NFP Sunday Blitz

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Some general managers pound the pavement and press the flesh, traversing the country to get as much first-hand knowledge they can about as many draft prospects as possible. Others take the approach that they need to know everything about their own team, and subsequently stay tethered to home, poking their noses in every office in the building on a regular basis. Still others go the mole route, spending most of their days and nights in darkened rooms with only a remote control to keep them company.

There is no right or wrong way to do it. Different men have succeeded using each of the approaches. But the general managers who have stayed close to their scouting roots by making multiple college visits have one advantage: easier access to information that usually bubbles beneath the surface.

Among the general managers who log a lot of time on the road are Ted Thompson of the Packers, Kevin Colbert of the Steelers, Jerry Reese of the Giants, Thomas Dimitroff of the Falcons and Scott Pioli of the Chiefs.

To understand why those men believe trips are beneficial, allow me to take you back to an afternoon in Iowa City last fall.

Ricky StanziICONIt was how Stanzi behaved when he didn't know he was being judged that most impressed the Chiefs.

Pioli, who typically makes more than 20 mid week visits to schools during the college season, is set up to watch tape in the Iowa football offices by himself in a quiet room. He hears someone enter the room next to the room he is in. Eventually, he pokes his head around the corner to see who it is. He recognizes quarterback Ricky Stanzi from the back of his head. Stanzi, who Pioli had met earlier that day, is watching tape at the front of the room with his back turned to the door. He doesn’t see the general manager of the Chiefs, and Pioli says nothing.

Pioli keeps checking back throughout the afternoon. Stanzi doesn’t budge for the next five hours. He is taking notes on a pad. Stanzi isn’t listening to an Ipod. He isn’t answering his cell. He isn’t texting or emailing. He is focused on the tape.

Eventually, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz comes by to say hello to Pioli. He explains the routine is normal for Stanzi. “He told me he came down every day and locked himself in a room,” Pioli said. “He would watch tape after tape after tape. He said Ricky had developed into a workaholic and a student of the game, and a lot of his improvement on the field had to do with what went on in that room.”

And so Stanzi became a Kansas City Chief in the fifth round.

What Pioli heard from Ferentz that day was powerful. But what he saw was even more powerful. “Someone could tell me all day that a player is a hard worker,” Pioli told me. “It’s a little different when you see it.”

Pioli would call it a “Carl the Janitor” experience. For those who don’t remember or never knew, Carl the Janitor was a character in the 1985 film The Breakfast Club, which was about a group of high school kids. Carl, the self professed “eyes and ears” of the school, knew everything about those students. He saw what was in their lockers. He read their personal letters. He had heard private conversations. Usually, people don’t pay much attention to Carl the Janitors. The blend into their surroundings, often without saying much. But savvy information gatherers like Pioli know they have value.

Draft prospects have become better and better at massaging the truth and air-brushing the facts. As a result it has become more difficult than ever for NFL teams to know and understand exactly who it is they are drafting. Carl the Janitors know how players act when those players think no one is watching or judging them. They can provide critical information.

In the anecdote about Stanzi, Pioli was Carl the Janitor himself. But a lot of people can be Carl. He can be a secretary, a strength coach or a grad assistant. He can be a teammate or relative. He usually isn’t a head coach or a position coach. Those men usually have their own agendas when talking with NFL teams.

Getting truthful information prior to the draft was critical for the Chiefs, who made three controversial selections in receiver Jonathan Baldwin, linebacker Justin Houston and defensive tackle Jerrell Powe. And so Pioli, assistant GM Joel Collier, director of college scouting director Phil Emery and their staff of scouts had to kick over a lot of rocks. “There are a lot of people were not close to the surface or necessarily the more obvious sources that were very helpful in the character evaluation of the players we took,” Pioli said.

It isn’t possible for one man to experience personal revelations about most prospects like Pioli did with Stanzi. But a general manager can rely on a network to provide him with information that the competition can’t always get. “We tell our scouts to own your area,” Pioli said. “Find ways to cultivate relationships to get real information. These processes have changed. The players by the time we get to start talking to them say all the right things. They need to get sources in those places who tell the truth. You have to have relationships with people at universities. When you go into a school, spend quality time, develop sincere relationships with people. Don’t just ask a couple questions, check a couple of boxes.”

Part of good scouting is developing trust. For Pioli, the best way to do that is face-to-face.

Things I Didn’t Used To Know

*Head coaches who are on the proverbial hot seat (hello Jack Del Rio, Gary Kubiak and Tony Sparano) may not be feeling as much heat this year as they would in previous years, thanks to the lockout. The scuttlebutt among front office executives is there will be fewer firings than usual as a result of this season. The reason is the chaotic nature of the offseason and training camp will give teams a convenient excuse for failure, even if the failure is unexpected. And it may be more difficult than usual to pin a disappointing record on a head coach.

Aaron CurryThe Seahawks are trying to bring the best out of Aaron Curry.

*Seahawks coaches want to tweak the way they use linebacker Aaron Curry. They want to have him drop less, especially in space. When Curry does drop in the future, it likely will mostly be on hooks to the flat. The fourth pick in the 2009 draft is a more effective defender on the line with his hands on the tight end. That way, he can use his strength and length to his advantage, and he doesn’t have to think as much. Curry is a strong point of attack player who also could be an effective pass rusher. It’s possible he will get more chances to chase the QB as well.

*The career of the retiring Mike Vrabel was defined by one thing: winning. His teams’ records over 14 seasons was 144-80. His teams had winning seasons in all but three years. Vrabel won division championships eight times, played in six AFC championship games and won three Super Bowls. His success wasn’t solely Bill Belichick magic, either. Vrabel won division championships with three teams.

*The Jaguars are not planning on being big players in the wide receiver free agent market even after their decision to cut ties with Mike Sims-Walker. The team is content with Mike Thomas and Jason Hill as the starters, with fourth round pick Cecil Shorts as a potential third. The hope is that Thomas steps up and produces like a No. 1 receiver in his third season. Thomas had a nice season in 2010, improving as a route runner and showing a greater understanding of the nuances of getting open. His toughness and strength with the ball in his hands bode well for his ability to gain yards after the catch. For a variety of reasons, Hill never broke through in three-plus years with the 49ers. But the Jaguars really liked what they saw from him after they acquired him late last season. The 2011 season should determine if he is a perennial tease or a player who needed a change of scenery.

*The lockout has dimmed the hopes of the Colts’ coaching staff for Anthony Castonzo. With the benefit of a full offseason, the Colts thought Castonzo might have been able to step right in and start at left tackle from day one. Without OTAs, the Colts are dubious about Castonzo’s chances to be an immediate starter. They do believe he will be a quick study however. It’s possible at some point during the season he will be ready to start.

*Rich McKay has been a valued member of the NFL’s CBA negotiating team even though he is not an owner or league representative. The backstory: the previous CBA missed some of the finer points regarding player contracts in part because there was no voice in negotiations from the front office level. McKay, the president of the Falcons, is an authority on player contracts. His presence should help address more details on player contracts in the new deal.

My Sunday Best: Players who could be coaches

Mike Vrabel called it quits last week to become the linebackers coach at Ohio State. Many who had worked with him in his career had long thought Vrabel would be an ideal coach. A good number of current players also appear to be excellent coaching material. Here are my best candidates. Who would you add?

Drew BreesDrew Brees already is a coach in the huddle.

Drew Brees. Most star players, especially quarterbacks, are not good candidates for coaching. They have too many other opportunities. They don’t need the work. And in their post playing days they don’t have the drive it takes to be an effective coach. There have been exceptions, however. And Brees could be one of them, if he gets bit by the coaching bug. Brees has rare humility for an elite player. You could easily see him making the kind of personal sacrifices coaches have to make. He also is one of the premier leaders in the game. He has an understanding of the big picture. And he obviously understands complex offensive concepts.

Tyrone Carter. He has been thought of as a coach on the field. At 5-9, Carter always has had to work harder than some of his contemporaries. Carter is one of those players who seems to be able to lift the play of those around him.

Brian Dawkins. Lessons learned from the late Jim Johnson should serve him well. Dawkins, who has expressed a desire to coach, has a rare passion for the game that should be undiminished by a career transition.

Andra Davis. He is a natural leader and problem solver who has been a mentor to younger players such as Aaron Maybin. Davis is the type of personality who can help others understand defensive concepts as well as what it takes to be a pro. He even attended meetings to help others on the Bills after he was placed on IR last year.

London Fletcher. My man Matt Bowen played with Fletch in St. Louis and Buffalo, and he tells me the Redskins MLB could run a defense by himself if he had to. This natural leader demands accountability in the huddle, in the meeting rooms and in the weight rooms. An undrafted free agent who has achieved sustained success in the NFL, Fletcher has a magnetic personality.

Clark Haggans. A former fifth round pick, Haggans has played for 11 years mostly because of his gym rat mentality. No one outworks him in the weight room or in the film room. If he can get players to understand the game like he does, and work like he does, Haggans can be an outstanding coach.

Chris Harris. The Bears safety is one of those players who not only has his responsibilities down pat, but also the responsibilities of the ten guys around him. He has a good football mind, and also is an armchair strategist who stays in coaches’ ears with ideas. Harris studies teams around the league, and sometimes comes up with blitz suggestions for his coaches, or points out potential vulnerabilities in coverages.

Eric Heitmann. This Stanford grad coaches the other 49ers offensive linemen from his center position. His understanding of protections and defensive fronts would make him a natural offensive line mentor.

Kevin Kolb. Even though he hasn’t played a lot to date, Kolb’s understanding of the game is evident. Kolb’s steady demeanor would play well on a coaching staff. He is the son of a coach.

James Laurinaitis. The Rams linebacker could go into the family business and apply choke holds for a living. But he has the intelligence, presence and command to make an excellent coach.

Jim Leonhard. This guy is off the charts smart when it comes to Xs and 0s. His no ego approach enables him to relate to everyone. Leonhard has been coached by Gregg Williams and Rex Ryan—two of the game’s premier defensive minds.

Chad Pennington. His father was a coach and his mother was a teacher, and it shows. Pennington has been a thinking man’s quarterback. Even though he is currently testing the broadcasting waters, Pennington would be a natural coach. He’s such a football junkie that he took his playbook with him on his honeymoon.

Jerod Mayo. Interestingly, Vrabel has been a big influence on him. Mayo is first in, last out every day. His mentality, understanding of the game and work ethic are reasons why Bill Belichick made him a first round pick and reasons why he would be an excellent coach.

Ed Reed. Who understands secondary play and the passing game better than this guy? Reed, who wants to coach, has been a first-rate mentor to young players on the Ravens.

One Man Yelp: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows–Part 2

It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone not being thoroughly entertained by the final installment of the Harry Potter series, especially anyone who has bought into the franchise over eight movies and ten years. Better critics than I have called it Oscar-worthy.

The production is excellent, the acting is consistently surprisingly strong and fresh (especially from Alan Rickman and Ralph Fiennes), and the special effects are dazzling. But what makes this movie, and all of the Potter movies, is the story. The books are wonderful writing from J.K. Rowling, and the adaptation is just as good. Of course, when you cut through all the flying broomsticks and rocks that bring the dead back to the world, it’s a good old fashioned morality play.

It’s an intense story full of action, deaths you don’t expect, and some heel turns. And the climax is fitting. Through a roller coaster ride through a vault, an encounter with a dragon, a blitzkrieg that leaves Hogwarts a shambles, a hexed, raging fire that tries to consume all it can, and the showdown with the evil Lord Voldemort himself, Harry makes the transition from boy to man.

This is a series of movies that I think we’ll still be watching 40 years from now, sharing with future generations. Harry Potter should age like The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music.

The only thing I didn’t like about this movie is it was the last in the series. I wish there were more to look forward to.

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