will be nothing Mallett can do about it except stay cool. I don't value the content of today's interview questions so much as I value them as a stress test on the quarterback. I am ticked off that the guy is continuing to face the third degree over rumors, but Mallett cannot let that or anything else get to him at this stage. On Saturday, Mallett looked a little gotten to. I find that telling, even as I protest the manner in which the pressure was applied.
(Mallett continues to impress in his private interviews, however, as scouts have claimed all along. That may end up having a lot more power over Mallett than the public stuff.)
The results of this day may not define these guys' stock by itself, but neither will it be entirely without effect, I think. Mallett is a talented player and certainly seems to believe in his own abilities. But the point of the interview is what we think of a player, and to incline teams towards or away from him, to test a guy's ability to handle pressure and be the face of a franchise. Mallett's interview didn't seem to take any of that into account. A well-delivered interview like Newton's may contain a lot of eye-rolling cliches and transparent obviousisms, but they serve their purpose.
In a tense, all-eyes-on-him situation, Newton came across as humble and honoring of the game of football, while Mallett didn't do enough to deflect a self-centered image. The hype machines were already starting to pencil Newton into the #1 slot and push Mallett down into the second round (as if draft stock mattered THAT much to a QB-hungry league); today's events might only help strengthen these trends. Both QB's will end up with a team who will benefit from their services, in my opinion; today didn't change that, but it might change where and when these guys go.