by Matt Waldman
When the writer of SmartFootball.com suggests that "you should storify that series of tweets," it spotlights a subject worth further exploration. The topic came courtesy of Luke Easterling (@NFLDraftReport) who, on Sunday night, posed the following scenario on Twitter: "You’ve just been awarded an NFL expansion team and must build your personnel department from Draft-Twitter. Go."
I gave my list of NFL writers, former scouts, consultants, and analysts that I’d use to build my organization, but what was more compelling to Twitter was the way I structured the jobs. My vision for team-building a front office and scouting department got a lot of positive response.
More than anything, I believe the way the Twitter community responded to my approach has to do with the fact that a lot of my audience is made up of football writers and diehard fans who are critical of the NFL’s approach to managing its own. They’re ready to welcome a different vision.
Some of my plans aren’t unique to the NFL. There are teams that have an aligned vision from ownership down to the coaching staff. However, the way I’d create and continuously strengthen that alignment is a departure from the league.
I believe in the merit of my ideas, but I’m not dreaming of the day I win multiple Powerballs or inherit billions. Unless an NFL owner is alright with me reporting to work in jeans and sporting my collection of hats and caps, the likelihood of me becoming a GM went from infinitesimally small to impossible.
Then again, there have been requests for my consultation on prospect evaluation that I didn’t intend when I began the Rookie Scouting Portfolio in 2006, so you never really know. Maybe my buddy Sigmund Bloom manages to raise $50 from the 20 million NFL fans around the world on Kickstarter and we’re in business. Until then, let’s call this a (hopefully) entertaining football and management exercise.
First, a couple of assumptions we need to get out of the way. If I was awarded an NFL franchise I would have done three things -- among others -- before I even applied for the rights to an expansion team:
- A 10-, 15-, and 20-year cost analysis of owning a team based on my vision.
- Studied the details of the city of Green Bay’s ownership of the Packers and formulated a 15-year plan to transition the team to a non-profit corporation owned by its fans (one person can own no more than 200,000 shares of its stock).
- Determined the efficacy of current personnel and front office roles within most NFL organizations.
The next step is building an organizational structure. I can't get into everything due to time and space limitations, but here are the highlights of how I’d implement my vision to build a brain trust responsible for evaluating, acquiring, managing, and developing talent on and off the field.
Take My Mission to the Public
I’m not taking ownership of an NFL team to be popular. I’m not doing it to make money -- remember, I’m a billionaire and in this scenario I intend to turn the team into a non-profit corporation before I retire.
So it’s all about the ego: I’m doing it to be proud of something I built with a team of people. When it’s all over, I’ll be a low-end millionaire at best and disguised as an elderly bohemian living above a sushi restaurant in some one-room apartment in a city. If I’m lucky, the straight-laced media will characterize me as eccentric during my tenure.
At the initial press conference, I’ll tell the media that my competition has a tendency to churn through its coaches and personnel staffs. This team has an uncompromising, long-term plan. I’m not interested in what the Joneses are doing in my division. Charlie Casserly and Bill Polian can continue to enjoy the perks of a television-funded, semi-retirement as they tell old war stories like former politicians teaching classes on college campuses.
I’m the billionaire putting my wallet, heart, and soul into my plan and I’m giving it a 15-year run. If my plan is a complete disaster and I’m an utter failure when it’s all said and done, then the city will own the team and they can do things differently. For the deal I’m giving them, they can be patient.
Whether the fans want to enshrine me in Canton or hang me in effigy, I’ll be living a new life in a faraway town like "Slomo."
Deep down, I know we’ll succeed. Forget the notion of creating a tree of successors; we’re going to build a football forest. Coaching trees, scouting department trees, and front office trees that the rest of the league will be clamoring for.
I’m so supremely confident that I have no problem telling the public what they already know: For the first five years, there’s a good chance that we’re going to suck.
What no one realizes is that we’re going to learn a lot faster with our plan than most teams. Profit, popularity, and multiple losing seasons will not dissuade us. Unlike owners who behave like captains without compasses lost at sea, we’re going to stick to a good process even if the results are bad.
We will persevere.
I’ll tell the scribes upfront what they’ll eventually figure out: I’m quietly the most stubborn son of a bitch they have ever met times two. When we’re on our second, third, or fourth top-10 pick in consecutive seasons and the public is calling for me to sell the team, I’ll remind them of what I said.
Eventually, the naysayers who question the plan during the toughest stretches will be kissing my ass when they look back on the history of the franchise. In this fictional scenario, I may not be like every billionaire when it comes to money, but I’m right up there when it comes to ego and I’ve got them beat in the patience department.
Despite the fact I’m touting a quick learning curve, one of the reasons the plan is a slow build will be inexperience. My staff will have a lot of it. Some of the best-run organizations I’ve seen up close believe that a person with 20 years of experience looking for a job is often someone who has done it wrong for 20 years.
Of course, there are always exceptions. I’ll place high value on scouts and general managers who possess a fantastic trove of knowledge, but they will have to unlearn the current NFL paradigm of management through fear that many organizations use.
Current management practices of the NFL have "ruined" many of the experienced candidates. While we’ll be open to hiring some people with experience, we’ll be leery of rehabilitating them. They’ll have to demonstrate a high degree of flexibility and open-mindedness to a new approach that will be hard for them to fake during the interviews.
When it comes to player-personnel management and scouts -- especially scouts -- I don’t want yes-men. I’ve talked with enough current and former NFL scouts and consultants to understand that scouts may do the legwork, but they are rarely afforded a true voice in the war room.
There’s a mentality among scouts that if they want to keep their job, they better be extraordinarily selective about stating their opinion when not asked directly. It’s hard enough getting a job as a scout; it’s even harder to find another.
It encourages the wrong kind of mentality and skill set: task-oriented employees who write reports rather than true scouts who write evaluations that dig deep and think critically. Any task-oriented employees who lack a feel for what they’re doing won’t be doing it long in this organization.
Having too much of the old guard on our staff -- intentionally or otherwise -- will sabotage our approach. We’re going to value meticulous, focused, hard-working scouts with more opinions than experience. As long as they are team-oriented and embrace our system, they will develop the knowledge, add to the framework of our methodology for player evaluation, and we will succeed on our terms.
Coaches, scouts, and the front office will work together. The head coach and his staff are the chefs. As the owner, it means I have to understand what my coach does best before I hire him and be alright with it for as long as we employ this coach.
If he cooks steak better than anyone, then I’m not going to complain to the media that he doesn’t do enough with pasta. The front office and scouts will have to become pros at selecting the best meat, accompaniments, and drinks that make it the top steakhouse in the world.
If his specialty is sushi, then forget the pasture; we’re raising anchor and shoving off to sea.
In return, the coaching staff -- from the head coaches down to the position coaches -- will have to embrace their role as educators. They will work with me, the front office, and the scouts to define what’s essential for good player evaluation:
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- The staff’s specific physical prototypes at each position and where it can compromise, if necessary.
- The baseline fundamentals each prospect must possess before they set foot on a practice field.
- The skills that the staff can realistically coach or have veterans teach within the course of one season.
- Off-field behavior that we can live with.
- Personalities, communication styles, and other behaviors on the field, in the locker room, and in the meeting room that we absolutely cannot have at each position.
We want the team aligned from top to bottom on what we want from each position as athletes, technicians, strategists, teammates, and ambassadors of our team. We may pass up Pro Bowl players and future Hall of Famers, but everyone does; we’ll at least have a sound reason for doing so that works for us.
The process of evaluating, acquiring, and relinquishing football talent will be a living, breathing entity. We’ll be continuously defining, documenting, scoring, and refining our scouting of opponents and college prospects. Anyone who has a say in our decision-making in this realm will have to be stewards of our methodology.
If we encounter a situation with a player that doesn’t fit our existing definitions of how we evaluate, we will do the work to redefine that situation and then re-train our staff to make the proper call. If we discover that the way we’re grading players can be improved to meet our needs, we’ll have the discussions and make the necessary changes.
Everyone who evaluates a college or pro player or makes a decision with our draft board will be tested weekly on an aspect of our evaluation process. Our entry-level scouts will have weekly calibration sessions where they watch specific plays with the supervisor of their unit.
And our scouting supervisors will have twice-monthly sessions with scouting directors, head coaches, and upper management. If it takes our coaches out of media sessions to get it done, I’m sure it will serve as great incentive. If the NFL prevents this as policy, we’ll find an equal or greater incentive.
In the offseason, head coaches, coordinators, position coaches, and (in some cases) veteran players will participate in twice-monthly calibration sessions onsite with the rest of player-personnel. These sessions will insure that scouting reflects the mission and needs of the coaches.
As long as our team remains faithful to the current incarnation of our methodology, we’ll be tolerant of mistakes that come from a natural learning curve. We’ll know if we’re improving, because the continuous training program will be mandatory for all player-personnel. We will eventually replace those who don’t make the necessary progress to demonstrate great knowledge of their job duties.
The first departure we would make from the NFL’s current methodology is to eliminate the division between college and pro scouts. We will be assigning scouts to a position or a unit with a supervisor responsible for employee training and development, creating position reports, and occasional travel to the field.
I have a few theories to consider when it comes to how we’ll group these positions or units and the one we’ll use might have some overlap. For instance, we might have a team of scouts evaluating the offensive linemen and another evaluating the receivers, but both groups will scout tight ends.
Despite the fact that scouts will be assigned to one position, the calibration sessions and continuous training will feature content for all positions. The overlap of the position groupings and the continuous training will give us some redundancy and it will provide a natural bridge to rotate scouts to new positions and provide opportunity for growth within the organization.
Entry-level scouts will remain at the team facility and study film. There will be no need for them to travel to territories and interview.
We will have a team of individuals that are focused only on interviewing coaches and players. They will be armed with great reporting and tape examples to support their inquiries.
There will be times where position supervisors and upper management will also accompany this group. The purpose will be to cross-check this travel team as well as learn about the challenges of the job.
Scheduling of college and pro assignments will be important. We’ll make sure that the coaches have advanced reports on the competition first, but we’re still making year-round progress with our prospect evaluations.
If you haven’t gathered, our scouting department will be the largest in the league. However, the benefits will be numerous:
- Travel costs will decrease
- More player evaluations with much greater depth and focus
- Better-trained scouts who are well-aligned with the coaches
- The right people on the road asking the right questions
- Advancement opportunities
As we refine our evaluation process, the methods we use to choose the game film we study for each player should also make us more efficient with how much we have to watch per prospect.
In addition to a top-notch process, our training staff will be another reason our staff will be the best in the league. The person heading this department will manage a staff charged with developing an initial training program for new employees, the calibration exercises for the team to maintain our evaluation tools, and training exercises to test the team’s knowledge of the game.
When anyone doing an evaluation of a player encounters a situation that does not fit within the current process, they will forward the issue to management and it will be reviewed in the calibration sessions. In my original Twitter scenario, NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell was my choice as the football academic on staff because he’s an example of the consummate football academic with video skills to do the job. I bet Fran Duffy of the Eagles' website could hold it down if called upon as well.
We will also embrace analytics to enhance coaching and scouting. We’ll have multiple, defined projects that will require cooperation from all departments within the organization. The analytics group will brief the team annually on current projects as well as pitch new projects. Just like the scouting department, the data guys will be serving the coaches.
Since we’ll require our scouts and coaches to embrace compelling results from analytics that they asked for, the data guys will be required to complete the scouts’ initial training and continuous training modules. Eventually, the groups will be feeding each other information and tools to make the entire process better. I doubt these departments will blend completely, but five years from now they'll be much closer than at the beginning.
Our analytics crew will also study our cap management and our player transactions. Speaking of transactions, this organization will have an acquisitions director rather than a general manager. This person will have a small team that studies the draft, the free agent market, and trades. In essence, the acquisitions director will be a lot like a great fantasy football owner whose job is to understand the best ways to wheel and deal even if he or she doesn't ultimately pull the trigger.
As we approach the final stages of each major process or project, I’ll meet with the directors of our cap management team, scouting, acquisitions, and analytics to arrive at the big-ticket decisions: trades, free agent signings, our draft board, or major cuts.
The big question is "Will it work?" It has in other industries -- industries that greeted new management processes with the statement "it won’t work here, this business is different." Like any plan there will be flaws and weaknesses. However, we’ll find the right people who don’t just poke holes in ideas without providing viable solutions.
Then again, I’m not a billionaire -- just a football writer that another football writer asked to "storify" his idea on Twitter.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The 1284-page guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.