Scouting gets a bum rap.
“Of course Waldman would say this,” you proclaim. “He’s a scout!”
I may perform the fundamental role of one, but I am not a scout. This elicits laughter from my friend Ryan Riddle. The Bleacher Report columnist who holds Cal’s single season sack record and played with the Raiders, Ravens, and Jets says I have a misplaced sense of honor when it comes to refusing to wear that label.
I prefer talent evaluator, tape watcher, tapehound, or tapehead. My friends – if I have any left since I started doing this work eight years ago – might say ‘Film Hermit’ is the best fit. I’ve never worked for an NFL team, so these names seem more suitable to me. Scouts have responsibilities that I don’t – among them is reporting to management within a company structure.
If you have the chance to learn about the pre-draft process for most NFL teams, scouting is the study of a player’s positive and negative characteristics. It’s also an evaluation of how easy it is to fix the player’s issues and his potential fit within a team system. But based on what former scouts, coaches, and general managers of NFL teams say about the machinations that go into a team’s draft, I am thankful that I am not a scout.
While fans and writers may take the lazy route and blame picks gone wrong on poor scouting, it’s the general manager, coach, and owner who hold the weight of the decision-making power. This is a huge reason why scouting gets a bum rap.
To take it a step further, I’ll advance the popular Bill Parcells analogy of ‘buying the groceries.’ I can spend months in the grocery store and tell you that it has quality cuts of grass-fed steak; a delicious, rosemary batard baked in-house; and every variety of apple found in North America. But if those holding the wallet or cooking the food demand a papaya, I can tell them until I’m blue in the face that if they want a good one, it’s only found in Jamaica and they’re still going to pick an unripe one, take it home, prepare it, and then watch it spoil the meal.
It doesn’t help matters when I have to read Mike Tanier describe draft analysis as a pseudoscience. He’s right for the wrong reasons. Scouting is a craft, not a science. However, teams haven’t made it the same priority to address opportunities to improve scouting the way they have upgraded technology and embraced other forms of analysis.
With all the advances that the NFL has made with equipment, strategy, cap management, and technology, they haven’t done enough to advance the process of talent evaluation. It shouldn’t the sports equivalent of Madam Zora’s, but until teams address the problems, Tanier gets to write entertaining draft pieces at their expense.
I think there is a lot that teams can do to improve their talent evaluation processes. What I will propose here are things I’ve learned from my experience in operations and process improvement. I base my solutions on problems I’ve gleaned in conversations with former scouts, reading and listening to former NFL general managers talk about their past roles, and extensive study of college prospects for the past eight years.
Some of these ideas may be new to the NFL, but I don’t begin to think they are revolutionary in the scope of other industries. I’m sharing these things because it’s too easy to listen to a gray-haired man in a suit on a television network and take what he says as gospel – especially processes that are in fact fundamentally flawed and then perpetuated from generation to generation of football men.
When viewing NFL front offices and how they cope with change, I get the impression that many of them have a buttoned-up, low-risk culture similar in dynamic to Wall Street. It also takes a lot for newer ideas to take hold in an NFL front office as it does for an investment bank to accept “new blood” from a business school lacking a history of established connections with the firm as a personnel pipeline.
Some of what I’ll suggest is not even about new ideas; just better implementation of old concepts. The first point below is a good example where leaders tend to talk the talk better than they walk it.