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No sleep in Naptown: My week at the NFL Scouting Combine

INDIANAPOLIS -- In addition to serving as a mass-evaluation extravaganza for 32 franchises, the NFL Scouting Combine is a weeklong circus of speculative schmoozing and spring-break-style socializing, and this year's annual pilgrimage to Naptown was hardly short on inner-sanctum intrigue.

While agents, coaches and team executives conducted technically verboten conversations about impending free agents and theoretical trade targets like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and alcoholic beverages got passed around bustling downtown Indy establishments and hotel bars like the pigskin in highly ranked QB prospect Jared Goff's final college game, there were moments of tension and contentiousness, too. From the spat during player-interview sessions that resulted in Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox shoving a Cardinals scout, to reporter-on-reporter Twitter feuds, to the annual early-morning shouting sessions at Prime 47 (and the annual next-day reparations), animated personalities in a highly competitive mini-universe comingled with passion and purpose.

There was one particularly intriguing close encounter of the awkward kind that I happened to witness in the hallway circling the suite level of Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday afternoon: While Bears coach John Fox ebulliently shared details of a recent trip to the Dry Tortugas, a fishing ground 70 miles west of Key West frequented mostly by serious anglers, Broncos general manager John Elway -- the man who'd fired Fox 13 months earlier, and whose franchise is still basking in the afterglow of Denver's Super Bowl 50 victory over Carolina -- emerged from his adjacent suite wearing aviator shades, a leather jacket and a breezy smile.

The two men shook hands, for the first time in a long time. Fox offered his congratulations, and Elway thanked his former head coach. They nodded at one another respectfully and, a few seconds later, retreated to separate conversations with others in the hallway, a hardly surprising development given that the deterioration of their relationship had been a major factor that precipitated Elway's decision to cut Fox loose.

While Elway has not been shy about expressing his belief that Fox's replacement, Gary Kubiak, did a better job of preparing the Broncos for the playoffs than his predecessor had in previous years, Fox has resisted the temptation to fire back. This is not to suggest that he's perfectly at peace with the way things went down after the 2014 season.

In an earlier conversation, he conceded that as someone who had coached the Broncos and Panthers to Super Bowls a decade apart, seeing those franchises battle for a championship in the 50th rendition of the Ultimate Game was a surreal experience. Fox watched the game at home in Lake Forest, Illinois, hosting a small gathering that included several current Bears employees who followed him from Denver last winter.

"It was kind of strange," Fox admitted. "There are so many guys on the Broncos I was really happy for, and of course I wanted to see Peyton [Manning] win it in a big way. But there are also some guys who are still with the Panthers from my time there, like [center] Ryan Kalil, and some of the people who work for the organization ... It was just really hard not to want them to do well, too.

"I wasn't really rooting for anyone. I was just interested, and experiencing a lot of different emotions."

Two years ago, Fox came to the combine experiencing a sensation foreign to many other industries: The indignity of finishing second.

Imagine coming to a sales convention at which you and the team you managed were universally regarded as having been, at least for the past year, better than all but one other company in the entire world. Would you expect to be the recipient of solemn and heartfelt condolences from your peers on a steady basis, and to understand and agree with the sentiment behind them?

That's pretty much what Ron Rivera, who succeeded Fox as the Panthers' coach in 2011, has been dealing with in the weeks since his team's Super Bowl 50 defeat, and there's one particular conviction that has fueled his frustration.

"We didn't play well," said Rivera, whose team was 17-1 entering its matchup with the Broncos. "That's not to say that the Broncos didn't play a role in that -- give them credit for throwing us off our game -- but as I look back, I feel like we left a lot on the table. There were missed opportunities and mistakes we don't usually make. Michael Tolbert fumbles twice, and he hadn't fumbled all year. Someone missed an assignment on the [Von Miller forced fumble that produced the] first touchdown ... It never really felt right, and we just didn't play like us."

That said, I don't want to give the impression that Rivera was downcast when we spoke Wednesday in a hallway within the Indiana Convention Center. As he always seems to, the Panthers' relentlessly positive head coach managed to spin the conversation in an upbeat direction.

"It was tough to lose that game, but we are just getting started -- I truly believe that," Rivera said, his eyes gleaming. "We have a young team. This year, they got their first taste of it ... We can grow together, and there's a whole lot we can accomplish."

While some coaches in his position might be eager to begin the quest for redemption by getting his players back on the practice field, Rivera is taking a counterintuitive approach: He's pulling back.

"We're going to shorten the offseason program," Rivera said. "They had five extra weeks of practice [during the team's playoff run], and I feel like some of these guys really deserve a rest. I actually went to the Players Association, and to the league, and cleared it -- we're going to give them four extra weeks before we get into OTAs. When they first come in, they're going to work with the strength and conditioning coaches, but we're not going to have our other coaches interfere."

And while Rivera decided to make this move for the benefit of his veterans, he's also counting on them to pay him back by displaying their leadership skills.

"The downside of this is that we won't have the rookies until a lot later in the process than usual," Rivera conceded. "So we're really gonna have to rely on the returning players to tell these guys how we do things, to teach them the ropes, to show them how to be pros. I have faith that my guys will do this."

I tend to agree, largely because so many Panthers players have told me how much regard they have for their unpretentious, understanding coach.

As one Panthers assistant coach told me early Sunday morning at Steak 'n Shake: "This decision [to cut back on the offseason program] is exactly why they love Ron Rivera."

Five nights earlier, just a couple of hours after arriving in Indy, I'd dined uptown, about five miles from the combine's epicenter, with one of the NFL's least beloved figures -- at least, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson is commonly portrayed that way.

"I don't think I'm a monster," Grigson joked while digging into a massive pork chop, exuding an unwound vibe that the public rarely sees. "I might not be going out for beers with the head coach every night, but I do like Chuck [Pagano], and we have a lot of fun working together. We bounce things off each other. We laugh, all the time. I just don't understand why people think I hate the guy, because that's just not reality."

I told Grigson I had a couple of theories: First, as the Colts degenerated over the 2015 season from trendy Super Bowl pick (a trend to which I admittedly contributed) to 8-8 also-rans, and numerous reports surfaced detailing the frustrations of Pagano and his assistants, Grigson never made much of an effort to defend himself, publicly or privately. And secondly, losing takes a toll on every professional relationship, and because some people process it differently than others, natural sources of friction tend to become exacerbated.

Given that the Colts had experienced such impressive success during the first three years of the Grigson/Pagano era -- rebounding from the 2-14 flameout that led to their hiring to win 11 regular-season games in three consecutive campaigns, and advancing further in the postseason each time -- neither man was fully prepared for the struggles that ensued in 2015.

And when, on the night after the season, owner Jim Irsay stunned the NFL world by announcing that he'd decided to retain both his coach and GM and sign them to contract extensions, it set the stage for a potential reputation rehabilitation, a process that Grigson seemed to kick off two days after our dinner, during his press conference in the media room at Lucas Oil.

Displaying a relaxed, sincere and humbled demeanor that caught many media members and outsiders off guard, Grigson acknowledged that the recently concluded season tore him up -- and affected his behavior, and that of those around him.

"We feel like as an organization, from me to our quarterback to our head coach to everyone involved, we're going to use this and remember how tough it was -- because I don't like losing," Grigson told reporters. "You have your bad moments when you lose. I'm not a good loser. You can ask my mother. That's just kind of the competitor in us [that] comes out."

As the combine concludes, the Colts and their 31 counterparts will continue competing for free agents, draft picks and any other edge they can find, all in an effort to experience what the Broncos did at the conclusion of the 2015 season. Sometimes, along the way, things understandably get heated, and tempers flare, and fierce competitors who don't spend their Sundays in pads and a helmet act as though perhaps they'd like to.

Most of the time, however, they shake hands, show one another respect and get right back to the grind.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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