By Arnie Stapleton
AP Pro Football Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Lured out of the broadcast booth with a $100 million contract that makes him the highest-paid football coach ever, Jon Gruden sauntered up to the podium and flashed that mischievous smile.
“I’m very excited to be back here in Indianapolis,” Gruden declared. “I sure have missed the combine.”
Gruden is navigating an offseason NFL landscape that’s changed drastically since he last roamed the sideline nearly a decade ago.
“It’s a lot different because you’re not allowed to have any interaction with the players, and I’ve always complained about that since the new (collective bargaining agreement) came into place,” Gruden said Wednesday. “A lot of players would come to see me in Tampa to get their football fix.
“So, you’re not allowed to have contact with these guys. But what’s most discouraging to me is we’ve got to make some decisions on our roster, on salaries, on players and their futures and you can’t even meet them,” Gruden grumbled.
“I don’t know these guys. I’ve never coached them. I never met half of them. So, that’s been very, very difficult for me and I’ve been emotional about it at times.”
On the next podium was Matt Patricia, who, unlike his former colleague Josh McDaniels, didn’t balk at leaving Bill Belichick’s brigade.
Then there was Andy Reid, in the midst of another major roster shakeup, and his protege, Doug Pederson, still basking in Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl triumph in just his second season as coach of the Eagles.
All are gathering this week in Indianapolis hoping to better their chances of winning in 2018.
Top college prospects, including a group of quarterbacks that could produce five first-round draft picks, will spend four days getting poked and prodded, tested and timed.
GMs and coaches will pepper them with questions either in formal 15-minute interviews or during a mixed zone after their physical assessments.
“It’s a chance to get to know these guys, to know exactly what you’re getting when they come into the building,” said new Texans general manager Brian Gaine.
He said their athleticism and acumen are already well-known, and they’ll flash their strength, speed and swiftness this week at Lucas Oil Stadium.
What the GMs and coaches want to do is get a look under the hood.
“We’d like to talk about football as much as we can, but we need to know everything we can to find out about these players,” Gaine said. “So when they come into our building (we know) that they’re a good fit for us in the locker room, in the weight room, in the training room, in the meeting rooms, out on the practice field.”
After this week, teams will retreat to their headquarters and begin preparing for the annual flood of free agents that will hit the market in mid-March.
NFL.com reported last month that teams will soon receive in-game player-tracking data on every NFL player in the league, something that could change the way they scout opponents and evaluate free agents.
The league has gathered the data since 2014 through sensors in players’ shoulder pads. Until now, teams only had data on their own players.
Some teams have embraced the new tools more than others.
“Are you talking about the analytics, the GPS, all the modern technology?” Gruden said. “Man, I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998.
“You know, really as a broadcaster, I went around and observed every team, asked a lot of questions, took a look at the facilities, how they’re doing business, there’s a stack of analytic data or ‘DAY-tuh,’ however you want to say that word, people don’t even know how to read it. It’s one thing to have the data — or DAY-tuh — it’s another thing to know how to read the damn thing.
“So, I’m not going to rely on GPSs and all the modern technology. I will certainly have some people that are professional that can help me from that regard. But I still think doing things the old-fashioned way is a good way, and we’re going to try to lean the needle that way a little bit.”
Also meeting in Indianapolis this week is the league’s competition committee, which is looking into fixing the catch rule, something commissioner Roger Goodell said was his top offseason priority.
The committee is also pondering whether to change the defensive pass interference rule from a spot foul into a 15-yard infraction as it is in college.
Broncos coach Vance Joseph dismissed that possibility because of the harm it could cause to a league that just gave us a thrilling Super Bowl featuring 1,151 yards of offense, more than any NFL game ever played.
“The DPI rule’s not going to change, guys. That’s nice media talk,” Joseph said. “The catch rule? It has to clear up what’s an actual catch and what’s not a catch. But the DPI rule’s not going to change. It’s a fun game. We like to see points being scored. If that rule changes, there’s going to be a lot of defensive backs grabbing and pulling guys, so that won’t change.”