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The evolution of scouting

Reflections on the profession from a scout of three decades. Greg Gabriel

Print This June 22, 2014, 10:45 AM EST

As I was watching tape the other day on a few of the running backs for next year’s class, I started thinking about how much scouting has changed since I was a young scout. I began my scouting career as a part-time scout for the Buffalo Bills in 1981 and became a full time scout for National Scouting in June of 1984. The following January, I was hired by the New York Giants as their Midwest scout.

In the 1980’s, many scouting departments weren’t anywhere near as big as they are now. Many teams only had four to six scouts on their staff. Many of the scouts were former NFL players and coaches who wanted to stay involved in the game. In some cases, there were guys who the owner or GM really admired and they were kept on the payroll as scouts, even though they really didn’t have a strong passion to be on the road scouting.

The Film Days

In the “old days”, it was a lot harder to do a good job than it is today. The technology wasn’t close to what it is today. The only way you could view film of a player was to make a school call and use their film library. You noticed I wrote “film”. Back then, there was no digital technology, muchless video tape. A scout had to watch a player on 16mm film, and every scout in the league had a Kodak film projector that he carried around with him. In the mid 1980’s, Lafayette Instruments cut down the size of the Kodak projector and made a projector called the “Pony”. If you were lucky enough to have a Pony, life was good because they weighed about 1/3 less than a big Kodak projector. 

 

Scouts are on their own. They are not in an office environment but rather work by themselves on the road traveling from school to school. If you had a strong work ethic, you could get a lot done in a day. That meant long days, often 14 to 16 hours, when you include traveling between schools.

Very few schools had restrictions on when a scout could visit.So, in many cases, the same scouts would visit the same schools each week. This helped break up the monotony of the job because, often, you were among friends. Still, there was competition among the scouts, and few gave their opinion as to how they felt about a prospect.

When scouts made a school call, the school's pro liaison would often set the scouts up in a single room to view film. It was not unheard of to be in a room with eight to ten different projectors running at the same time. Each scout would grab a reel of film and watch it by shining his projector on a small section of the wall. You knew a scout fell asleep when his “take up” reel kept clicking and the back and forth sound of the projector wasn’t there.

Scouts had to be part mechanic then.  If the film broke, you were responsible for fixing it. That meant you had to splice the film (I became an expert). It was really annoying when a scout spliced the film, and the second part of the splice was backwards. That made watching tape extremely difficult.

Not only was watching film a long, tedious task, it had to be done at the schools because schools did not send much tape to the clubs at the time. If a school did send the tape, the club could only keep it for a couple of days before returning it.

Video Tape

In the late 1980’s, NFL clubs and the major schools stopped using film and began using video tape. This made the viewing process a little easier, because the quality of the tape was better, and the ability to go forward and backward was a lot smoother.

At many schools, they had one, at most two, dedicated rooms for scouts to view tape. That was good, but the only way you had control of what you were watching was to be the first scout in the building. Why? Because the scout who controlled the remote was the one who determined how fast or slow the tape was going to be viewed. The first scout in always had control of the clicker. That meant getting to a school by about 6:30 AM every day.

When video tape started being used, it was often the case that the format was different from school to school or conference to conference. When you were on the road, it wasn’t a big deal because you could only view what the school had. The difference came when schools would send copies of their game tape to each club. Some would be VHS, some SVHS, and some Beta.

The NFL was using Sony Beta at the time, and the quality of that type tape was generally the best. When a school sent tape to a club, it had to be converted over to Beta, which obviously took time, but at least scouts had tape in house to view.

It was difficult for schools to send tape to every club, so NFL Films created what we call the “dub center”. Rather than send tape to each NFL club, they would send a tape of every game to the dub center. The people at the center would then make copies of each tape and distribute them to each club. This made the viewing of tape much easier. If a scout wanted to do some work from home, he could get a copy of the tapes he needed from the video department and then watch them at home. It made the job a lot easier but it still wasn’t perfect.

The Digital Age

When everything became digitized, things became very easy for scouts. What has happened in the last four to five years is amazing. Each NFL club has, stored in their video computer, a digital copy of just about every major college game played in the last few years. All a scout needs is an iPad and an internet connection, and he has thousands of games at his fingertips. He can not only watch tape of a prospect's games in the current year, but he can go back and watch games from the beginning of his career and any time in between.

With this technology, scouts can watch tape at any time or any place as long as he can get connected to the internet. With this availability of tape, a scout can watch tape in his hotel room, and when he makes a school call, it doesn’t have to be to watch tape. He can use that time to research the prospects. His time at a school is now more research time than tape time. He can schedule appointments days in advance of his visit with coaches and support people. These are the people who can give him correct information on the character and work habits of a prospect.

The reality is, a scout has no excuse for not knowing everything about a player. In theory, this makes scouting a more thorough process, but still it gets back to the one most important thing a scout has to do: Evaluation! While it is much easier to get access to a player’s game tape and personal information, it still gets down to the evaluation. That part hasn’t changed since scouting began.

Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe
 

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