March 21, 2011
The CFL's annual E-Camp is an interesting event from a number of perspectives. It always features some of the best CIS and NCAA talent out there, there are usually some spectacular moments of athleticism and plenty of great stories are generally produced. Still, lots of solid prospects are overlooked, and even success in the camp's physical tests doesn't necessarily make a player a high selection in the draft.
The physical tests themselves are an important part of player evaluation, and they receive a large portion of the media attention around E-Camp. However, they're not the only thing that goes into scouting; much of talent evaluation depends on how players performed in the college ranks as well, and some of it is based on how they do in interviews with the teams. It's that last aspect that's long been the most closed to outside observers, until now. The CFL has released an excellent documentary giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the time Western Mustangs' linebacker John Surla (pictured above in the 2008 Mitchell Bowl against Saint Mary's) at this year's E-Camp, including clips from his interviews with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts. You can watch the whole documentary on the league website, or first check out the preview below, which includes one of the most intriguing parts of the documentary, Surla's interview with head coach/general manager Jim Barker and the Argonauts' management team:
— Jim Barker's interviewing style: As you can see from the above clip, Barker casts a imposing presence in that room of Argonauts' staffers, and he's grilling Surla pretty hard ("So you've been out training, and you do 12 reps on the bench?"). It certainly doesn't seem like the nicest job interview in the world, but that's not necessarily bad. We're talking about a draft, after all, and rookies don't have a lot of say in where they wind up, so teams don't really need to sell prospects on their organization, and confrontational interviews might still help in a couple of ways; they can show how prospects perform under pressure and handle tough situations. Moreover, it's worth noting that in the full documentary those tough questions are followed by a joke about another reasonably lightweight CFL linebacker, Mike O'Shea (who just happens to be in the room as the Argos' special teams coordinator), so it's not like Barker's mercilessly picking on Surla.
— O'Shea's words of encouragement: In the full film, that scene's immediately followed by O'Shea giving Surla some one-on-one advice, which is a nice touch. Here's what he had to say about how Surla should prepare for the drills:
"Tomorrow's tomorrow. Shine tomorrow. Focus on those little things that made you a dominant player in the CIS."
It's good advice. Football's a game of ups and downs, and a great game or even a great moment can be quickly followed by a bad play or a bad game. The most successful CFL players have long been known for their ability to shake off the bad moments, bounce back and continue to produce consistently. As the documentary shows, things didn't exactly go well for Surla in several of the combine events, but he was able to shake it off and produce some good moments. If he can do that at the next level, he may turn into a solid CFL player.
— Hamilton's interview process: The Argonauts' aforementioned approach is considerably different from the other team interview shown in the documentary. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats' interview process appears far less intense, and seems to only include general manager Bob O'Billovich and assistant general manager Joe Womack. As Womack says, "This is a real informal situation with us. We want you to relax so you're not so tight. We want you to enjoy the process." That doesn't necessarily make their approach better than Toronto's; it's just another tack. It's interesting to see how differently two organizations in the same league handle the same interview of the same player, though.
— O'Billovich's comments on unconventional players: Here's what O'Billovich has to say to Surla on his lack of size: "You are undersized for your position but the Canadian Football League's always been a league that's been known for good undersized football players. If you're good enough, you'll play. If you're not, you won't." It's nice to see a general manager thinking outside the box (as most of the CFL GMs do, actually); especially south of the border, so much of the conversation is about players' size and measurables, which sometimes leads to some valuable players being overlooked (like Cameron Wake, for example).
— Surla's thoughts on the interview process: It's notable that Surla seems as nervous about the interviews as the physical tests, and that he places as much value on impressing teams in the boardroom as he does on the field. As he says, "Showing teams your physical attributes is one thing, but showing your personality and what type of character you have is just as important." It's tough to argue with that.
— How much depends on some of these tests: The bench-press test section of the documentary is one of the best moments, featuring Surla's comments in advance about how long he'd been specifically training for these tests (2 months in Florida), how many reps he'd like to get (13-15), some great shots of the expressions on his face as he's trying to get there and ultimately his disappointment when he winds up with only 12 reps. These tests only take a few minutes each, but they can have a significant impact on if players are drafted and where they're selected, and that really reinforces how important E-Camp can be.
— The coverage drills: Obviously, we don't get to see Surla's entire workouts at the combine (or this would be an extremely long documentary; more coverage of his performances can be seen here), but the portions that are shown are notable. For example, he seems to really struggle in the early coverage drills against running backs, often overshooting his target and getting beaten with spins and such. Some of that may be a function of adrenaline; with so much pressure on the players involved, it's easy to see them getting too caught up in the moment and too excited to make the proper play. Surla did recover on some of the later drills and showed particularly good instincts for the ball, which may help his stock.
— The camaraderie: It's interesting to see just how friendly many of these prospects are, given that they've spent most of their time playing on school teams across the continent (and that they're essentially competing for draft position here). There's friendly joshing on camera, but many of these guys genuinely seem to get along, and that bodes pretty well for their ability to fit in with teams.
— Hotel room issues: Surla's initial hotel room issues are pretty funny to those of us who have experienced some of the same things on the road over the years. It's nice to see that even big-shot CFL prospects don't always have it all that easy either.
— What it all means: After all, E-Camp is just one weekend, and as mentioned above, some of the specific drills can be affected by adrenaline, injuries and other issues. That's one of the key reasons players' college performances and game tape need to be considered as well, and more heavily than the E-Camp material; whether a player can consistently perform across a season seems more important than if they did great on one play or one drill at E-Camp, which is why I think Doug Farrar's 80 per cent tape/20 per cent combines/all-star games/etc formula generally works well. However, that 20 per cent isn't insignificant, and thus how players perform under the bright lights at E-Camp does matter. I thought Surla's closing comments on this summarized the dichotomy particularly well:
"This weekend will be one that I'll never forget, but it's one that I'll put behind me pretty quick," he said. "I showed a little bit of what I can do on the field, but all in all, not my best, and I think they know that."
In the end, that's the larger story of this piece as well. We obviously don't see everything that went on, and what the documentary does show needs to be considered in context rather than as stand-alone moments (for example, Barker's gruffness has its edge reduced by the joke he cracks later). Still, that doesn't diminish its value; it gives us an interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes, and that's information we didn't have previously. From that standpoint, it's great to see the CFL and some of its teams doing these kind of open-access projects; there's a huge demand for CFL information out there, and it's nice to see some we don't usually get.