Character (Ac)Counts: Scouting for Steelers

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Keith Srakocic, AP photo

I’ve gotten a bit behind on my reading. How far behind? I just got around to the May 9 edition of ESPN Magazine. I clicked on an article which seemed vaguely interesting  [no more paper subscriptions for me!] and struck gold.

The article in question is called In the age of analytics, putting the focus back on scouting.”  As you might suspect from the use of “analytics,” it’s about baseball. But bear with me.

The article is written about the Midwest Territory scout for the Minnesota Twins, Mike Ruth. As it begins he has shown up to a voluntary workout at Tulane, a week before official practices begin. As he stands in the cold, nearly alone except for a few university people, who should show up but a scout he recognizes immediately, because he is from another small-market team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Both men were there that afternoon to try to find out a bit more about a couple of guys who might be of interest in the draft, five months later. Part of the point the article is making is that for teams who have to build primarily through the draft, as is the case for the small-market teams, any tiny advantage in knowledge about a prospect can help.

Some of the things the article enumerated that the scouts were looking for were talking to the prospects themselves, but even more crucially talking to others in their lives. Not just the expected—coaches, parents, and so one—but going beyond, to pastors, elementary school teachers, old girlfriends, to find out a little something more about the prospect than everybody else knows. They sneak into the weight room to watch the unsuspecting prospect work out when he thinks nobody is watching. They are looking, in short, for intangibles. As the article said:

The best of them [the new-age scouts] function less like talent spotters than investigative reporters. “Most anyone can see the on-the-field stuff,” says Ray Montgomery, the Brewers’ VP of amateur scouting. “We want to identify the guy who can’t be denied.”

Ultimately, one of the things they want to know is how the prospects deal with failure. Most of them haven’t experienced very much, and are in for a rude shock when they enter professional baseball if they can’t handle it in a constructive way.

Although the financial model of the NFL is very different from that of Major League Baseball, the search for guys who have something that doesn’t show up on a stats sheet is just as much a part of football scouting as baseball. This is particularly true for teams who, like the Steelers, prefer to build through the draft.

That may seem an odd statement. Doesn’t every team want to do that? Perhaps, but either some teams are absolutely wretched at talent identification or they just like the fuss it makes when they sign a big-name free agent. It might be a bit of both. In many ways, making a splash in free agency is a way for teams to placate their fans, especially if they are getting restive after a long series of poor seasons.

But every team has, to some degree or other, a blind spot. One of the most famous ones in the past decade was Al Davis’ propensity to draft speed, without considering whether the guy possessing it was a well-rounded player. The Steelers are the beneficiary, in a sense, of one of Davis’ blunders. Darrius Heyward-Bey couldn’t help being picked where he was, which was quite a lot higher than everything other than his speed and size indicated was an appropriate spot for him. After seven years in the league he is finally rounding into a much more complete player.

So what sort of intangibles are the Steelers looking for? If this year’s draft is any indication, it is character. I’m using the word as a short-hand for the sorts of things character generates. “Coachability”, for instance, which is just a willingness to listen and to accept and learn from criticism. Humility, if you will. A sterling work ethic and an unwillingness to give up because it’s more difficult for you than for some of your more physically gifted peers. Loyalty. Dedication. And so on.

These can look different in different guys, of course. Antonio Brown talks a lot about staying humble, but let’s be honest—he’s a diva. However, when he was an unheralded prospect from Central Michigan, he kept his nose to the grindstone and was determined to earn an opportunity. It’s hard to blame him for being proud of what he’s accomplished. And he still isn’t too proud to out-work everyone in the wide receiver room. In someone like Cam Heyward it is the strength to step up and assume a leadership role when there is a need to do so. In the case of Darrius Heyward-Bey it is the humility to do whatever the team needs him to do, and strive to excel in it, even if it is special teams. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

I’ve used the quote before but it bears repeating. In Nicholas Dawidoff’s book “Collision Low Crossers” he covered the run-up to the 2011 New York Jets draft. After talking about the various player interviews, staff assessments, and so on, Dawidoff said this:

All the NFL teams were engrossed in these careful assessments. And yet, at the end of April, many teams would still make mistakes because, said Joey Clinkscales, who directed the draft for the Jets, one quality remained elusive: “If there were a meter on heart, a way to measure how much a guy cares, we’d draft only Revises.”

…All this work and preparation, but so often the draft confounded it. You could study a person until you were sure you knew him, and then he turned out to be a different person on a football field. Everybody, said [Defensive Coordinator Mike] Pettine, “got fooled” evaluating players, first and foremost because “they’re still kids. So much depends upon putting a kid in the right system for him to succeed.”

This is surely part of what attracted the Steelers to Tyler Matakevich. But college production is not a sure-fire way to predict success, because clearly everybody would just draft the guys who produce in college. There’s more to it than that. The delicate balance between talent, work ethic, intelligence (at least of the football sort,) and desire can be very elusive. But lots of people are trying to pin it down.

Ivan wrote yesterday about the “Steeler Way.” Many people are inclined to mock those who try to put the Steelers on a higher moral plane, and they will bring up everything from poor crazy Ernie Holmes to much more recent transgressors who have remained with the team, presumably because of their talent. But all of us are a mixture of good, bad, and indifferent. The question is not whether occasional guys are going to fall short of the standard set for them, but whether they are salvageable. And, since ultimately football is a business, whether they are worth the trouble.

And even if football is a business, it is possible to run a business in a number of ways. One of those is with integrity and compassion. It is my fond hope that this is how the Steelers conduct their business. It is certainly in the DNA.

We’re at that exciting moment when we finally get a look at who the Steelers drafted. It’s difficult sometimes to remember they are a work in progress, but hopefully we can do this, and hopefully their progress is fast enough to mean they can benefit the team in the short term as well as the long term. In the meantime, the coaches have gotten a good look at how they deal with failure and adversity. Let’s hope we also get a peek at how they deal with success…

Oh, and the two players the Twins’ and Pirates’ scouts went to Tulane to look at? Shortstop Stephen Alemais was the main focus of the scouting, and he was drafted by the Pirates. I will follow his career with interest.

 

 

5 comments

  • Spot on, Rebecca. And no doubt the greatest example of this is the story of that skinny linebacker the Steelers drafted out of a mid-major a number of years ago, after the Plumber first saw him, and other Rooneys then decided to take a look. Paul Zimmerman’s 1984 Sports Illustrated article told the extraordinary story of why the Steelers were so high on Jack Lambert…

    “” Rooney (Art Jr) pulls out the Steelers’ old scouting file on Lambert. The reports run pretty much true to type: “Intense, great nose for the ball, needs to add weight…”

    “My cousin Timmy, who’s head of personnel for the Lions now, was the guy most in his corner,” Rooney says. “He told me that the day he was up at Kent they had a quarterback who was evidently a dissipater, and he did something and they were going to throw him off the team. Lambert was the team captain. He went to Fitzgerald and said, “You can’t. You’ll wreck the team.’ Fitzgerald said, ‘O.K., but he’ll have to run a punishment drill.’ Lambert said, ‘I’ll run it with him to make sure he does it.’ Lambert ended up draggin him through.

    “Timmy told me that story one night, and the next day I drove up to see him myself.The field was muddy. They were practicing in a parking lot, with cinders. Lambert dived at someone and when he got up, all these cinders were sticking to him. He went back to the huddle picking the cinders off.” “”

    The story of Lambert picking the cinders off his skin is Steeler legend. But those are precisely the things that statistical analytics don’t measure. Those are the things you learn about as a scout when you hang around and talk to the trainer or groundskeeper. You might even hear those stories from the SID or coach, but maybe not.

    Yogi once said you can’t observe a lot just by watching. And, as always, he was right. And scouts can learn a lot more by developing friendships and relationships – and taking time to shoot the bull with the people who watch prospects both on AND off the field. They will always be the first to raise the red flags. They can also tell you about the guys who pick the cinders off their skin.

    That’s how the Plumber, Timmy, and Art Jr learned about Jack Lambert’s incredible desire and passion for the game. And that’s how Bill Nunn knew that John Stallworth’s 4.8 time in the 40-yard dash meant absolutely nothing. Numbers measure a lot. But, as you point out, they don’t measure heart.

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  • Another factor is whether or not they have strength of character to persevere in the face of suddenly just being one among many, rather than the superstar stud they have been at every level of the way up until now. Loss of confidence has destroyed many an athletic career.

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    • Absolutely agree This is a problem you see at places like CMU (Carnegie Mellon,) where most of the kids were top in their high school classes and are now just average. It’s interesting to see how they deal with it. Some fall apart. Some get stronger.

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