When I did some homework on this piece, I had a chance to chat with Gil Brandt, who helped shape some great Cowboys teams and now offers his insight for NFL.com.
One of the things that became clear to me out of that conversation was that Dallas in the 1960s and 1970s had a huge advantage in scouting. The Cowboys realized that by seeing a much broader pool of prospects, they could find super values. So they did things like have a scout assigned to historically black universities.
And such front-office architecture helped them find a player like guard Herb Scott, drafted 330th out of Virginia Union in 1975.
Dallas thought he was the 50th best player available. The Cowboys drafted him 330th and he was a two-time first team All Pro who played in three Super Bowls.
It’s hard to have that easy of an advantage anymore, of course.
But lest you think no rock goes unturned, consider this piece by Jack Bechta on how spending on scouting is not what you might imagine.
The fact is, plenty of owners used to spending big bucks on players, coaches and executives see scouting staffs as a place to save. Bechta says, and I'll bet he's right, it’s an area where spending more could actually pay big dividends.
"If I ran a team I would have the highest R&D cost in the league because I know it will save my team money in the long run and give me more wins. I would allocate more money on intelligence testing, character/social habit evaluations and practice habits. I would use more private investigators and even hire former highly respected coaches (and former strength coaches) to gather hard to get information from college coaches.
"Of course the second part of this equation is that you have to find coaches who can develop your draft picks. Why not hire a scout to exclusively evaluate other coaches and keep scouting reports on them?
"It baffles me that I can ask one of my current players (or even a college coach) about a prospect he played with or coached in college and he may tell me to “stay away” because of some obvious reason. However, an NFL team will never get the same Intel I received by just doing a little diligence. It also amazes me how one NFL team can pick up on a major character, work ethic or physical deficiency while others won't catch it."
At least one recent AFC South development has shown a scouting department shrinking, not growing. In May of 2009, the Colts eliminated the jobs of longtime player personnel official Dom Anile and several others in the scouting department. The moves came as part of restructuring efforts aimed at cost-cutting.
As for the sort of things that happen in scouting players, here's one that Bechta would certainly appreciate from the Titans and their bungled pick of Pacman Jones in 2006. The team gave some weight -- I’m not saying a lot, but it was part of its equation -- to the endorsement of a guy who’s West Virginia career overlapped with Jones’ who happened to be the son of a Titans assistant coach.
When investing huge dollars and a valuable pick into a guy who allegedly smashed in someone’s face with a pool cue at a bar, I’d say the team could have done a far more thorough investigation that would have steered it elsewhere.
I'd like teams to have such well-equipped scouting staffs that a recommendation like that would be diluted to the point where the people involved in the decision couldn’t try to soften the blow years later by talking about it.
If I’m a bad team looking to close the gap on the guys making regular visits to the playoffs, I’d consider really ramping up my expenditures for what Bechta refers to as a team’s research and development department.
My team would still miss in the draft -- it’s an “inexact art” as Bill Polian calls it. But I am guessing it would miss a bit less. And I’d want to know just how much that difference could mean to my franchise.