Scot McCloughan Q&A: The Philosophy and Tools of a Successful NFL GM

Jason ColeNFL AnalystApril 12, 2016

FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2015, photo, Washington Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan sits on the bench before an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Landover, Md. Early on in training camp, new Washington Redskins general manager McCloughan was asked what would constitute a successful season for a franchise coming off a 4-12 record and six last-place finishes in the past seven years. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)
Mark Tenally/Associated Press

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Washington general manager Scot McCloughan has spent most of the past 15 years establishing himself as one of the NFL's top talent evaluators, helping the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers land players such as Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore and Joe Staley.

McCloughan is so highly regarded among personnel men in the NFL that he started his own evaluation company for a time before Washington hired him. Former Green Bay Packers GM Ron Wolf has said more than once that McCloughan has a "gift" for recognizing talent in a business fraught with failure.

McCloughan sat down with Bleacher Report at the NFL owners meetings to talk about his craft.

Bleacher Report: So, I heard that you got stuck in the snow during the Senior Bowl and Bruce Allen tried to run an operation rescue to get you out of your house?

Scot McCloughan: If you have 10 houses in your neighborhood, they consider that a subdivision, and they come out and plow the roads right away. Well, I've got nine in my little cul-de-sac, and they couldn't care less. I have snowdrifts in front of my house that were 10 feet high because the wind was blowing. We got 28 inches of snow in a day. It was a mess.

So, I call Bruce, and I say, "I can't get out." He sends two guys with a plow, and I can see them from my house. They ram the thing up there about five times, and then they call me: "We can't get in." I call Bruce back, and he says, "We'll send a snowmobile." I'm like, "No, how am I going to get luggage and all my stuff on a snowmobile?" Then Bruce says he'll send a helicopter. I said, "Absolutely not. Where is the thing going to land at? You can't land in the snow. What are you going to do, drop a ladder and have me climb up?" We still don't have a practice bubble yet. The snow took it right out. But we'll be OK.

B/R: Ron Wolf and other people in your business have talked about your ability to pick players. Is it a measurable thing, a gut thing or some other ability to recognize talent? How does it work?

SM: Very thorough, but it's a gut thing early on. I can watch—and there are a lot of guys in the league who can do this—you watch five or 10 plays, you can see the physical skills. You can see it pretty quick. If it's a receiver running a route or a pass-rusher, you can see him drop his hips, that kind of stuff. That's the easy part.

The tough part is figuring out the person. Is he a competitor? What's his toughness? What's his mindset? I've been around long enough, which is great because I've made a lot of mistakes, and I've learned from them, but what makes a guy average to good, good to great and great to exceptional?

That's the hard part because the talent is there. Every year, you see guys come out, and they are physically gifted, bigger than life, whatever. But you also see guys who are in the sixth or seventh [round], or they are college free agents, and they play 10 years while the other guy plays two. It's the "it" factor, and it's hard to time. It's really hard to find. That's why I'm so big with my college scouts and my pro scouts about finding out who the person is. We'll find out the talent level, but let's figure out who the person is.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

B/R: Do you talk to other people primarily?

SM: No, it has to be him. I interview him. Obviously, the college scouts and the pro scouts play big roles finding out information. There's a lot that goes into it because I will never talk to another team about a player.

B/R: But you are talking to the college coaches, for instance?

SM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You have all your contacts at the schools, and they'll tell you about him. Is he a two-year captain, no captain, four-year starter? ... I've got that stuff already. But tell me about the weight room, the training room. Tell me how he responds to people around him. Is he the type of person who people follow, or is he a guy who is really talented, but he's not a leader? Does that make sense?

B/R: Yeah, absolutely. It's like when I was doing admissions interviews for my alma mater. I think I interviewed 14 kids. Eleven of them were basically the same kid. But then there was one girl I was interviewing, and I asked her, "What do you do for fun?" She tells me that she just got a second job working as a waitress, and I come to find out she was homeless for six months and eventually got an apartment on her own because her mom was in jail. I thought to myself, "If the grades and scores are good enough, let her in. She's tough. She'll find a way."

SM: Exactly. She had adversity in her life, and she came through it. That's huge to me because a bad day on Sunday on the football field is not even close to a bad day for what they have been through. You find guys like that. It's like Bruce Irvin, who we took when I was in Seattle. He lived in his car for six months in high school. I mean, OK, he misses a sack, or we lose a game. For him, that's not going to affect him the same way as it affects somebody else. ... A guy like Frank Gore, growing up with 10 people in a three-bedroom house, having to fight for everything he got. The stuff he has been through.

Junior Galette is another. Went to junior college, was at a Division I program, got in trouble and had to leave. Went to New Orleans, got let go. We bring him in. I sat down with him and looked him in the eye. We were there for like an hour-and-a-half, and he's sweating, and he's nervous, and I said, "Don't be nervous." He looks at me and said, "Why are you being good to me?" I said, "Why wouldn't I be good to you?" He said, "Nobody ever is." I said, "If you sign with us, don't worry. I got your back."

B/R: This is back in 2015?

SM: Yeah, this is a year ago, when we first signed him. You could tell how nervous he was about the whole situation, but you could see the passion in his eyes about how, hey, my identity is football. This is all I've got in life. If I don't succeed in football, I've got nothing. It's the same as Frank. It's who they are and what they are. If they can't play? It's like this year, with Junior being hurt, he wasn't the same person. He couldn't practice, he couldn't be with the team in the meeting rooms and in the locker rooms. He just wants to play. That's all he knows. You get guys like that, now you've got something rolling. I'm not saying they're not smart enough to do something else, but it's the fact that this is who they are, and that's what they have been all their life.

B/R: They have survived a lot of crap to get to this point.

SM: Correct, and they will do whatever it takes to survive.

B/R: Do you ever subscribe to the theory that guys can be too smart for this game?

SM: No, no, no. It shows on tape if guys aren't that intelligent for the game, but no. I don't think that applies. My first year in San Francisco, we took Alex Smith, really high test score. David Baas, really high score. Frank Gore, low test. Adam Snyder, high test score. All of them ended up being pretty good. They played.

B/R: The mistakes you have made, is there a consistent factor to them?

SM: They don't have the "it" factor. They don't have the ability in their mind and their heart to make the next step. They don't have the ability to go from average to good, good to great and great to excellent.

I have a perfect example, but I won't say his name. He was a good college player who we took late in the first round, and he meant well. He wanted to be a good player. He just couldn't get to the point where he could push himself hard enough to take the next step. It's every day at practice. It's the weight room. It's just trying to get through and push yourself to the end, where you don't think you can go. And if you get yourself to the point, then you're going to get better.

B/R: It’s the emotional equivalent of pushing yourself to the point that you're going to throw up and then keep going.

SM: Yeah, but it has to be internal. He's the only one who can do it. Coaches can do whatever they want to do, put him in the right scheme, in the right offseason program. But it's just internal for a guy to push himself to limits that he has not been to before.

B/R: Guys like Frank Gore are like that?

SM: Yeah, I'm sure you've heard the story, but I talked to him the night before the draft [in 2005]. I'm at Mike Nolan's house, eating dinner. My family hasn't moved out yet, and I get a call from an agent asking me, "Hey, do you mind talking to Frank?" No, not a problem. I love Frank. I've watched him the last three years. As a true freshman, I watched him beat out [Clinton] Portis and [Willis] McGahee.

So, he calls me, and I can't understand a word he's saying, not a word. He's emotional, and I finally get down to it. He asks me, "Will you draft me?" I said, "We have the first pick in the third round. If you're there, we're taking you. I promise you." He said, "I'm going in the first. I've already talked to three teams. Four teams said they'll take me in the second." I said, "Look, I'm being honest with you. If you're there with the first pick in the third round, I'm taking you."

So, we take him, and he comes to the building. He walks by all the coaches and everybody else, and he says, "I want to know where Scot McCloughan's office is." He comes in, gives me a hug and starts crying. He said, "You're the only one who was honest with me." You start getting that type of credibility because they all talk to each other. In free agency, they're going to call around. They'll call Frank and say, "Hey, this Scot McCloughan guy, is he a good guy? Has he lied to you?" To this day, even five years later, we still talk.

It's like Anquan Boldin. I was at his first game as a freshman at Florida State. He was the high school quarterback of the year in Florida. The high school basketball player of the year in Florida. He comes in, and I'm watching Laveranues Coles and Peter Warrick. I saw him come in, and his first two catches are for touchdowns. OK, he's on my radar now (laughs).

B/R: Yeah, he was pretty productive right away.

SM: He's off to a pretty good start. But you recognize traits right away where it's not too big for them. We took the [Jamison] Crowder kid in the [fourth] round this year. Again, tape is easy to figure out. But then you talk to him, and you realize it's not going to be too big for him. He's going to come in from Day 1 and be a pro. He's high-character, competitive, tough—the tape showed that—and he has the passion to be a good player. He comes in, and we'll see what happens, but then he's starting by midseason. Just because of the characteristics. The talent was easy to figure. He's quicker than fast, but he's probably fast enough.

He's Bobby Engram from when I was up in Seattle. That's a guy who, the last year I was up there, he had 50 catches, and 25 of them were on third down for first downs. That shows you that when you need them, they'll be there.

You don't always need the biggest, fastest, strongest guys. You need football players who understand that it's a team philosophy and, you know what, we're fighting together. We're going to win and lose as a team. You get enough of those guys together—which John Schneider did a great job of up there in Seattle—you've got a chance. You know the grading system? Blues are like perennial Pro Bowl players. Reds are like really good football players.

SANTA CLARA - APRIL 26:   Head Coach Mike Nolan and VP of Player Personnel Scot McCloughan of the San Francisco 49ers discuss their decision during the 2008 NFL Draft in the draft room on April 26, 2008 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Michael Zagari
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

B/R: Yeah, some teams use black and purple as well.

SM: Yeah. So, if you're lucky, you have four or five blues, and hopefully one of those is your quarterback. If you have another 30 who are reds, starters, solid backups, core special teams guys, then you have a chance. That's how you build your roster. That's how you build a team. That comes from this and this (points to his head and heart). It's not about speed guys and the ESPN guy, the prettiest guy running around making plays. It's a football player. You get enough football players, they're going to fight together.

B/R: It's Joe Jurevicius.

SM: No doubt. That's exactly what you're talking about. Pierre Garcon is a great example. The guy shows up every day and does his job. He doesn't say much. Nobody talks about him, but he goes out on Sunday and helps us win a game.

B/R: Now quarterbacks…

SM: It's a different thing.

B/R: I've been thinking about this because I've studied the guys who have won Super Bowls, and it's an array of people who have different levels of talent. There are the Trent Dilfers, who are limited, and then there are the John Elways, who are super talented. But they all come from good family structures. They all understand how to nurture and help their teammates. They are servant-leaders.

SM: I don't know. I've never really thought about it that way. Let me think about the past few winners. Russell [Wilson] came from a damn good family. Peyton [Manning] came from a good family. Russell's dad passed away when he was young, but it was a good family situation.

B/R: This is part of my point. The quarterback has to be able to lead. He has to be able to command the huddle and tell people what to do. But he also has to encourage and give up some of himself in the process.

SM: You're right. The thing about the quarterback—and me and Ted Thompson were talking about it today—the position of quarterback, it's so hard to identify who can and can't. There are so many guys, especially in this year's draft, that have good physical skills. They're big guys who can throw it. But it's not about that anymore. That's important. You have to have a guy who can put it on down 55, 60 yards on a dime.

B/R: Of course, there are requisite physical skills you have to have, but the intangibles have to be off the charts.

SM: The ones who do it well. I mean, look at Peyton, look at [Tom] Brady, look at [Brett] Favre, look at Wilson. They are all leaders. They are football players. It's just a thing because players identify players. They can pick out good guys, bad guys, leaders.

B/R: You've obviously made a huge decision to keep Kirk Cousins on the franchise tag.

SM: We did the franchise tag, and I know everybody made fun of me, and that's fine. But you know what? The guy won the division. They won nine games. They won four games the year before and turned around and won nine, and he plays all 17 with the playoffs, and we went on the road at the end of the season having to win, and we beat Philly and Dallas, both at their places. You know, the NFC East, I don't care if they're good teams or bad teams, you still don't win on the road. We didn't early in the season, but he kept going and going, and the players rallied around him.

B/R: You also had very little choice. If you don't franchise him, other teams bid. At the same time, it's hard to pay a quarterback the market rate after only one full season. If you give Cousins $55 million or $60 million guaranteed, you get criticized even more.

SM: I told Kirk when he came in—and his wife must have hugged me for 10 minutes because he just went from making $600,000 to $19.9 million—I told him, "You take care of me and this organization, we're going to take care of you. I promise. And we're going to build this roster to where you can be average and still be good. I promise you."

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 03: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins looks on before the Redskins take on the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

B/R: The way to look at it is that if everything goes according to plan, you're going to have to overpay. But it also means you have a quarterback.

SM: Correct, and I'm OK with that (laughs). Let me overpay him if he's good. If you have a productive guy, it helps everything, and it proves out. You look around this league and see the teams that are in the playoffs every year and look who the quarterbacks are. Look at the ones who win. It proves out. Don't get me wrong, the O-line is huge. The running game is huge, which we had in Seattle. But when it's all said and done and the quarterback can get the guys rallied around him, you have a chance.

You're going to play good defense. That's easy to fix. You just draft good football players. They can be a small guy, a big guy, as long as they can find the ball. The special teams are going to be good because we're going to build through the draft, so the younger guys will be big in that. But that quarterback, I'm telling you...

B/R: It's like when I hear people say, "Oh, you should just build through defense." That’s a good theory, but that means you eventually have to pay five or six guys a lot of money and then you have to be lucky with injuries. If you have a great quarterback, it gives you a chance to be great for 10 or 12 years.

SM: The thing about nowadays—and you're completely right—but the thing about nowadays is the way the season is set up and the way the game is set up, it's about scoring points.

B/R: Absolutely, but in the postseason, it becomes about defense.

SM: Right, but you have to get there first. It's set up for us. It's like in baseball, everybody wants to see the home run. In football, everybody wants to see the touchdown. ... Yeah, it's a good problem to have if you have a great defense and you have to pay people. But you'll take a quarterback over three defensive players. That's just the way it is. No doubt about it.

B/R: The common saying is that you can't build through free agency. You have to build through the draft. But the Denver Broncos just won a Super Bowl after hitting on about five guys in free agency. They drafted well, but they also played the free-agent game. Does that make it tempting for you to hit the market?

SM: No, because starting with Ron Wolf in 2004 and being with Ted Thompson for so many years, it's a tool I like to use because you can address needs prior to the draft, but it's not a long-term solution. I want to draft well and identify the guys are Redskins, not just as players but as people. Take care of them, and then you start a culture on the practice field, in the meeting rooms, in the film sessions. You get guys saying, "Hey, if we do this right, they just took care of him, and they took care of him because he does it right." He's here every day, he's smart, he's working his tail off. It's all about the Redskins. It's about passion. It's about football. And that's when you start hitting on guys. Those red guys, those core guys, you start hitting on them.

In San Francisco, I got lucky to hit on Frank, I got lucky to hit on Patrick Willis, on Joe Staley, on Justin Smith. All of a sudden, they started being blue players. We didn't know that when we got them. I signed Justin in free agency, and I thought he would be a red guy, and all of a sudden, he's a blue, and that's when everything takes off. That's how you build your team. It would be great to have 20 blue guys. Nobody does, ever. Some have three or four. We had one last year: Trent Williams. Jordan Reed should have gone to the Pro Bowl, but he didn't. So we had one. We won nine games and won the division and went to the playoffs because the rest of the guys were red. That's the way I look at it.

That's why I tell the scouts all the time: "Look, the first round is important. Don’t get me wrong. We have to nail the guy in the first round. But I want to nail the guys in the fourth round on down and in college free agency."

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

B/R: But you can't miss in the first round.

SM: You can't, and you shouldn't if you do enough work. Everybody said Brandon Scherff was taken too high. He's a guard now, and he's the fifth pick in the draft. I said, "Are you kidding me?" He played every snap in the season but one. The only reason he missed one is because his shoe fell off, and to this day, he yells at me about it. That's the only snap he missed all year. He would have played the whole season, every snap.

He's not the most flashy guy, he's not the prettiest guy, but he's a football player, and that's what I'm talking about with a red. Now, he might be a blue in two years, three years. Who knows? But right now, he's a red. He's a core guy, and, all of sudden, guys walk in next year and see him, they'll be like, "OK, that's how we act. That's how we lift weights. That's how we condition. That's how we go to meetings. That's how we practice." Guys walk in, and they're scared of him. Trent Williams is scared of him, and he's a Pro Bowler. Trent said, "I don't want to mess with that guy." And [Scherff] is a rookie, but that's what starts building a culture. He's a red. You wait and see who we take at 21 in the draft this year. He's a red.

B/R: You already know who it's going to be.

SM: (smiling) Yeah, I think. Hopefully he's not gone. But I'm adding the same kind of guy. Toughness, smarts, competitiveness, team. The whole thing.

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