Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My Story


From time to time I get asked about my background and how I got into scouting. I've answered a few people in PMs, but figured I'd put a post together so I can reference it when asked in the future. This may bore the heck out of some of you. I will not be offended if you choose to go look at pictures of Marissa Miller instead. Pictures of Arthur Miller are a different story, of course.

I'm not your typical ex-jock that couldn't give up the game. I found my way to scouting on a long, strange path. Because of that, I'm going to start at the beginning and give you some background. This will also explain how I came to be an Eagles fan despite not so much as visiting Philly until I was almost 30.

In 1981 my friend Jamie Craven gave me a book about baseball (for my 12th birthday). He and his brother Joe were big baseball fans. They collected baseball cards and loved all kinds of players. They peaked my interest in baseball. The book I got was the 1981 Complete Handbook of Baseball. It changed my life. I hate to sound melodramatic, but it is the truth.

Back in those days you got info in the sports pages, but there wasn't the current onslaught of information. Living in NC meant that we had a small to medium sized sports section. We got coverage of stars and major events, but there wasn't an abundance of info. The book changed that. Suddenly I could read about all 26 teams and hundreds of players. I became instantly hooked. I read that book so much that it split in two.

I became a more serious baseball fan. I watched every game I could. I wanted to know everything. Prior to the 1982 season I actually sent a letter to the Kansas City Royals explaining to them how to make a couple of moves that would get them to the World Series. I wasn't a Royals fan, but I was so sure the moves were brilliant that I felt obligated to share them. Needless to say, they didn't follow my advice. Or respond.

I was an NFL fan at this time, but it wasn't my passion. In the 70s I'd pulled for the Cowboys to the beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl because I hated Pittsburgh so much. I'm not exactly sure why. That led me to become a big Tom Landry fan. You should probably always get worried when a kid likes a coach more than he does players. Landry had his own coaching tree in the early 80s. Dan Reeves, a former player and assistant, took over Denver in 1981. Forrest Gregg, a former player, took over Cincinnati in 1980. Some guy named Mike Ditka, a former player and assistant, took over Chicago in 1982. I followed all of these teams because of their ties to Landry, my football hero at the moment.

Chicago had this interesting assistant coach named Buddy Ryan. He did a lot of very aggressive things on defense. Buddy and the Bears defense set an NFL record with 72 sacks in 1984. They now had my full attention. The '85 Bears took things up a notch and were arguably the greatest one-year defense of all time. They shut people down, but also made tons of plays. The Bears had 64 sacks that year. They came up with almost 60 takeaways. They scored 4 touchdowns. Then they shut out both NFC opponents in the playoffs. Sports Illustrated focused on Buddy, the 46 Defense, and Mike Singletary in their Super Bowl Preview issue. I still have my original copy of the magazine and it is one of my most treasured possessions.

At this point I moved from MLB and the NBA and became a full time football fanatic. I started buying books on the history and evolution of the game of football. I would sit around and draw up plays. I would get out checkers and move them around into different formations to see what might work and what might not. I really became obsessed with the 46 Defense and football strategy.

Buddy Ryan came to Philly in 1986. He and Reggie White and the emerging team were a lot of fun to follow and I became a full-fledged Eagles fan by 1989. Luckily they were full of stars and that meant a lot of TV coverage. I was able to follow the team from afar and still keep up with them. Remember, there were no sports bars to go to back then. DirecTV didn't exist. You watched the game being shown locally and had to watch the scoreboard like a hawk.

My football obsession had started to involve the draft in the mid 80s. I was a big time college fan and knew all of the major stars. One thing you have to remember about that time period is that there wasn't nearly as much coverage. I knew guys from major colleges, but I-AA players were virtually unknown. Even mid-major guys were a mystery. MAC games were never on TV. Same for the WAC. You rarely saw much Pac-10 action, except for the big time schools. I read SI and The Sporting News and was able to follow some players in that way.

While in college I got involved in the school radio station's sportscasting group. I met a guy there named Chuck Scruggs. He was the first true-blooded Draftnik I ever met. He loved the draft. We did a preview show on the radio for the 1989 draft. We did another show in 1990. We got a few picks right each year and did a pretty good job.

My work at the radio station allowed me access to the football coaches. I loved getting to talk to them and pick their brains. These coaches were a great source of information. They loved to talk about the game with people who wanted to really learn about football. I can’t tell you how important those coaches were in teaching me more about the game.

My love of the draft and the technical side of football continued to grow. I did some radio work outside of college that had me dealing with HS coaches. I even learned the game from these guys. I have a special appreciation for good coaches, no matter what level. Always keep an open mind and you can learn something. I continued to follow college and pro football and the draft. I got a little smarter each year. Funny how that happens as you get older.

I finally gave in and bought draft books for the 1996 draft. I got Mel Kiper's book and the one from Pro Football Weekly. I liked PFW's a lot more and Joel Buchsbaum had a major influence on me because of that. He was so thorough and smart, but also readable. That really appealed to me. Also, he didn't let feelings play too much of a part. He wanted to provide a good scouting report. Kiper had his favorite players and it really showed in his writing. He also wasn't as technical as Buchsbaum. Joel loved the game of football. Mel loved football. And Mel.

The books still left me wanting more. I wanted to see these players with my own eyes. I decided to start taping some college games in the 1996 season so I could study the top prospects. I had no training from anyone specifically about what to look for, but after spending a decade watching games, reading books, talking to coaches, and studying Buchsbaum's notes I wanted to see what I could see.

I taped games all year long, but only a tape or two a weekend. I was still focused on major schools and big players. I used Buchsbaum's pre-draft ratings to help me figure out which players to check out. It wasn't hard to see why guys like Orlando Pace, Darrell Russell, Shawn Springs, Bryant Westbrook, and Peter Boulware were Top 5 picks. Figuring out other players was tougher. I taped and re-watched the Senior Bowl a lot. That helped me to get a better feel for guys like Antowain Smith and Jason Taylor, a couple of really talented medium school guys. I liked them both quite a bit. I started to feel like I knew what I was doing. I haven't bought a draft book since then.

I got more aggressive about taping games in 1997. I wanted to get as many schools as possible. That took a lot of time and dedication. My evaluations got better. I had a better feel for the 1998 draft than any other to that point.

In the fall of 1998 I got DirecTV for the first time. That opened a whole new world. The various FoxSportsNet outlets showed all kinds of games. And they re-showed games all week long. You could now watch every Oregon game on Monday night at 8pm. Florida games came on Tuesday at 11pm. Minnesota games were shown on Thursday nights. And so on. All of a sudden I had access to almost every Div-I school and many I-AA schools. That was awesome, but meant a lot more work.

While doing some research in February of 1999 I came across an online ad from a former NFL scout. He was offering training in select locations. It cost several hundred dollars, but the thought of having access to a real scout was too good to pass up. I went down to the Atlanta class and was one of about 8-10 guys. There was a mixture of college coaches, former players, and me. I more than held my own in the class and that gave me a lot of confidence. The scout gave us a tremendous amount of information and was a huge influence on me. I go back to things that George said to this day.

I used to compile notes and lists about prospects for my own knowledge/entertainment. I began to post draft info on the web in 2003. I was casual at first. I started a thread on the Eagles Message Board in February of 2004 with a few post-Combine thoughts. I called it The Scouts Notebook. That thread lasted until the summer. I started a new one for the next season and in 2005 actually started (with Matt Alkire). The site has gotten a bit better each year since then.

I have sent emails and letters to NFL teams over the last decade on several occasions. I have some very nice rejection letters. Oddly enough, the team that won't say a word to me is the Eagles. Can't get Heckert to even tell me to get lost. Scott Pioli sent me a nice letter in November of 2007 when his team was in the midst of trying to go undefeated. Thomas Dimitroff sent me a nice email. I've gotten plenty of generic rejections over the years, but a few people have been nice about it. I actually spoke to Eric DeCosta of the Ravens for about 15 minutes on the phone. Great guy.

I haven't been able to get a scouting job or really even come close. I don't have any connections in the scouting world. I am not a former player. I spent one year in HS on the bench and then realized that while I loved the game I wasn't meant to play it. All I lacked was size, talent, and athletic ability. I face an uphill battle, but I'm going to continue to reach out to NFL personnel guys in hopes of one day getting a job with a team. Until then, you guys are stuck with reading the inane ramblings of my lunatic mind.

Influential Books I've read over the last 25 years:

* The Armchair QB by John Thorn
* any of John Madden's books
* Play Football The NFL Way by Tom Bass
* The Pro Style by Tom Bennett
* Finding The Winning Edge by Bill Walsh
* The GM by Thomas Callahan
* The Education Of A Coach by David Halberstam
* Pro Football Weekly Draft Preview by Joel Buchsbaum (multiple years)


Stephen said...

Hmmm, Tommy what do you think is lacking so far as getting a shot with a pro team as a scout? Is it kind of an exclusive type profession thats hard to break into without the right connections?

This may sound strange, but you've influenced me personally and taken my appreciation of football to a whole new level. Prior to the 2005 preseason and me discovering the message boards I didn't really know very much at all about football. I never played, I was a baseball/basketball/soccer guy in my youth. During the 2005 preseason I started looking around the message boards. I found a particular thread by a guy named phillyfreak that was providing a day by day recap of the action at training camp. Up until that point I hadn't given much thought to players aside from the starters, roster building was kind of a new concept to me. The backups were just guys who had to come in if someone else got hurt right? I didn't understand at that point how important having good depth can be for a team.

After getting hooked on that kind of thing I did a little more digging around the board and eventually came accross your stuff. You opened up and explained the game to me in a way that I had never seen before, and almost immediately I was starting to translate what I was learning on the boards to what I was seeing on sundays. Things like different offensive formations and defensive sets started to come alive for me on the screen and I had a much deeper understanding the strategies and how the different personnel was dictating what the team was trying to do.

I've been hooked ever since. So even though you haven't gotten your crack at the bigtime yet, you can take all the credit for giving this particular eagles fan a deeper, more satisfying and more enjoyable experience every sunday of the football year :).

jyolteon said...

Cosign what Stephen said. I put more stock into what you have to say about a prospect, a team, etc, than I do with Mel Kiper, Jr., Todd McShay, etc.

Mark H. said...

I think the NFL's loss has been our gain so far. Still, I hope you break in someday.

Prem Prakash said...

I've got to chime in here in your praise, Tommy. I first started reading you on the message board, recognized that you were a bright guy, and then tracked you to your blog. I log on almost everyday now. I had figured you had an extensive coaching and/or scouting background. I'm impressed that you're so much self-taught.

I appreciate your insights and balanced honesty. I've been a Eagles fan since I was a kid cheering for Norm Snead, so I like to think I know a bit about football, but you've taken my f.q. (football quotient) to a whole new level. I understand roster development and game planning so much more now. My appreciation of the subleties of the game has become much deeper, to the point that the guys I watch the games with pay attention when I offer my opinion. Sometimes I even share the credit with you, the brains behind my words!

I am a teacher and writer, so I also want to acknowledge how fine a job you do expressing yourself. It's one thing to possess information, it's a whole other skill to be able to share it with others in a manner in which they can learn.

Your blog is so valuable that I can almost forgive you for being a Landry fan as a kid. Do you have any idea how much we hated him and Staubach in Philly?

I don't know what your future will bring but I wish you all the best, and I cherish the time that we have with you now.

Brendan said...

I have yet to post in the comments but have been reading your blog for about two years now and, like everyone else, I just wanted to say feel that it is the most comprehensive and thoughtful commentary on the Birds, period. You are much appreciated my friend.

Prem Prakash said...

"Instant Replay" by Jerry Kramer, was the first book that helped me realize the men on the Sunday tv screen were real people.

edinburgheagle said...

Just to add to the general Lawlor-love-in, as an overseas football fan (born and raised in scotland) almost all my football education has come over the internet, and to an enormous degree from your posts here and on the eagles message boards. Thank god for you or I might actually pay attention to some of the crap posted on tate ;)
So best of luck getting into the football business, I'll be pulling for you! In the meantime I'll be making the most of your insight into the game.

Tommy Lawlor said...

Thanks for all the nice comments guys.

The funny thing is that I used to do all this research, but I had precious few people to share it with. I joined the EMB in March of 2003 to see what was going to happen with Hugh and Shawn Barber. I had no intention of posting info. I was hoping to get some scoops from WIP and other local rumors.

I noticed questions going unanswered and some getting bad answers. I began to jump in and the rest is history, so to speak.

I'm incredibly grateful to the men who took the time to teach me (directly or indirectly) and feel almost an obligation to pass on what I've taken in.

Kids today can't read Joel Buchsbaum's notes. They can't listen to John Madden do a game (he was great in the 80's and early 90's). Bill Walsh is no longer with us. Innovators like Don Coryell, Buddy Ryan, Tom Landry, Fritz Shurmur, Sam Wyche, and Ted Marchibroda are all gone from the game. I just hope to pass on some of what I've learned.

RE: Scouting Jobs

They are all about connections. I have basically none. The other thing that kills me is that I'm not currently part of a team, be it HS, college, or otherwise.

The tough thing for me is that if I started working for a local team I'd have to give up some of my scouting and writing. There are only so many hours in the day. I hate to give up what I've built to join a staff in some volunteer role in the hopes that it will help me get a scouting job in 5 years.

I am going to send some materials to teams this year, but not in the form of a resume and letter. I've done that and it hasn't gotten me anywhere. I'm going to put some of my thoughts into some kind of package and send that out. It may get me the same response, but I hate writing formal letters and resumes. I love writing about football. Might as well "waste my time" doing something I like.

Baloophi said...

Tommy -

Selfishly, I hope you never get a scouting job and leave us lost in the lurch when the Birds fumble two punt returns or surprise us by drafting a QB in the second round. Your insight and humor are the perfect balance to what has to be one of the most frustrating teams in the history of sports (hats off to the Bills, the Browns, and that team from "The Replacements"... Really? Keanu's your quarterback?).

Personally, I feel you'd excel as a national level writer, delivering nuanced X's and O's drenched in laughs to the mouth-breathing masses. An Eagles Blitz for the entire league, if you will. As a guy who sits around trying to crank out jokes all day, I can say you've certainly got the goods - whatever my two cents is worth to you (in today's economy, probably far less than two cents... actually, you'd probably owe ME money, so nevermind).

But most of all, I hope that you get to do what you most want to do - and if that's driving from motel to motel across the South East to scout interior lineman who might someday make a practice squad, then Fly, Tommy, Fly.

Thanks again for all your time and wisdom, and for stooping down to answer questions from us little-brains. As the above testimony clearly reflects, your writing means a lot to many of us. What that says about us probably can't be answered without extensive therapy and a full regimen of lithium-level medication, but you're filling a need, Tommy.

Thank you,

Tom Ballman said...

Yep you give out the daily juice for the soul. Count me in as a nother grateful daily reader. Blitz is Bookmark number 5 on the phone. Scouts notebook number 7.

In fact no more emb.

BTW, Do you have anything share about eldra buckley? The former SD practice squadder. Could he supplant bookerT. That is should the FO choose to shortsight the position with a vet ala Dunn?