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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Plans come together at NFL combine

You can be sure of this: The latest Lombardi Trophy will not make the trip to Indianapolis this week. Bill Belichick is not going to place it in his carry-on bag, and Scott Pioli is not going to lug it through security.

As great as the 2003 season was for the Patriots -- and you can't watch television for 30 minutes without seeing a reminder of an incredible Super Bowl run -- it is over in the minds of New England's top personnel men.

It has to be over because the 2004 season officially begins tomorrow. The NFL's scouting combine opens in Indianapolis, and it's the first step toward answering a lot of questions for a lot of people.

The Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds of the April draft, and you have to believe one of those picks will be spent on a running back.

That's the easy part. A more difficult talent question is which one?; a more difficult philosophical question is at what point do you allow yourself to stray and make an exception to your core philosophy?

In other words, do you consider drafting Maurice Clarett?

Clarett would be controversial to the character-driven Patriots even if he hadn't successfully challenged (so far) the NFL's eligibility rules. There are concerns about the Ohio State running back's maturity, his association with a bookie, and his problems with his position coach.

He is also extremely skilled, he is 20 years old, and he played for Thom McDaniels -- the father of Patriots quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels -- in high school. Clarett is discussed as if he is the NFL's forbidden fruit, but he is quietly impressing scouts who have re-analyzed his one season at Ohio State.

No one knows where Clarett will land, but in the next week he and the other 300-plus prospects can count on being questioned as they never have been in their lives. Each team sets up temporary headquarters on the first floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel and tries to find out everything there is to know about a potential employee.

Few businesses in America are as thorough as the NFL when it comes to background searches. What other employer requires you to strip to your shorts and profile in front of a video camera?

Never mind.

Don't answer that.

The point is that it is a scrupulous process. Teams tell players to strip and they videotape them. They weigh them, psychologically test them, interview them, measure them, drill them, train their stopwatches on them, sometimes play mind games with them, instruct their team doctors and trainers to poke, prod, MRI, and CAT scan them, and then they decide whether they like them.

It's exhausting for a college kid, and it's going to get tougher. For example, every player has to take the Wonderlic intelligence test. Here's a sample question:

A plane travels 70 feet in 1/10 second. At this same speed, how many feet will it travel in 3.5 seconds?

You can't take too long to come up with the correct answer (which is 2,450) because 50 questions have to be answered in 12 minutes. The process is going to become tougher because some agents have learned to coach their players on the Wonderlic. The scores are getting higher, so teams are countering with their own specific tests so they can find out whether a prospect is responding naturally or doing what he's been coached to do.

Then there are the face-to-face meetings with coaches and scouts. The interviews last 15 minutes, and they often resemble interrogation scenes from those classic good cop/bad cop flicks. One assistant coach, knowing the answer, will pleasantly ask a player if he has any issues that the team should know about.

If Player X lies and says no, then a skeptical voice from another side of the room will chip in, "Well, according to my research, you were a constant distraction at practice." And so on.

As you might expect, Deion Sanders was outrageously entertaining during his interviews in 1989. According to legend, Sanders finished his astonishing 40-yard sprint by literally running out of the building.

In 1996, both Lawyer Milloy and Ray Lewis impressed defensive coaches by knowing where everyone was supposed to be on the field. Both of them also displayed photographic recall of games that had been played months earlier.

On the flip side, there have been players who either didn't know or couldn't articulate what their responsibilities were in a game.

At this time of year, it's always funny when you hear someone say of a player, "He had a good combine." They are usually saying it based on the strength and speed numbers, which represent, maybe, one-third of a team's evaluation.

It's not that Belichick and Pioli ignore 40 times, but they are unlikely to fall in love with someone just because he runs a 4.33. Dan Koppen, Asante Samuel, and Dan Klecko were not overly impressive last February in Indianapolis. The Patriots were crazy about them anyway.

But that was last year, and last year is not a romantic phrase in Foxborough right now. In between trips to St. Elmo's, where many of the NFL's decision-makers meet for dinner, the Patriots will be trying to find their newest employees.

Eli Manning won't be one of them. The Chargers probably will draft the Ole Miss quarterback first.

Robert Gallery, unfortunately, won't be one of them. Some team in the top five is going to take the Iowa left tackle and be very happy about it.

He is the best lineman in the country, and probably the closest thing to a no-risk pick in this draft.

Clarett may be one of them, and so may one of the Joneses, Kevin or Greg.

Kevin, from Virginia Tech, is blessed with tremendous speed and quickness. He caught fewer than 15 passes in his entire college career, but Tech asked its backs to run, not catch.

Greg, from Florida State, is at least 250 pounds and runs like a man 30 pounds lighter. He would have been a top-five pick if he hadn't torn up his knee two years ago. A good combine for him will be hearing no worries from various team doctors.

These are the things Belichick and Pioli are thinking about now. Don't ask them about 15-game winning streaks, Tom Brady's two Super Bowl MVP trophies and two Cadillacs, or the fourth-quarter accuracy of a kicker named Adam. They'll catch all that stuff on the Super Bowl DVD.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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