The Rogue Scout sits in a small office near the front door of his suburban Sacramento home, remote control in hand. He’s staring at a TV set that’s at least a decade old, examining game tape of one of the 2011 NFL draft’s top prospects, a quarterback who’ll likely be snatched up with one of the first five selections.
The scout has seen this movie before, and he doesn’t like it.
“What does this guy do that anybody likes?” Dave Razzano asks, pressing the rewind button. “Every pass is an underneath curl route! It’s third-and-10 in the red zone – throw a [expletive] touchdown pass. But look at this: A three-yard dump-off. That’s all he does. He threw the ball just about every play, and he had 16 touchdown passes last season.
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Razzano, a respected talent evaluator during a two-decade-plus career with the San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals, is talking about former Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, and he’s not holding back. He has always given unvarnished and sometimes unpopular opinions – Razzano believes his dismissal from the Rams following the 2005 season was triggered by a heated pre-draft argument with then-general manager Charley Armey in which he denigrated future No. 1 overall selection Alex Smith as a backup-caliber quarterback – and since being fired by the Cardinals following the 2009 draft in an apparent cost-cutting move, he’s been completely unencumbered by discretion.
A blogger named Danny Kelly recently referred to Razzano as a “rogue-opinion enthusiast,” and the son of the late, renowned 49ers scouting director Tony Razzano embraced the label and ran with it.
“When I thought about it, a rogue scout is a pretty good description,” says Razzano, who’s currently blogging in his own right (for Playmaker Mobile). “It’s someone who’s away from the horde, who doesn’t have any ties, who doesn’t give a [expletive]. I like it.”
Two Fridays ago at his home not far from the 49ers’ former Sierra College training-camp site where we first met in the late-’80s, Razzano and I watched film on Gabbert and other top prospects, dredged up some of his old reports and talked about the pitfalls of an imperfect process.
Razzano doesn’t claim to be perfect in his assessments; for example, the same year he denigrated Smith’s stock he graded Aaron Rodgers(notes) as having “mid-round value,” and we all know how that turned out. “That’s one report I’d like to burn,” Razzano said. However, he has shared enough prescient opinions over the years to convince me that his completion percentage is far higher than most of the men in his profession, beginning with the days before the 1991 draft, when he tipped me off to a lowly regarded Iowa defensive back named Merton Hanks. I talked up Hanks on the radio, the Niners took him in the fifth round,\ and he went on to become an All-Pro – nothing wrong with that equation.
Since then I’ve come to value Razzano’s evaluations and, more importantly, the conviction behind his opinions. Many men in his profession play it safe by offering assessments consistent with the general consensus among others in their organization, rival teams’ talent evaluators, or even media analysis. Razzano watches film and rates what he sees – and then he watches more film. There are many nuances that impact his grades, but in the end, he tries to keep it simple.
“I talk about the ‘excitement meter,’ ” he explained. “That’s the basic thing about scouting: Whenever you’re watching a player, when you turn on that tape, how friggin’ excited are you? I remember walking into the University of New Mexico [in 2000] and seeing tape of Brian Urlacher(notes) for the first time. I said, ‘Oh my God.’ I’d never seen anything like it. I got up and started pacing around the room. I couldn’t believe it.”
Gabbert’s yards per attempt were 6.71 in 2010, down from ’09 (8.07).
Suffice it to say that Razzano’s ‘excitement meter’ barely registered for Gabbert. Nor is he wowed by the draft’s other marquee quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, who, in his mind, “has multiple red flags. You can’t take a chance on a guy like that on the No. 1 overall pick.”
Similarly, Razzano was down on former Washington quarterback Jake Locker – until he watched more tape.
“Everybody says he’s inaccurate,” Razzano said as Locker completed an intermediate pass against USC on the TV behind him. “He’s not – he throws a great ball! It’s a low-percentage offense. There’s never anybody open underneath, and he’s got no protection. You can see it if you look closely enough. People are stupid.
“[Brett] Favre went in the second round, right? If you look at their college stats, Favre and Locker are practically identical. Now look at this play: Tell me this guy doesn’t move like Favre, scramble like Favre, throw like Favre. Pretend he has the number four on his jersey. His release is a lot like Favre, too.”
Razzano paused the tape and, from a stack in the corner of the room, pulled out an old, handwritten 49ers draft board to review his and other decision-makers’ grades on Favre. No one in the organization foresaw greatness, but the offensive coordinator at the time was the Southern Mississippi quarterback’s biggest proponent. “[Mike] Holmgren liked him the most,” Razzano said, smiling at the revelation. If this were a movie, that would be classified as foreshadowing.
I asked Razzano if most coaches, scouts and general managers’ grades were so easily retrievable. “Not really,” he said. “And I disagree with that. You’ve got to go back and look – how else do you have a report card? How else do you know who to listen to?
“If you had a big Wall Street company and told six people to invest $20 million each, wouldn’t you keep track of who invested well and promote those employees accordingly?”
“I talk about the ‘excitement meter.’ That’s the basic thing about scouting: Whenever you’re watching a player, when you turn on that tape, how friggin’ excited are you?”
– Dave Razzano
Razzano has some definite ideas about how and why teams make so many mistakes on draft day. He’s not a big fan of the increasing tendency of talent evaluators to rely on measurables. Said Razzano: “Height, weight, speed, strength – guys fall in love with the numbers, and then coaches justify the lack of [collegiate] production by saying, ‘It was the scheme,’ or ‘He wasn’t coached right.’ The bottom line is, you have to trust the tape.”
Another trap cited by Razzano: Teams often reach for a perceived need, rather than selecting the player they’ve rated the highest. First-round picks, in particular, can be impacted by an owner and/or general manager’s desire to fall into line with media projections (and to therefore receive high marks from reporters who offer instant draft grades).
“If you look at the drafts from 2000 to 2007, 44 top-15 picks have busted out,” Razzano says. “Why is that? Well, for one thing, everybody wants to hit a home run. My attitude is this: Stay away from red flags; just take a solid player. The same goes for later in the draft. You know what guys look for in late rounds? Projects, guys with potential. Again, just pick solid guys. They’ll be productive.”
Razzano’s refusal to fall in line with the widespread belief that Smith was a big-time quarterback prospect led to a heated confrontation with Armey in a meeting at Rams headquarters a couple of weeks before the ’05 draft. Razzano’s report on the former Utah quarterback opined that Smith was “not as good as our backup, Jeff Smoker. Backup only for the Rams.”
Armey, who declined to discuss the incident after it was initially reported by Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s Matt Maiocco, solicited the input of other scouts and coaches who’d studied far less tape (if any) of Smith, who ended up being picked No. 1 overall by the 49ers.
“There were 12 guys around the table, and Charley had them rate him on every attribute – arm strength; accuracy short; accuracy long; judgment; game management; ad-lib ability under pressure. And he put a highlight tape on the projector. I mean, obviously, he’s gonna be 30 out of 30, and every throw’s a great pass … it’s a highlight tape!
“He said, ‘Are you gonna sit there and be stubborn? Why can’t you see what we see?’ I got heated. I said, ‘I’ve watched seven tapes, and I’m not changing my grade.’ He told one of our assistants, ‘Go get all seven tapes.’ I started screaming, ‘You’re gonna look at highlight tapes? That’s how Akili Smith got drafted!’ [Scout] Tom Marino had me in a bear hug. I just lost my mind.”
As another example of the evils of groupthink, Razzano cited Cardinals GM Rod Graves’ mandate that scouts grade each player “for the league,” rather than merely assessing his value for their specific needs.
“Everyone else makes you grade for the team,” Razzano said. “But in Arizona, you’re told to assign a value for the whole league, and it can come back to bite you. That’s how we got [underachieving defensive tackle] Alan Branch(notes) in ’07. He was projected as a first-round pick, and we’re sitting there in our draft room saying, ‘Oh [expletive], he’s gonna slip,’ and now he’s up at the top of our board, and Rod trades up to get him [with the first pick] in the second round. And none of us [scouts] liked the guy.”
Blocking out the prevailing noise and forming his own opinions has always been a strength of Razzano’s. When I asked him to name an off-the-radar player in this year’s draft that he regards as a potential Pro Bowl performer, his eyes lit up excitedly.
“There’s a defensive tackle at USC named Jurrell Casey, and he’s the protypical nose [tackle],” Razzano said. “He’s like another Michael Carter, who we got in the fifth round in San Francisco – one of the all-time steals. I see he’s rated as the ninth-best defensive tackle. If they do a [mock] re-draft in a few years, he’ll be a top-seven pick.”
Razzano showed me some tape of Casey from last year’s game against Cal, and the visual evidence was impressive.
“Watch him split the double-team here,” Razzano said as Casey burst between the Bears’ center and left guard. “Look at that nasty explosiveness. I’m telling you, it’s [like the Pittsburgh Steelers’] Casey Hampton(notes). He has short-area quickness and enough of a motor to satisfy me. You have to realize, defensive linemen don’t all have great work ethic. That’s why they’re big. But [Jurrell Casey’s] a naturally explosive guy, and they’re hard to find.
The rest of my afternoon with Razzano was similarly illuminating. He talked up a pair of potential sleepers at wide receiver: Hawaii’s Greg Salas and San Diego State’s Vincent Brown. I listened intently, given that Razzano tipped me off to undrafted free agents Wes Welker(notes) and Davone Bess(notes) when each future NFL standout was coming out of college.
Razzano was especially excited by tape of Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick, highlighting a downfield throw the quarterback made against Cal last September. “Watch this play,” Razzano said. “It’s a real NFL play. There’s pressure … he slides up and keeps his eyes downfield … then whoop, he throws it back across his body. That’s a tough throw.
“He’s so effortless. People say he’s got a slow release, but I’ve seen him get rid of it. He’s a good decision-maker – he’s smart and tough, and if he has to pull it down and run it, he can. And he’s as good a passer on the deep and intermediate throws as I’ve seen [from this year’s crop]. I’d love to see the Raiders take him; I think he’d fit there perfectly.”
Locker was steadily under pressure last season.
Before I departed, Razzano wanted to give me one, final look at his favorite quarterback in this year’s draft. “Let’s watch Favre,” he said before catching himself. “I mean Locker. Man … I’m calling the guy ‘Favre.’ ”
Watching Locker roll to his right and release the ball just before an oncoming pass rusher arrived, Razzano exclaimed, “Look, he puts his shoulder into it. Look! It’s just like Favre. If people can’t see that …”
I could almost feel the Excitement Meter shaking with seismic abandon. Razzano paused the tape and continued: “My first exposure to Locker, watching a game on TV, I did not like what I saw. He threw errant passes and wasn’t very accurate. But then I saw the tape and realized it’s not him. He had more drops [by receivers] than anyone in the Pac-10, and he was running for his life – his line was probably the worst in the conference. And he still made plays with the game on the line. The guy’s a winner.”
Razzano hit play on the remote and paced around the room as Locker faked a handoff, rolled to his left and threw a touchdown pass to a receiver in the middle of the end zone.
“Look at him here,” Razzano said, “throwing against the grain …”
On a metaphorical level, this was something to which the Rogue Scout could absolutely relate.