Entering my third year of studying film for The Rookie Scouting Portfolio, I had just finished a year of film study that included a player who continues to be one of the bigger lessons I have encountered, Arkansas running back Darren McFadden. The highly coveted prospect had some raving fans, but I wasn’t one of them.
I didn’t see what others thought even after studying a half-dozen games. And despite a strong 2010 campaign, I’m still not convinced he’ll be a consistent 1000-yard rusher as an every down back. I’m looking forward to seeing something from his game that will change my mind.
My initial take on Darren McFadden in 2008 was how I became acquainted with NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell. I read his Sporting News piece on McFadden and I was surprised to learn that we had similar takes on the runner. I sent Cosell my RSP analysis on McFadden and this fueled a longer conversation over the telephone. While Parts I, II, and III were from a recent conversation. Part IV is a conversation from 2008.
Waldman: Did NFL Films hire you to study the game?
Cosell: When I started here I wasn’t doing this kind of stuff, but when I played sports I had always been the guy who thought about the games as I played them. In 1983-84, I had been here for 3-4 years and Steve Sabol thought about the “Match- Up” concept. He thought I’d be the guy because of the way I thought about the game.
So we developed this Match-Up concept and it took a really long time because most network people simply thought that no one would care about the game that way. It would be too complex, too detailed, no one would care. It took a lot of years to get beyond that. A lot of TV network people and radio people now think that and I personally think they are dead-wrong, but that’s my opinion.
Cosell: My attitude is that we live in an information age driven by technology and I think people want more information, not less. Anybody can go find the stats. I like to think that people like analysis beyond that. I’m fortunate – it doesn’t make me smarter – I’m just fortunate that I’m watching tape. I can make judgments based on that. It’s the one advantage that I have here and doing the Match-Up show is that other people cannot see the tape. We can.
Waldman: How do you approach watching the game day after decades of daily scrutiny?
Cosell: As soon as you think you know stuff in this business you’re done. The games change every week. Schemes change, there’s wrinkles. You almost have to go into it thinking that you’re going to see stuff that you’ve never seen and you’re going to have to deal with it that way. You can’t go into it and think you’ve seen everything and try to fit what you know into preconceived categories.
Waldman: That’s why it’s so fascinating to me. Watching film is a rewarding process. I chose to do it because I thought it would be fun to see what I could learn from the game.
I started the Rookie Scouting Portfolio as a way to share what I’m learning. At the same time I promote my work with the approach that what I’m showing you is what I see and not a collection of others’ observations into a “group-think,” analysis. While my projections of players might be wrong you’ll see the logic behind my views and the motivation behind my approach is about study, which means the goal is continuous learning.
Cosell: That’s what’s good about your approach because the McFadden stuff tells me that you have a good approach. You’re going beyond the obvious.
Waldman: Every individual I’ve talked to who spends a big part of his life studying football tape doesn’t have a football background: Matt Williamson, Chad Reuter, and Russ Lande. I can only speak for myself, but I didn’t play organized football and I think approaching it as a relatively blank slate had some advantages…
Cosell: Sometimes I think not having played helped me when I started because I didn’t go into it with a sense of “this is the way you do it.’ Or I wasn’t coached by a certain guy and taught a certain way.
One thing I learned from Bill Walsh and I’ve said this many times: When you’re an evaluator and you’re running an organization, it’s just as important to know who is doing the evaluating for you as it is the player. If a guy whose 27 years old and played nose guard in college and has to give you a report on a QB he has to understand that the guy was a nose guard.
Waldman: I’m a huge believer in the concept of understanding the frame of reference behind information that you’re in-taking.
Cosell: Well the advantage that I have when it comes to both the NFL and college is that I’m watching coaching tape. The pro stuff I’ve been watching for 15-20 years. The college stuff I started to do extensively over the last 3-4 years, and I’d say really extensively the last two where I’ve watched a ton of guys all on coaching tape. We get everything here. I’m fortunate.
Cosell: Right, right. There should be another one up at some point today. We also did Matt Ryan’s…
Waldman: I saw that as well…
Cosell: That’s up as well?
Cosell: I have to look at it then because I do all of that but I don’t actually edit it. Another guy edits it here so I have not seen it. The great thing about the tape is that you can see from the sideline angle all 22 players. That’s the key.
But there are also things that you have to learn. As I mentioned, when I started watching coaching tape I did not play football. I played baseball and basketball, so when I started watching it 15 years or so ago, I felt like it took me three or four years just to feel like I understood what I was watching.
Waldman: I’ve seen that firsthand with my experience creating the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. I came to evaluating football players from the corporate world. I evaluated employee performance using manufacturing evaluation standards that were customized to the industry of my former career. The standards were designed to take a very subjective thing and attempt to objectify as much of the process as possible. At the same time, the process needed to provide room to note performance in a way that can help refine those objectified processes.
I applied this best-practice criteria to position-specific checklists and defined the techniques involved with playing each position I study. I used coaching books, listened to former players, listened to and read takes from people like you, and watched games to figure out those techniques. Then I used a weighted scale to derive a scoring system that would accompany my written analysis. My goal is that when I give my opinion and score on a player that everything is backed up with definitions and observations that the reader can see and at least understand my perspective when I’m wrong about a player.
Cosell: Well just by reading your McFadden stuff tells me that you at least approach it in – I don’t want to say “the proper way,” because that sounds kind of patronizing, like I know what I’m doing and other people don’t and I don’t mean it that way – but it shows me that you’re actually thinking outside the box. You at least think about it where it goes outside the conventional thinking.
Waldman: I’m glad to see that even a small sample of what I’ve shared with you translates my mission clearly. I don’t even try to listen to what anybody says until I watch enough games of a player to determine that I’m seeing the same habits and tendencies on a consistent basis. That was what was interesting to me about McFadden, because I remember watching him casually and thinking, wow those are some impressive plays he’s making here.
Then when I studied the games and came to different conclusions…
Cosell: Right, and the bottom line is that when you watch college tape – and this is what blows me away about teams is how their scouting departments are often totally separate in terms of college and pro – there is only reason to be watching college tape: that’s to transition and project a guy to the National Football League. I don’t understand how teams have a college department and a pro department and they are essentially separate entities.
Waldman: Obviously as some from the outside looking in, I would try to understand what teams are thinking about. Brian Westbrook was an early example for me. Before I began studying film to learn more, I remember as a fan Gil Brandt having a conversation about Westbrook on draft day and it struck a chord in me because he said if Westbrook where a little taller and a little heavier he’d be a top-five overall pick.
I realized that wasn’t a statement against Brian Westbrook. It’s a statement of how a business perceives risk-reward. It’s nothing against his ability.
Waldman: For them it was about the decision to look at players in the league with Westbrook’s ability and dimensions who are successful versus not wanting to look like an idiot if you recommend him early in a draft.
Cosell: No question. The issue too is that scouts live in a world of measurables. If a guy has great measurables they recommend him highly then they take the approach that the team has to coach them up and the coaches better coach them. A perfect example this year is Vernon Gholston who is not a very good football player, but he ran fast at the Combine.
I watched six Ohio State games and in three of those games if I wasn’t specifically watching him I wouldn’t have known he was on the field. You can draft a guy in the top 10 of the NFL Draft when you see that. I’m not even talking about his attributes or his lack of attributes, I’m just talking about the fact that in the college game if you see a guy who is not showing up then how do you draft that guy in the top 10?
Waldman: So let me ask you this, when you see a guy on film such as Ahmad Bradshaw – a player I had good grades for, but lacks those measurements or big school pedigree – who shows up in the NFL despite a lower rating by a lot of people, what is it about a player in that situation that still stands out to you?
Cosell: I think this is where experience comes in and the value of watching pro games. You have to get a feel for how a guy moves. When you watch a small school guy – and I’ll give you a perfect example of a guy you probably wouldn’t see very well because you don’t have coaching tape – the safety from Arkansas State Tyrell Johnson who the Vikings drafted in the second round.
I watched probably 3-4 games of him and I was very impressed. But I had a framework for understanding how safeties move in the NFL. When I watched him against Texas he was the best athlete on the field. That’s Texas, they get recruits. I knew he had issues and I knew he would struggle as a deep defender and he would struggle to turn and run because he didn’t have to do it very much – that that he wasn’t capable athletically.
But at some point you do have to make an objective judgment watching a guy. When you look at Tyrell Johnson and you think of NFL safeties and how they move does he fit that? Can you look at him and go, okay I see that!
In contrast, there are a lot of guys who are big-time college producers – one guy that comes to mind is that linebacker from South Florida [Ben] Moffit. You watch him on film and after five minutes you know that he can’t play linebacker in the NFL. I don’t care how many tackles he makes at South Florida.
You’ll then have people counter with well, you know he’s always around the ball and he makes a lot of plays. Well, that’s nice. But he can’t move.
Waldman: And he plays in a scheme that takes advantage of that…
Cosell: But I don’t even need to know that to be honest with you. I just need to see him move.
I’m a big believer in watching multiple games of a player. Sometimes I feel like I can make a decision based on one game, and maybe after watching three or four I come back to my initial decision, but I don’t do that. I feel like I want to be fair and see a little more because they could have been hurt. With certain guys I’ll watch a ton of games.
McFadden I watched eight games. I kept going through his game and I didn’t see it and I thought that maybe I was an idiot.
Waldman: That’s how I felt.
Cosell: But eventually I just had to conclude this is the way I feel.
Waldman: We’ve talked about grading college players on an NFL standard rather than grading to the college standard of what makes a good player. Let’s talk more about Darren McFadden. When I read what you wrote, I identified with your take because when I watched McFadden run at Arkansas – or any college runner – I think about how big the hole he’s running through is compared to what the size if it is going to be in the pros.
Matt Forte was a good example. I watched his game against LSU where one Tulane offensive lineman could bench press the amount of weight that a vast majority of the entire LSU team could handle. When a back like Forte can make quick decisions and get down field off one cut for a positive gain when most players would have been stuffed that said something.
Cosell: I liked Forte coming out. You read my article on McFadden coming out obviously you felt the same way. The article pretty much covers it. The guy does not have NFL attributes right now.
Can he learn that? I don’t think so. Because I think that the lateral elusiveness and agility is an instinctive trait and I don’t think that you can teach a guy to be laterally explosive.
Waldman: In a sense, it’s a very intuitive position from the standpoint of creativity.
Cosell: I said this in the article: will he make a few plays? Absolutely. Will he catch a screen and it will be blocked perfectly so he can run in a straight line? Sure he will. Will he hit a hole in one game this year where he can just fly through there? Sure. But he does not have great running skills.
Waldman: I watched six games of his and when you watch a running back with a running start colliding into a linebacker that is backing away from the contact and the running back falls backwards?
Cosell: He’s not powerful at all.
Waldman: No. I never understood that take at all about McFadden. When I watched Adrian Peterson the year before I knew he could be special because of his balance, power, and lateral agility.
Cosell: Oh, Adrian Peterson was great. You could notice that after five runs.
Waldman: You could nitpick stuff, but you knew he was going to learn how to hold the ball better. Those were teachable.
Cosell: The thing is that when you watched Arkansas you had another guy right there who had NFL running skills (Felix Jones) and you could see the difference right away. With certain runs Felix Jones almost looked like Ladainian Tomlinson. He had that shiftiness and elusiveness. Darren McFadden doesn’t have any of that.
Waldman: Then there’s the scheme at Arkansas. When you have a guy like Felix Jones on the field at the same time moving to pull the defense away from the intended path for McFadden then he is going to a big hole with excellent blocking in a relatively straight-line. You hear the point about McFadden being SEC-tested…
Cosell: We know that he’s fast. He’d be fast anywhere.
Waldman: Exactly. But it doesn’t takeaway from the fact that he’s just going to run into a bunch of players who are as fast or faster than him in a short space.
Cosell: I watched a lot of times with people and they pretty much felt the same way. That’s what makes it fun. The problem is that there are so many people who write and it’s hard to differentiate yourself. I know that 99 percent of the people aren’t watching coaching tape. It doesn’t make me right, but it’s the difference between reading the Cliff’s Notes and reading the book.
Waldman: Are there any resources you consulted to learn about the game in terms of books and videos?
Cosell: No. All I’ve done for years and years and years is watch tape. I talk to people in my job, but I don’t talk with them of the goal of them teaching me like I’m taking a class. I just talk football. Like I said when I started watching tape years ago it took me three to four years before I felt remotely comfortable and now I feel like I know what I’m looking at.
I think a guy like Ron Jaworski would tell you that I know as much as anybody who is not coaching. But it’s experience and work. It takes work. It takes a lot of time to watch tape. I can see with what you did with McFadden that you take it seriously and when you watch it you do so with a really critical eye. You seem to have based on what I read a good sense – even if you’re not studying NFL tape – of what plays in the NFL at that position. Again, that’s the only one I saw because you emailed it to me.
The first thing you have to do in my view – and it doesn’t make me right, it’s just the approach I take – and believe me, I’m sure I’ve been wrong numerous times, you have to understand what attributes and traits play well in the NFL at given positions. Granted, you can be successful in the NFL in different ways. But there are certain attributes that you need.
Tomorrow: Class is in session as Cosell discusses what he’s watching when evaluating skill positions.