How does a team’s scouting department prepare for the most critical part of their year? We went behind the scenes with the Colts’ scouting staff as their talent evaluators got ready for a fall of finding future NFLers
ANDERSON, Ind. — “In the NFL,” Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson said from the front of the room to 23 members of the Colts’ scouting team this summer, “we’re the most underappreciated area that means the most. We’re a brotherhood that no one knows. But that’s okay. Every day we’re living the dream. We’re here to build the best scouting staff in the league. We’re going to outscout the league. So let’s get going.”
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In training camp, Indianapolis Colts GM Ryan Grigson pulled back the curtain on one of more private parts of the NFL business: a meeting between the general manager and his 23-member pro and college scouting staff. Nothing was off limits. In a conference room at Anderson University in Indiana, Grigson, as he has done since becoming GM in 2012, had a staff development night. An informal get-together, with pizza and beer and, Grigson hoped, free-flowing football thoughts. It’s one of three times during the year (December scouting meetings and April draft meetings being the others) when the group is together. Tonight, one member of the scouting staff, regional scout Ahmad Russell, would have 30 minutes to make a professional-enhancement presentation to the group; as it turned out, Russell would make a startling revelation to his peers.
Four hours and 22 minutes later, the meeting was adjourned.
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It was just after 7 on a summer night. After a welcome preamble, Ryan Grigson looked around the room, which was set up as a large table on this college campus an hour northeast of Indianapolis. To his right: his chief lieutenant, Jimmy Raye III, and director of college scouting T.J. McCreight, and senior scouts Dave Razzano and Todd Vasvari, and analytics expert John Park. Across from him: assistant director of college scouting Matt Terpening, scouting intern George Foster (the former top-draft-pick offensive lineman), cap guy Mike Bluem and eastern scout Chad Henry. To his left: a cadre of area scouts and scouting assistants, including Russell. When Grigson spoke—when anyone spoke—the room was silent; a respectful group.
“No matter what your title is,” Grigson said, talking with no notes, “your job is to find talent. At our core, every one of us is a talent evaluator. Our goal here, like the Ravens and the Packers and the great scouting staffs, is to develop greatness in this room—to build from within and develop you as scouts so you can pursue your life goals in this business. And, of course, to narrow the talent gap between us and our competition. This will be a slow, organic process. I want us to be old-school—I want scouts who rely on their eyes and their opinions, their strong opinions from what they see and not from what they think the consensus is.”
Grigson explained the professional development aspect of the night. “I don’t ask anyone what they’re going to say or do when I ask them to present,” he said. “We’ve had guys talk about the history of scouting, the history of this league, how to be a better scout. But I have no idea what Ahmad’s going to talk about tonight. Just do something that’ll make us all better at our jobs. So, take it away, Ahmad.”
Russell, 37, in his 12th year as a scout (Eagles for seven, Colts for five), is a former Colgate linebacker. He’s assertive, confident, well-spoken, a licensed minister. And humble. He rose. He began by what drove him to the ministry, hearing a voice on Good Friday a few years ago that said, “You have to minister.” No one said anything, but you could feel the sense in the room was, Is Russell going to spend a half hour urging the non-saved people in this room to get saved? But that’s not what his subject was.
“We’re all here,” Russell said a minute or two later, “by a thin thread.”
The men in this room, almost all of them, didn’t know the tale Russell then told. The previous year he’d almost been fired by Grigson. The GM, in fact, had a letter detailing the faults he’d found in Russell as a scout, the kind of letter you get from human resources in your company when they’ve got a great case laid out to fire you with no recourse for you to sue. Russell had overslept and missed a plane to a scouting trip. He’d put 80,000 miles on a team-issued Pathfinder, far more than his contract allowed for business use. What made this tough was that Russell was the one scout Grigson brought with him from Philadelphia when he got the Indy GM job in 2012; Grigson like Russell’s eye, and he liked the fact that he wasn’t a cookie-cutter scout. He had gut feelings on players, which Grigson liked. The GM himself was a gut-feeling kind of scout. But Russell was in trouble because he wasn’t keeping his eye on the prize enough for Grigson’s taste. And so here was Russell laying himself open, taking ownership of his lapses in front of peers who didn’t know this had happened. “It really hurt me to know I’d let down this man who believed in me, and this team that thought enough of me to bring here,” Russell said.
Thus the “thin thread” line. Russell had the room in the palm of his hand now, and he began a powerpoint presentation headlined WHAT RYAN ENVISIONED.
A brotherhood of talent finders who buy in.
A staff built off of trust and loyalty.
Passion for football
Have an opinion
“We are a team within a team,” Russell said, now sounding like the preacher he sometimes is. “We will not be outworked. We will make this a reality by consistently outworking the league. A dynasty is our goal.”
Russell had taken the time to poll the 22 scouts in the room. Fifteen said they wanted to be a GM someday. Scouting well and finding great players was the way to get there. Russell told a story about a U.S. Olympic basketball team of recent vintage, with LeBron James saying there’d be no excuses and no one cared who got the credit or scored the points; the gold medal was all that mattered. “You guys are the ones who drove all the miles and scouted all the games,” Russell told the scouts in the room. “You’re the guys who worked for 14 years, 20 years, 22 years … to do what? To create a Dream Team! To create a dynasty! To create a team God can be proud of! How do we do that? By becoming the best scouts. By getting hit with adversity and having the determination to stand up and be better.”
There were other powerpoint slides and other exclamation points by Russell. Later, Grigson would admit he was shocked that Russell shared how he almost got fired, and he was uneasy that he admitted it to the group. But given some time to think about it, Grigson believed it was a good message to share. Understand that we’re all here to work and produce and build a winning team, and when that’s not front and center in your life, you might not be here much longer.
Other teams do these kinds of staff-development functions—Baltimore had nine such presentations, shorter ones, in camp this season. Some coaching staffs do it too. Bill Belichick has asked his assistants to read books and come back for a new season and share the lessons from what they’ve read that might help the staff in some way. Grigson uses these meetings to urge his staff to take ownership in the whole.
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When he got the floor back, Grigson said: “Thanks Ahmad. You made our bond stronger in this room.”
Grigson went on. “I applaud Ahmad. That was humility at its finest. I love his message, so much about it, because what Ahmad touches is what we’ve all been through. It’s like what Chuck [Pagano, the head coach who overcame leukemia in 2012 to return to coaching] has taught us: No day is guaranteed. Nothing is guaranteed in this game. A couple years ago, we’re in the AFC title game and we think the next step is the Super Bowl. And then Luck breaks down and Hasselbeck breaks down and we’re playing games we gotta win with the friggin’ Brooklyn Bolts quarterback from Coney Island! But we don’t give up! That’s the spirit of our coach! That’s the sprit of the Colts!”
Translation: After the Colts’ two quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck, got hurt last year, Grigson signed Charlie Whitehurst, semi-pro quarterback Josh Freeman of the Brooklyn Bolts, and Ryan Lindley. The trio played the last six quarters of the seasons—and the Colts won both of the last two games.
What Grigson stressed with his scouts, in one of their last sessions together before they hit the road for the season, was the bottom of the roster. “Grind and find,” he said. “Why do the Packers and the Ravens and the Seahawks do it right more often than not? Continuity. Passion to pick the right guys, no matter where they are. It doesn’t matter if you’re at Pikeville or Alabama. Throw caution to the wind! You see a guy at a small place, text me! Get him on our radar! Those can be the difference-makers!
“That back end of the roster ends up being our front end by Week 6. Every week you see that in this league. Look at us last year. We spent a season in the valley, and we did not fold. We beat the world champs! With a sub coordinator calling the old coordinator’s plays! The quarterback’s got a lacerated kidney! The whole world says there’s no way we’re beating Denver. But you guys got the players, Chuck and his staff coached ‘em, and we responded. There’s a lesson there: Be at your best when it’s the darkest. That’s when we need your best work.”
(In Week 10 last year, the 3-5 Colts, after firing offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, beat the Broncos, who went on to win the Super Bowl.)
Grigson spent a good chunk of time, maybe 40 minutes, on road life. Some of the guys in this room will be away from home 150 days a year. “Guys, I’ve stayed at the McIntosh Inns out there,” Grigson said. “I’ve been at BC and stayed at the Econolodge with the lock on the phone. No matter where you are, get your reports in on time. I got used to finishing mine every night. Then you start fresh next day.” A few other Grigsonisms that stood out:
• “Be careful when you hate a rookie. Give ‘em all a chance. Watch ‘em. Keep watching ‘em.”
• “On the road, text me? I’m there. Call me? You got no shot.”
• “I love the buzz guys. I eat up the buzz guys. Text me. Get me interested.”
• “Get zen on your position groups. Know ‘em cold.”
• “On the road, look sharp. Be punctual. Be courteous. Be consistent. Be well-dressed. Answer the bell every day.”
• “Do not be hyper-focused on special teams. But everyone have a Bill Bates [referring to the undrafted safety-special teamer who carved out a 15-year career with the Cowboys]. Who’s your Bill Bates this year out there? Find him. Text me about him. You know that’s the quickest way onto this team.”
• “Watch the preseason tape. We’re gonna have to find people at the cutdown. Look for safeties, tight ends, wide receivers, corners. We can use a good corner. And we’ll listen when people call. We got a sixth-round pick for [cornerback] Marcus Burley! We’ll take that.”
• “So we got Andrew signed long-term now. Now we gotta kill the draft. The draft for us is do or die. Forget the lure of free agency.”
• “You know what I love about our group? No Debbie Downers in here.”
“Let’s talk about today,” Grigson said near the end of the night. “Who’d you like out there? How’s the offensive line? Somebody tell me about LeRaven.”
Third-round pick LeRaven Clark had looked in camp—and he was at a big need position, offensive tackle. Young Matt Terpening piped up. “He jumped out on pass pro,” Terpening said. “Good athleticism. Fits well.”
“We need him,” Grigson said. “We gotta hit on all our guys. That’s the attitude we all gotta have.”
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It’s 11:26 p.m. No one has left the room. Pizza gone. Much of the beer still on ice; it seems a fairly teetotaling group. But the 7 a.m. breakfast, and morning tape study, looms.
“You make your bones in this league by wakin’ up and making a decision—every day,” Grigson said. “Go make some great ones.”
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