If you follow ITL on Twitter, you know it’s been an incredible week for transition in NFL scouting departments, and not in a good way.
It began Sunday morning when 17 Bills scouts, both pro and college, woke up to find that not only were they let go, but their key cards didn’t open doors, their email addresses didn’t work, and they’d been wiped off the Website. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen an entire department (save for two scouting assistants) completely wiped out in one move. But that was just the warmup. From Sunday afternoon to Monday afternoon, we reported 11 scouts and evaluators from seven different teams that had lost their jobs. Several of them are good friends of mine, and friends of friends. I remember texting scouts and their responses were full of shock and grief. It was an incredibly difficult day.
So why did it happen? Why was it such a brutal week? I don’t know, but here are some possible ideas.
Belt-tightening: As everyone who follows NFL football knows, TV ratings were off by 10 percent this year. This doesn’t mean teams lost money in 2016, of course — not by a long shot — but it could have given the teams’ bean-counters a reason to recommend cutting expenses. One fact of life in the NFL is that scouts are probably the least respected football people in the building. The players, obviously, get the lion’s share of the money, and the coaches do pretty well, too. However, scouts are on an entirely different plain. If you aspire to be a scout one day, you need to understand that reality.
Analytics: It’s possible 2017 is the true ‘dawn’ of the age of analytics in football. I’m not sure why that would be, as the Browns’ move to go all-in for metrics hasn’t exactly resulted in success. On the other hand, Cleveland has done it, and for better or worse, the critics have pulled back to see if it works or not. Some teams could see this as their opportunity to lean on the younger, cheaper analytics experts in their offices rather than the 20-year area scout in his 50s. As with other big businesses, a lot of what NFL teams do is influenced by what kind of media blowback they risk.
No template: Because scouting is such a mysterious, subjective business practiced by a select few, and because football is so cyclical, no one can point to one strict way of doing things and pronounce, ‘this is how it’s done.’ Even the really good teams blow it with their first-rounders every once in a while. This allows teams to make moves that don’t seem to make sense to people in the business. Fans and outsiders just shrug their shoulders and presume that it all makes sense somehow.
Disposability: Scouts are not celebrities. There is no union for NFL scouts. By their nature, they work in anonymity. Fans don’t know them. This means that when a scout is let go, it doesn’t make big headlines. Sometimes, a team just removes the scout’s name from its Website and never even makes an announcement. What’s more, there’s always a scouting assistant waiting for someone to retire, get fired, etc. In general, I just don’t see value attached to the experience and network a seasoned scout has.
Though Black Monday is behind us, we’re a long way from seeing all the changes in scouting departments that come in May. Time will tell if there’s even more transition next week. In the meantime, if being a scout is what you aspire to, please proceed with caution.