Now the Hard Work Begins
There is no offseason for front offices and scouting staffs, who have already begun trying to build a championship roster for 2014 and beyond, starting with pre-Combine meetings and the shaping of each team’s draft Bible: The Board
Whether working as an agent, as an executive with the Packers or now in the media, I always have been amused by the question I still hear every year: So what do you do in the offseason? For someone like myself, the more appropriate question has always been: So what do you do during the season?
The NFL offseason—the longest of any major sports, with the next meaningful snap seven months from now—is time for the business of football. And the business of football, like it or not, is football; the games are just the storefronts of billion-dollar assets. The offseason is the time when rosters are built, adjusted, managed, molded and architected, all within the league-imposed and team-imposed restrictions on resource allocation. It is when the scouting and cap/contract management side of the organization takes the reins and works to put the coaches in the best position to succeed come late July.
The offseason is when NFL front offices can—and do—separate themselves. This space will periodically take readers inside all aspects of NFL front offices over the next six months, starting with a look at the meetings now happening in every NFL facility in advance of the Combine.
In the player evaluation business, February is when scouting staffs gather to combine their work from the past seven months. It is now, at the height of winter, when vital and lasting evaluations of players are applied toward potential selection in May. While there are always surprise showings at the Combine and at pro days, those performances merely adjust, not re-write, evaluations prepared in the thousands of man-hours teams have already allocated to the process.
February also is the time of year when teams put together The Board. I’ll go into greater detail about The Board in future columns, but it is the Magna Carta of the scouting community. The mantra of the draft for many scouts is Trust the Board.
Teams assemble The Board in different ways, but the most common configuration is grouping player cards—which feature all measurable attributes—by position and separated by rounds. As you read this, player cards are being affixed to The Board according to a team’s evaluators, perhaps not to be touched again until draft day when the player is selected.
The gang is all here
Personnel staffs gather from late January until the start of the Combine with a monk-like focus toward the assembly of The Board. For these three or four weeks, the team’s scouting staff—a dozen or so employees who live in different parts of the country and rarely see each other during the year—hunker down with a singular purpose of creating a Board they are proud of going into the Combine.
What many outside of the NFL don’t realize is that the majority of teams’ scouting staffs rarely interact face-to-face. The staff is together early in training camp to view their handiwork from the prior draft, but everyone soon disburse to work on the next one. Area scouts focus on their portions of the country. National scouts roam the landscape, focusing on select colleges. General managers and college scouting directors go “over the top,” picking and choosing players to scout in person. All the while, the team’s scouting coordinator aggregates hundreds, if not thousands, of player scouting reports that arrive daily throughout the fall.
While the roadwork is crucial to the success of a franchise, this month’s face-to-face dealings are vital for assembling information, as well as executing interpersonal relationships. Removed from their geographic scouting silos, evaluators must now display their communication skills with open and honest conversation about their work. Young scouts have an opportunity to step up and make their cases to colleagues who might feel quite differently about a player.
With strong feelings about players and high levels of testosterone in the room, there can be heated and emotional exchanges about a player and his placement on The Board. That conflict, however, is usually healthy, as long as the tension is 1) about the player and doesn’t morph into a personal issue, and 2) it provides the decision-maker, usually the general manager, with valuable information and diverse opinions about the player, information that he might not otherwise have.
The passion for certain prospects is a staple of the scouting process and can elevate a scout’s status depending on the outcome. Scouts will, as the phrase goes, “stand on the table” for a prospect, making their case for higher placement on The Board, with impassioned speeches about the player’s talent, character, work ethic, with anecdotes from college strength coaches and other sources.
I have seen that zeal for certain players in action embolden the confidence and reputation of three current NFL general managers—John Schneider (Seahawks), John Dorsey (Chiefs) and Reggie McKenzie (Raiders). And the more a scout is proven correct about the players he championed, his opinion and reputation become even more respected.
These Board assembly meetings are a time-honored ritual that is sacred in the team-building process. It is now, in these bleak winter days following the long season, when The Board is meticulously and copiously prepared. This is the time, more than March or April, where the real work is done to separate scouting staffs from the pack.
Five takeaways on Roger Goodell’s annual address at the Super Bowl last week:
On medicinal marijuana: Someone or something got to Goodell. While his comments earlier in the month gave hope to the potential sanctioned use of marijuana for pain management by players, his official remarks last week all but put an end to that. In other marijuana-related news, Goodell announced that he’d been tested and is clean. Duly noted.
On stalled concussion litigation: Goodell predictably thinks the deal will get done now that the requested financial documentation is on its way to the judge. He is certainly speaking for his owners; they have long thought this matter favorably resolved and don’t want it derailed.
On retired player health benefits: Goodell answered The MMQB correspondent Vernon Davis’ question by praising the existing programs available for retired players. Beyond that, Goodell was firm that this issue was part of the recent CBA negotiations. Translation: Vernon, you should be asking your union, not me!
On London expansion: I have long felt the NFL is more bullish about London than it is about Los Angeles and Goodell’s comments reflected that. Owners are aggressively looking for new revenue streams; unlocking another continent is an irresistible opportunity for them.
On Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke’s purchase of 60 acres around a potential site for a Los Angeles stadium: Goodell tamped down any fervor over this development, noting that Kroenke, a multi-billionaire, purchases real estate in many locations, both domestic and international. Unfortunately, Goodell’s answer—that Kroenke buys up property all the time, nothing to see here—inadvertently illustrated the vast financial disparity, and perceived lack of connection, between NFL owners and the rest of the population.