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How teams avoid scouting groupthink

2/28/2013

They bunch up in a line at the 40-yard mark of a 40-yard dash, leaning, crouching or craning for the right view to see the finish and click their stopwatches at precisely the right time.

NFL scouts and talent evaluators are together a great deal, though not always so intimately.

They overlap when they visit campuses during the season to see practices, meet kids and watch tape. They are seated next to each other in press boxes on Saturdays at games. At the East-West Shrine Bowl, at the Senior Bowl, at the scouting combine and in those timing lines at pro days, colleagues and competitors exchange pleasantries.

And they have at least casual chit-chat about what they see from, and what they hear about, the players they are gathered to check out.

Such time together doing the same work for 32 teams can put an evaluator in position to be influenced by the gravitational pull of groupthink, a concept that was greeted with sour faces by the people I asked about it at the NFL scouting combine.

“If you point 20 scouts out in the stands, I'm confident they'd all say, ‘I'm so anti-herd mentality,’” said Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, who worked his way up from college scouting. “That's the easy way to go. If you just agree with everyone, then you have shelter. If you stand outside the pack and you beat the drum for something that's not popular, then you stand alone. But it shows you have courage. It also shows you believe in that player and that opinion you formulated by hard work.

“That's something I told our staff when I opened our draft meetings. This is your venue to state your opinion. You were away from your families. You were on the road. You were guzzling coffee and staying in bad hotel rooms and those types of things. Now talk about your guy. You put in all the work, so you should have a strong opinion. I feel like if you go with the flow, you're just going to be an also-ran.”

Older, crusty scouts who have been there and done that and seen it all may be friendly with their peers and popular mentors in the business. But odds are the respect they’ve earned and the longevity in the business result from an ability to see things in players that either boost or lower draft stocks and help make good decisions that involve millions of dollars and a franchise’s fortunes.

I spoke with two scouts about groupthink and herd mentality.

“The percentage of scouts that fall into the herd mentality today is probably 50 to 60 percent,” one scout said. “Twenty years ago, the number was closer to 25 or 30 percent. The median age of scouts has dropped drastically over the past 10 years. This is partly due to the age of general managers has dropped in the past 10 years.

“The younger GMs seem to prefer younger scouts to work under them because they are less opinionated. And most of those young GMs did not grow up on the college side; they grew up in pro scouting or working on the salary cap and in the office answering to someone daily instead of being out on the road scouting and working by themselves, somewhat independently.”

Working alone fosters the sort of independent thinking that is the goal in scouting, and in plenty of other lines of work.

Here at the AFC South blog or on the radio, I strive to have a unique take. But some subjects don’t lend themselves to one. Sometimes, without even realizing it, the tug of prevailing wisdom latches onto me. I hope to catch myself more often than not. But I read and listen to a lot of other opinions. Certainly, herd mentality can slip into my thinking.

Some of it is human nature, and fighting against the current can be difficult work.

A second scout shared his strategy for staying at arm’s length from the competition. He helps keep himself away from the herd mentality by steering clear of the herd.

“I get sick anytime I show up at a school and see other scouts,” he said. “I act cranky, so people think I am a jerk. It usually distracts from conversation. A lot of times I ask coaches I know if I can come in at weird times -- 5 a.m. gives you a three-hour head start and 4 p.m. and staying until late can work too, especially at the big schools.”

General managers at the top of a team’s scouting pyramid can do a lot for their scouting staff by banging the drum for individuality.

Seattle general manager John Schneider said he’s proud his organization gives scouts a lot of leeway. He wants strong opinions. But he also doesn’t expect a scout to know everything all on his own.

“We try to work it where we feel like we don't have all the answers all the time,” Schneider said. “We're looking for more and more questions, and answers to be questioned."

Fear is one big reason to get lured by the herd.

Stick your neck out and be right, and that’s great. But the reward of that success may not be as strong a result for an evaluator as is the failure of going out on a limb and being wrong.

Batting averages for any scout are not going to be close to perfect. In evaluating football players for a living, a scout has to accept he’s going to miss. Ideally, the guy who hired that scout isn’t going to crush him for it. That GM has an opinion and likely a less-than-perfect batting average too.

In another level of groupthink, scouts dread bosses who try to bully underlings to co-sign their opinion, hoping instead that differing viewpoints are always welcome.

“I encourage our scouts to just do the work and have convictions in what you see and let us kind of manage the draft and let us kind of make the decisions for us,” new Jacksonville Jaguars general manager David Caldwell said. “Just give us back what they see.

“I’m never going to be the type of boss to be like, ‘Man, you really missed on that guy.' Because we’re all going to miss. We’re all going to have situations where we maybe undervalue somebody or overvalue somebody.”