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A scout’s tale - Reflections from the road: Deception, deer tracks and deep-cleaning
A scout’s tale
Reflections from the road: Deception, deer tracks and deep-cleaning misevaluations
By Nolan Nawrocki
Sept. 14, 2008
Scouts spend a greater part of their existence pounding the pavement, crisscrossing the country, visiting as many colleges as they can during the season and attending college all-star games and pro-day workouts up until the draft. Through it all, the road warriors must learn to play the role of detective, interrogator, confidant, judge and jury. The job is at the same time exhausting and exciting, challenging but inspiring, simple yet complex. Ron Marciniak scouted 22 years for the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens, having worked for Tom Landry, Bill Belichick and Ozzie Newsome. He spent all of his life around the game he loved before retiring at age 74 a year ago. His memories remain vivid, his passion for the game still intact, as he shared his stories.
Through nearly a quarter century of scouting, Marciniak was never surprised by the ingenuity of college players seeking every edge as they sought to play in the NFL. Height, weight and speed, also known as measurables, and the Wonderlic test — a 50-question, 12-minute test to identify intelligence — have long been at the core of scouting and are considered prerequisite data for a player before gaining an NFL job. Together, they play a great role in defining a player’s draft value. And players will go to great lengths to improve their value, by all means possible.
It took a few years to figure out why the heights of University of Illinois players were an inch-and-a-half greater in the spring than the first time they were measured prior to their senior seasons, but after heated arguments with his fellow comrades (“Measure them yourself then, Marciniak,” he was told after he repeatedly blurted out, “He’s not that tall”), a group of veteran scouts finally figured it out.
Scouts would hang a temporary measuring tape on the wall to measure players’ heights. Then a player would summon the scouts to the trainer’s room, where scouts would be apprised of injury histories. While all the scouts were in the trainer’s room, someone would take the tape off the wall and move it up ever so slightly. From there on, scouts had to begin marking the tape with a small “v” in pencil so they could see if it had been moved to prevent against exaggerated heights.
At another school, players were being measured, and scouts noticed what looked like triangular reindeer tracks through the shower room. They tracked it down and saw that after players walked through a wet shower, they left prints. Scouts came to learn that players were inserting thick pieces of sponge rubber under their heels and forefoot to improve their heights when were measured. They had to go back and remeasure all of the players barefooted.
Several years ago, before getting weighed at his pro timing day, a Georgia player took some weights out of a weighted vest and tucked them into his shorts and almost snuck it by scouts, who were irritated when he later refused to be weighed again after they had noticed the sizable weight increase and found an emptied weight vest nearby in the weight room.
Then there was the time Marciniak was administering a Wonderlic test at a school in the South. Usually there were 12-18 seniors taking the test, and Marciniak would walk up and down the aisles in the 12 minutes during which players had to finish. He was surprised at one school when a player to whom he had not administered a test showed up to run the 40-yard dash. Upon investigating further, Marciniak figured out that the player had another student substitute for him, filling out the player’s Social Security number. When he made the player take the Wonderlic on his own, the player scored miserably low.
And Marciniak will never forget the time he showed up to test players at Grambling State. Normally, scouts marked drills with cones when they arrived. When Marciniak showed up, the field already was marked off for the 40-yard dash, and players were running. He told them he was going to have to remeasure the field, and was met with some resistance, as the players tried rationalizing that there was no reason to remeasure, that they had measured it twice already. Sure enough, the 40-yard dash was marked off at 38 yards.
The first piece of advice Marciniak and many scouts receive upon entering the field: Never assume anything.
Seeing extraordinary in the ordinary
Zach Thomas, a Marciniak favorite, personified the type of traits that endeared some players to old-school scouts. Marciniak loved Thomas’ heart, personality, intelligence and the way he played the game. If he were not a good football player, then Marciniak did not know what one looked like, yet Marciniak took a verbal battering from some Ravens scouts who saw in Thomas a small overachiever with little upside. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome thought Thomas was too small and too slow for the Ravens, so he removed Thomas’ magnet from the front board and put it on the side board, where all the free agents were stacked, jostling Marciniak while he reshuffled the board.
Marciniak did not say a word.
A year later, Thomas made the NFL All-Rookie team, emerging as a tackling machine. Before the Ravens started their draft meetings this time around, Newsome began the first meeting by asking Marciniak, “OK, Ron, do you have any more Zach Thomases this year?” acknowledging he was wrong for doubting Marciniak’s judgment the year before.
It was a small gesture, but in a field where one’s livelihood depends on making correct player assessments, where credit is rarely given for making player recommendations — no NFL scout has been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — and pride could be a scout’s biggest reward, it meant a great, great deal to Marciniak, the kind of statement he would never forget.
“He was a real man about it,” Marciniak recalls, “very classy how he handled it.”
But that doesn’t mean Marciniak got them all right.
There was Michigan State OT Tony Mandarich, whom Marciniak considered to be “Mr. Football.” Mandarich was massive, quick and strong. He destroyed blocking sleds, bags and human flesh. If there ever were a can’t-miss prospect, Marciniak was sure Mandarich was it. He gave him a grade that could not be washed off with Ajax.
Like many old-school scouts, Marciniak was a firm believer that elite talent had to have great practice habits, and Mandarich was so physical he required that different players line up over him every practice because they just could not stay healthy if they did not rotate. Marciniak thought Mandarich was a surefire Hall of Famer, yet he turned out to be a first-round bust.
There was Tim Brown, whom Marciniak charted dropping 11 passes in a half-hour practice, on the sideline, over the middle, low, high, easy curls. Marciniak put such a relatively low grade on Brown early in his scouting career that Gil Brandt dropped in on a heavy-duty Tuesday practice at South Bend without telling Marciniak he was coming, just to see what Marciniak might be missing.
But Marciniak came from the old school, trusting his eyes more than his ears, and if a scout caught a player on the wrong day and did not have the proper exposure to see a player’s talents, it was easy to misevaluate him, especially early in the season.
There were Casey Hampton at Texas and Albert Haynesworth at Tennessee. Marciniak could not get past how Hampton would never pursue to the ball or practice as hard as the scout thought he should. And he could not get over Haynesworth’s inconsistency. Marciniak even worried about whether LaDainian Tomlinson was physical enough to get hit by linebackers and consistently carry a full workload.
Throughout his career, his hits far outweighed his misses, but evaluating talent is like trying to hit a curveball. No one connects all the time, and the best batting average is often
Interesting perspective from a scout who is only to happy to admit that he has got it wrong.