Editor's note: This is the second installment in AtlantaFalcons.com's extensive "Finding Culture Fits" series, detailing how the Falcons find players who fit their organizational philosophy and ethos during the pre-draft process. In this story, Scott Bair details how assistant coaches play a vital role in that effort by spending time with linebackers coach Frank Bush during his time at the NFL Scouting Combine.
INDIANAPOLIS – Frank Bush couldn't walk more than a few feet through Lucas Oil Stadium's lower suite level without getting stopped. The Falcons linebackers coach somehow knew each new face engaging with him by name, from current general managers to lower-level assistants, with a personalized one-liner for everyone.
They fire quips back and he retorts, with a handshake and a smile for so many as he snakes past team interview rooms while leaving the Thursday evening NFL Scouting Combine workouts featuring his position group.
Bush, it turns out, is a popular guy.
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Those exchanges were surprising in sheer volume yet make total sense after getting to know Bush during a combine week. This NFL lifer is an engaging personality who knows everyone, a keen observer who truly gets it.
He understands his profession from all angles, having experienced it as a player, scout, coordinator and longtime position coach. That's apparent during the combine, when he uses savvy and institutional knowledge to glean as much insight from the experience as possible.
Most of that didn't come from a stat sheet.
"The combine numbers are what they are," Bush said, "but you watch guys and learn to pick up on different indicators of who a player is and what types of things he can do."
Bush is well versed on what to look for during a weeklong event in Indianapolis where NFL teams observe, interview and assess some of the best draft prospects.
He has, after all, been to every NFL Scouting Combine since 1988 save one. What snapped his streak?
"I blew out my patellar tendon," Bush said. "Just couldn't move around well enough."
Moving around well is essential because Bush had tons to do. We'll highlight what Bush was up while trying to find the right linebackers for the Falcons, something essential as his team to turns over every rock looking to upgrade their roster.
Bush developed a combine routine as a young Houston Oilers scout, fresh off a playing career for the same organization that was cut way too short by injury. Staying in NFL football was key from a mental standpoint, retaining that competitive nature as he hunted for talent instead of displaying his on the gridiron. He learned to refine his eye for talent as a scout covering a region from San Diego to Bozeman, Mont., while realizing just how much work goes into the process of scouting for an entire team.
His scouting experience shaped Bush' approach to talent evaluation moving forward. The combine is generally the first in-person evaluation opportunity for coaches, so it's an important step in how they look at their position group within a draft class.
"It's quote-unquote easier because you're only looking at your guys," Bush said. "It's also more stressful because you're so locked in, and you've got to extract the right opinion on how a player operates. It's your first touchpoint as a coach, where as a scout I would've already met the kid and gone to his campus and seen a live game and even how he interacts with his parents. As a coach, they show you the tape and then you head to the combine. That part of it is tougher."
Bush looks forward to the combine experience, with a similar daily routine once he arrives in Indy. He hops on the treadmill each morning, downs a cup of coffee (or three) and reviews film for prospects in his position group and edge rushers who could switch positions. Then he huddles up with defensive assistant Matt Pees –
he's a major player in coaching and developing Falcons linebackers – to get ready for the rest of the day.
Informal interviews were on their Monday agenda, which are slightly different than the formal interviews you’ve read about – "It's the same scenario," Bush says, "just not as nice a room." – and feature some lightly coordinated chaos as position coaches have access to players they might work with. Coaches and personnel assistants must corral them in the moment, or sign up with a player just before, to get the guys they want. Bush and Pees aren't in Falcons formal interviews, so this offers an opportunity to get to know these players firsthand.
"It's more informal, so you hit him with a couple of different questions to make him relax," Bush said. "If you can get him to relax, the truth has a funny way of showing up. Every kid has been told the formal meetings are your job interview and they're stiff. I think [head coach Arthur Smith] does a good job of relaxing the tension in the room, but you're a 22-year-old kid and you might have a couple million riding on this interview. You might be uptight. I'm going to try to disarm you."
Bush and Pees walk away from those sessions with greater insight on their players, which they relay back to higher-ups to enhance the Falcons overall knowledge base. Then primary focus shifts to the Thursday night workout in a Falcons suite.
Bush and Pees sit a few seats apart in the suite's second row, with a running (and funny) dialogue during the workout sessions. There are scouts behind them – VP of player personnel Kyle Smith and director of college scouting Anthony Robinson are fixtures – surveying the action. Defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen kept a watchful eye on Thursday's proceedings as well, which featured defensive linemen, edge rushers and linebackers in rotating groups progressing through the workouts, while more Falcons higher-ups including Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot prep for formal interviews in a separate suite.
Bush isn't simply watching the prospects during physical activity. He also has an eye on guys when they don't think the camera's on them. He does the same thing the next day for the bench press, as interested in how prospects act among their peers as how they perform. Tangible combine numbers are available anytime on a spreadsheet. These little windows of insight can be helpful when deciding which pro days to attend and where to spend time doing research on prospects.
"Sometimes I will follow the groups around and to see how they operate within the dynamic," Bush said. "Are they a little late to a drill? Are they early? Are they talking a bunch or are they focused? You're looking for markers on how they're going to be.
"Doesn't make or break anyone, but it makes you want to do the work and find out more about a prospect."
Watching Troy Andersen at last year's combine made Bush want to research him further. Andersen's combine performance matched the athletic playmaking ability the Montana State product showed on tape.
"He came into the combine highly touted because of his college career, but, let's face it: Troy didn't play Ohio State or Georgia or big teams every week," Bush said. "There's a bit of a question mark about whether he's legit or not. That's why he's at the combine. I'm sure, in his mind, he wants to see if he can compete with these guys after showing well at the Senior Bowl. I watched him and his mannerisms at the last combine and you could almost see his confidence grow.
"All of a sudden, he proved he was one of the top guys. He ran really fast, which is Troy doing what he does. But there also weren't a lot of guys who were doing that. He could compete with the best."
Bush and the Falcons continued to evaluate. Then they went to Andersen's pro day at Montana State. The more they learned, the more confident they felt drafting him at No. 58 overall last year. Early returns suggest that's a quality selection, with even better expected from the versatile linebacker down the road.
Bush spends the combine week using his wealth of experience as a player, coach and a scout to gain insight into a player through old-school savvy and observational skills. That mission was accomplished yet again last week in Indianapolis, which will help the Falcons make the right choices should they choose to add a linebacker in this year's draft.
"I'm definitely leaving with a better idea of who these kids are," Bush said. "You watch the workouts, the body language, all those things. You see them compete and you go home with some metrics to get a feel for who they are from a physical standpoint. You couple that with the interview and you have a clearer picture of the prospects you're looking at."