HELPING THEIR CAUSE

The 2018 NFL Combine is here for your viewing pleasure

Will Baker Mayfield help or hurt his stock? The scouting combine interviews may be the key. Brett Deering/Getty Images

It’s time again for the annual gathering of prospects at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. I’m as excited as anyone to watch the best young athletes at the NFL’s equivalent to field day. I wonder who will take home the participation ribbon. Maybe if they run faster and jump higher than everyone else they will automatically be an All-Pro at the next level. And then again, maybe not.

For the scouts, coaches, and executives in attendance, the more important aspect of the week will be the interviews and medical evaluations. It’s what the event is about anyway; the other stuff is just measurables to see if the player is on par with his peers. I know the lead up to the draft used to be filled with a player’s 40 time and bench press reps as if it would determine his success at the next level, but I’m glad to see that notion starting to tail off in recent years. Players are still going out there to impress, but as long as they stay near the top range of their position it will be their game film and pre-draft interviews that sets their draft order.

Hopefully 2018 will see less and less of the draft gurus making predictions based on 40 times and vertical jumps. It’s something I’ve never liked. Track skills and football skills are very different things. One is about how well the players perform with no pads after practicing for a month and the other one is about his instinct and reaction time when the play is live. It’s the draft day wizards who put too much stock in combine measurables that sometimes over predict where a player should go in the pecking order.

Not to say that there isn’t some relevance to it though. The reality is that it is much easier for these prospects to hurt their draft stock than it is for them to help it. If their results are on the low end of their group without a noticeable reason, some questions might be raised. If they give a terrible interview or fail the medical portion they can really see a precipitous drop in draft rounds. But being faster by a tenth of a second or stronger by one more rep on the bench press doesn’t weigh too much into the overall evaluation like the players want it to.

Quarterbacks are especially susceptible to combine hype. The phrase “he can make all the throws” gets bandied about like it’s what will be on the back of his jersey. It’s the hardest position to project at the professional level and yet the most important. Now quarterbacks are starting to really assert themselves because of it. Recent years have seen some of the top prospects at the position decide not to throw the ball in Indianapolis, opting only for the medical and team interview portions. Good for them. If they want to showcase their skills then it should be on their terms. Most choose to do so at their school’s pro day where they throw to players they are familiar with and get coaching tips from the ones who got them where they are.

The combine isn’t going away and it is still important in the grand scheme of things. Teams and players can find out if there is a concerning medical issue that might hinder them as a pro. Teams also have the chance to see how a player fares in an interview under the pressure of the week. Most of these guys will leave town in the same draft order they were in when they arrived. Front offices don’t put a ton of stock in combine performances like they might have 15 or 20 years ago. They’ve learned lessons from previous years when a player’s combine performance may have stood out but he was still a bust on Sunday.

If you’re interested in watching your favorite college players give it their best then you can watch the NFL Network starting Tuesday, Feb  27 through Monday, March  5.  You might see something special that makes you excited for a player. There might be someone you want your team to draft and you want to scout him for yourself. Maybe you’re just into watching everything football and this is no exception. I will just acknowledge that the combine is going on and watch for any highlights that the internet thinks I should watch. Then I will wait for the draft and try to enjoy the pick my team makes.

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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