May is the time when the NFL media closes the book on draft coverage and transitions into preseason coverage. We stash the draft guides on the bookshelf to grow brown and brittle and erase all memories of mock drafts and draft grades from our minds, often with the help of strong bourbon. Last year's scouting report is almost as meaningless as yesterday's horoscope.
This mass amnesia is part of the job, a reflection of the disposability of 99 percent of the coverage we provided over the past six weeks or so. It is also a terrible principle, one that guarantees we will make the same mistakes over and over again, turning draft day into Groundhog Day as we retrace the same steps and fall into the same patches of quicksand.
With that in mind, let's take one last look at some of elements of this year's draft coverage and see if we can learn some lasting lessons from it, starting with the flaming paper bag of a scouting report that refuses to be stomped out.
Geno Smith and the Scourge of Generalities
That strange feeling Jets fans experienced for about 48 hours last week was optimism about their team's quarterback situation. From the moment that the Jets released Tim Tebow until the moment Geno Smith fired his agent, the Jets truly looked as if they were going to leave unnecessary controversies in the past. It was disorienting, but now it is over.
Smith's decision to fire his Select Sports agents, like all Jets stories and Geno Smith stories, has taken on its own life. There is a lot of dirty laundry flying around; some sources are casting Smith as an unrealistic kid who convinced himself that he would be the first player drafted, while others whisper of an agency that shoddily prepared a client than deprioritized him when things went south. What's shocking is that something like this does not happen a dozen times per draft: When naïve 22-year olds form alliances with shrewd, bottom-line focused entities, drama is bound to ensue.
The fallout from the Smith-vs.-Select situation is the light it shed on the scathing scouting report published by Pro Football Weekly in March. PFW draft editor Nolan Nawrocki wrote that Smith was "not a student of the game," then got warmed up. "Nonchalant field presence -- does not command respect from teammates and cannot inspire. Mild practice demeanor -- no urgency. Not committed or focused -- marginal work ethic … [H]as approached offseason training as if he has already arrived and it shows in his body with minimal muscle definition or strength ... Needed to be coddled in college - cannot handle hard coaching." The scouting report later compared Smith to "a cross between Akili Smith and Aaron Brooks," in case your race-o-meter was low on batteries.
PFW was roundly, rightly criticized for crossing the many lines that separate honest scouting from character assassination. Many experts came to Smith's defense, arguing that Smith was not just talented but dedicated and mature; the sources for these determinations, it must be pointed out, were hardly more reliable than the ones at Nawrocki's disposal.
Since Smith's draft plunge and agent firing, another story of Smith's pre-draft odyssey has emerged, one that superficially confirms the Pro Football Weekly scouting report. "He's coming off as a spoiled, pampered brat," ESPN's Rich Cimini quotes one NFL scout as saying. "I'm not sure he knows how to take instruction because he pretty much wouldn't listen or talk to our coaches," an unnamed executive told Jason Cole of Yahoo. "I think he wants to be good. But you can't tell him anything right now. He's tuned out because he thinks he's got it all down." Cole cites another source as stating that Smith talked on his cellphone and checked Twitter when he was supposed to be interacting with coaches during team visits.
It does not take too much imagination to draw a line from "talking on cell phone during meetings" and the content of that PFW flame-off. I blogged about the Smith-Nawrocki scouting report on April 9, and I pointed out then that I also heard pre-draft whispers about bad team visits. The scuttlebutt about an immature Smith was making the rounds for weeks before the draft, and no doubt it reached Nawrocki through reliable channels.
So was the PFW scouting report correct? The answer is no. It was just a little less wrong than its critics claim. The core problem with that scouting report -- an issue we can take away for future scouting reports -- is one of specificity. Nawrocki and his staff may have been broadly accurate in some respects, but they were horribly imprecise, and broad accuracy without precision is essentially useless (try using the knowledge that "summer is hot" to plan a picnic) and can be damning when speaking to the character of a specific human being.
I can draw a simple example from my teaching days. If I wrote a discipline referral that said, "Johnny stood up, slammed his book to the ground, called me a m---------ing a-----e, and stormed out of my classroom, breaking my overhead projector on the way out," I could expect swift, responsive punishment from my principal. Most of the time. Anyway, if I wrote, "Johnny was disrespectful, defied authority, demonstrated a bad attitude, used inappropriate language, and demonstrated a willingness to destroy public property," my superiors would justifiably wonder if anything really happened, or if I just "had it out" for Johnny. The first referral contained tangible actions, the latter personal judgments which could have been formed from a very different set of behaviors (Johnny rolling his eyes, taking a long time to get a book out, ripping up a handout, for example).
Scouting reports are traditionally written in third person omniscient, with vagueness as a stylistic element. We write "drops passes" instead of "dropped three passes against Michigan," for a variety of reasons, some of those reasons pretty terrible. (For example, we did not actually see the Michigan game and don't know how many passes were dropped.) That kind of universalized non-specificity is bad in most circumstances but terrible when discussing a player's character. If a scouting report reads "Smith read Twitter during a team visit," it provides evidence that is at least somewhat tangible, even acknowledging that such information is second hand, and may come from an unreliable sources hoping to affect Smith's draft status. When the specifics of the prospect's behavior are scrubbed away, then the generalized remarks are then repackaged using inflammatory, charged (but still broad) language, it is both uninformative and inexcusable.
Racial semiotics are bound to seep in when scouting reports are written using broad strokes; the last thing anyone striving for objectivity can do is compound them. Any football writer who reaches back through 14 years of NFL history to find two black quarterbacks to compare to a third black quarterback needs a long talking-to from his or her editor; the fact that this individual was the editor explains why the indefensible Akili Smith/Aaron Brooks line was published.
Akili Smith is a particularly awful comparison for Geno Smith. Akili Smith was a formed minor league baseball player about to turn 24 years old when drafted; he also had just one year of college starting experience under his belt when the Bengals made him the third pick in the NFL draft. During the pre-draft build up in 1999, Akili impressed teams with his eagerness to show what he could do. He showed up at visits with a pair of cleats ready, in case teams wanted an impromptu workout. He had a DUI and another underage drinking incident on his record entering his final college season, but his stock rose in the weeks leading up to the draft because he was so mature and polished.
Geno Smith is 22 years old, started for three years, has no arrests or forays into minor league baseball on his resume, and spent the early spring alienating some of the teams Akili Smith impressed. What, oh what could they possibly have in common that convinced anyone to reach back 14 years for a comparison? It must be the last name. It must be.
There is a difference between being racist and having opinions that can be distorted by racial perceptions. The former is something we all abhor; the latter is something we must acknowledge that we can all be guilty of. There is no excuse for sounding like Archie Bunker in a scouting report. Specificity and self-evaluation are critical tools in scouting, and we need to make better use of both of them, especially when discussing a player's character, no matter his race or (let's look forward a year or two) sexual orientation.
If a player misses meetings, we must write "he misses meetings." If he blames his teammates for a loss, that's a perfectly acceptable sentence, much better than "lacks accountability." If an insider tells me that a kid played "Minecraft" during a meeting with a head coach, that's what I will write, if I write anything. The possibility that insider info is a big fat fib, which is what causes so much vagueness, should cause us to keep our mouths shut altogether when we lack corroboration. If we are whispering secrets from semi-reliable sources down the lane and are not sure where the criticism stems from, we should hold our tongues. And if our evaluation of a player causes us to reach backward 14 years to pluck another player with whom he has nothing in common besides last name and race, perhaps we should step back and ask someone else to write the scouting report.
We need to get a handle on the tone and substance of our scouting reports, because 500 new prospects arrive next year. Some will be quarterbacks, many will be black, a few might be openly gay, and more than a fair share will exhibit signs of immaturity. Numerous intersections and unions among those subsets are possible, and if draft coverage is to be worth writing and reading, we need to able to demonstrate the kind of precision, skill and conviction of character that we expect from our subjects.
The PFW report, then, appears to be slightly more correct about Geno Smith than Nostradamus was about World War II, though in much the same way. And of course, no one has even played a single down of football yet.
One last point: I compared Geno Smith to Tony Romo in my scouting report. Romo is back in the news. Jerry Jones suggested that Romo needs to take a more Peyton Manning-like role after the owner gave the quarterback a reported $108-million contract extension. Jones needs to work on his sequencing a bit (expectations first, then the cash money wads), but never mind: Romo's work ethic came into question, sort of, and big brother Jason Witten came to Romo's defense yet again, sort of. ("I've always felt like Tony was very involved in the process of the plays and our scheme, how we attacked," Witten told ESPN Dallas. Yep, starting quarterbacks have a habit of being involved in the process of attack).
"Work ethic" questions have a habit of dogging quarterbacks throughout their career, unless they win a Super Bowl, at which point nothing they ever do again is questioned. The bar for quarterback "intangibles" is set somewhere between Peyton Manning and Alexander the Great, so no one is immune to the criticism, which is often unfair even when it is substantive.
Romo is now 33 years old, so we can expect variations on the Geno Smith scouting report to live for another decade. That's a bad thing, because the Geno Smith scouting report, even the amended one that has emerged since he fired his agents, is a mix of innuendo and scuttlebutt, the most damning allegations rooted in the kind of behavior most 22-year-olds quickly grow out of.
On the other hand, it's a good thing, because if Smith has a Romo career, it may remind us that whispered "immaturity," like a hitch in the throwing delivery, is just another box in a long checklist, and nothing to get into deep dudgeon about.