Articles

Blogging about college football by an Oklahoma Sooners fan.

Zombie Scouting


Umair Haque, the fascinating founder of two innovation consultancy shops and a blogger for Harvard Business Publishing, recently has written a number of compelling articles about what he has dubbed our national "zombieconomy." To Haque, the U.S. entrepreneurial system is now populated with "brain-dead organizations who are about as intelligently responsive as Homer Simpson." In other words, modern-day institutions lack the ability to react and respond to developments in the world surrounding them.

In the midst of the NFL draft, Haque's zombieconomy offers an interesting lens through which we can view the growing chorus of complaints from pro scouts about the rise of the spread offense in college football, such as this item from Mike Tanier posted on The Fifth Down, The New York Times pro football blog. (For now, let's side aside the fact that the "spread" is almost completely worthless as a classification/descriptor of offensive systems.)
Generally, the arguments from pro personnel gurus range from the contention that the spread doesn't prepare players for the pro game to a more nuanced view that the spread prevents them from fully evaluating their NFL-level skills. The latter take rests on the notion that, essentially, offenses like the one run by Urban Meyer's Florida Gators offer almost no information on how players will translate to the pro game. That applies to both offensive and defensive prospects, who supposedly use different skill sets to stop the spread schemes than a traditional pro-style attack. (Let's also put a pin in the debate over whether or not scouts are that good at what they do in the first place.)
If recruits with NFL stars in their eyes start to buy into the argument that the spread doesn't prepare them for the next level, the spread could have a dire future. After all, if the top talent shuns college programs that run the spread and amass at schools that use a pro scheme, it could put the spread teams at a disadvantage on the playing field. Ergo, coaches would have an incentive to implement the pro style or face the risk of fading into oblivion.
However, recruits also like winning, and there's a reason why the spread is all the rage at the moment. Having witnessed the success of teams like Florida, Oklahoma and LSU, programs have copy-catted in droves. Let's assume, then, that the spread in all its iterations is here to stay.
NFL teams and scouts now face a crossroads: deny the spread or embrace this brave new world.
For the deniers, when it comes to evaluating talent, this would mean avoiding players who have played in--or primarily against--spread-centric spread offenses. Alternatively, pro scouts could keep trying to squeeze blood from the turnips of traditional evaluation techniques, such as the 40-yard dash, 250-pound bench presses and the broad jump. Use small swaths of game film in which spread players do pro-like tasks. Interview prospects and ask them to deconstruct passing trees and talk about their childhoods.
The non-zombie scouts, on the other hand, might take a look at the college paradigm shift and recognize something of an opportunity.
The zombie way looks at a player's game film and asks: Relative to what NFL quarterbacks/safeties/running backs are asked to do, how well does this college quarterback/safety/running back do those things? The traditional approach to scouting tries to figure out how prospects "fit" into the pro game or an NFL team's style. Rather than shoehorning players into a specific mold, why not use the scouting process to determine what players have to offer?