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The art of the interview: For Rivera and his staff, every detail matters

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For the past two years, the interview process between coaches and players has been a little (very) different. Sure, the virtual aspect of it gets the job done, and the reason for it is understood. It does, however, have its limitations.

That's not the case at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, though, as hundreds of prospects have congregated at Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time since 2020. No more awkward frozen screens, and no more garbled voices because of poor internet connections. It's just been a bunch of old fashioned, in-person meetings.

After two years of virtual communication, it almost sounds a little retro, right? For coach Ron Rivera and the Washington Commanders, it's a welcome return to normalcy, and as they try to get over the hump of being a seven-win team, it offers a more insightful evaluation of who they'll potentially add to the roster in April.

"That's been really good," Rivera said during his Tuesday press conference. "The thing about it, too, is you get to see the whole body language."

Considering the players that have been mocked to the Commanders, who have the 11th overall pick, every detail matters. They may seem like irrelevant details, but what prospects do in the conversation are almost as important as the answers themselves.

Putting aside the positions of need (many analysts believe quarterback is the Commanders' most pressing issue, but you won't hear Rivera or anyone in the front office showing their cards just yet), it's easy to see the type of person Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew want on their team. They value character, culture and work ethic, and any prospect who has their name called during Draft Week needs to possess those traits.

"You can only find that out really by interacting with those guys and talking to them and seeing what motivates them, seeing how much they love playing football," Mayhew said. "So it's really important to us as far as putting our team together to be able to make sure we're bringing the right kind of guys in."

That's been the case since Rivera became Washington's head coach, but virtual meetings, which has been the norm since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, only go so far in helping scouts and coaches. They were limited to an eight-window into a prospect's behavior, whereas in-person conversations give much more information.

"You're seeing the whole reaction, everything from the face to the body, the way they sit in their chair, the way they straighten up," Rivera said. "And if the questions get hard, you can see their reaction. That's really the thing that I think we missed last year about a lot of these guys."

So yes, like most teams, the Commanders are looking for high character individuals to join their rosters, and they have their own methods of figuring that out. Some ask outlandish questions like, "Would you rather be a cat or a dog?" Others throw more unique curveballs; North Carolina's Sam Howell was asked to shoot a basketball in a mini hoop.

Rivera and the Commanders aren't about all that. Instead, they've been grinding tape with prospects to get a look at their football knowledge.

"What we're trying to do is see what their retention is, see what they know, listen to them, talk about what's up there," Rivera said. "I think that seeing their reaction to good things and bad things, because not everything we put up there is good, not everything we put up there is bad, but just to see their reaction, how they handle those types of things, is very interesting."

The questions the prospects are asked, which pertain to the formation, the personnel grouping, the shift and other aspects of the play, should be one they can easily recite. That's important, but Rivera and his staff are looking for more than that.

"Some guys may respond with something like, 'Oh man, that guy did this and this guy did this,'" Rivera said. "Sometimes that might tell you that's a guy that's looking to blame everybody instead of saying, 'We missed this. He could have done this better, but I could have done that, too.' That's a guy that will take responsibility."

One could argue that prospects are more prepared for the interview portion of the draft process. After all, there are classes where they go over common questions. That's why the Commanders show game tape. It's harder for prospects to prepare for a team showing them positive and negative plays and asking them about their impact.

"We showed one where a receiver dropped the ball, and he said, 'Oh, that was so bad by me,'" Rivera said. "He said, 'Look at me. I run a good route, I widen the guy to the right and the quarterback put it where it had to be. Honestly, I jumped and misjudged too soon.

"I at least appreciate him saying, 'I did that, and the quarterback did his job.'"

There are still a couple days left of the Combine, and the Commanders will spend part of that time figuring out which players they want to dive deeper on and narrow their list down even further. And given how much emphasis Rivera is putting on this offseason, every bit of information will be helpful.

And by the time the Commanders' staff leaves Indianapolis, they should be further along in the process than they were at this time last year.

"That's really the thing that I think we missed last year about a lot of these guys," Rivera said. "So now [it's] just a chance, I think, to get the true reaction, which has been good."

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