As scouts rise up the corporate ladder, they bring their backgrounds with them – the ability to look with an exploded view at a bunch of kids running around in shorts and shells and find the occasional one-in-a-million player. The skill to look past obvious measurables and peer inside a young man’s soul. And when scouts finally find those corner offices, the millions of miles traveled pay off every day.
The Seahawks and their fans have already discovered what a difference a scouting-led front office can make. After years of uncertainty, new Team President Tim Ruskell, a former area scout, Director of College Scouting and Director of Player Personnel for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, took a talented but severely unfocused team to the brink of the Lombardi trophy in one magical year. We learned that measurables don’t matter if they don’t show up on the field. Conversely, we learned that the “too small-too slow” mantra, which tends to find committed and hyper-developed players constantly dropping past their actual abilities on draft boards, is the real key to personnel value.
You just have to know where, and how, to look.
In Ruskell’s case, the ability to see past the obvious is astoundingly clear. It has been manifested in linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill, neither of whom were projected to be starting-caliber players in the NFL. In truth, it could be argued that either Tatupu or Hill could have very easily taken the Defensive Rookie of the Year award away from the far more highly-rated Shawne Merriman, if only the voters were able to look past sack totals in nationally televised games and a catchy nickname.
For Tim Ruskell, it has been about even more – it has been about the ability to tailor player acquisitions to the coaches’ schemes, which eliminates certain steps in the process as college players strive to excel at the next level. It has been more about filling specific needs with specific types of players than the notion of throwing a bunch of super-talents on a roster and hoping it all works out. In Ruskell’s case, it has been about the paradigm shift in Seattle’s front office towards a scouting-based executive branch, and away from the notion that CEOs in other realms of entertainment can run a team. For Tim Ruskell, it is all about the perfect fit.
When the Seahawks officially named Ruston Webster their new Vice President of Player Personnel on Friday, May 19th, it extended the notion of the perfect fit. It also cemented the new-look front office in Seattle as a scouting-based entity. Like Ruskell, Webster has been an area scout, a Director of College Scouting, and a Director of Player Personnel - and he was all of those things with Ruskell’s long-time team, the Buccaneers. Webster, who joined the Tampa Bay franchise in 1988 (one year after Ruskell), has found a parallel career path just about every step of the way.
Climbing the Ladder
A graduate of the University of Mississippi, the 43-year old Webster was hired by the Bucs as a regional scout in 1988 – he had worked for former Tampa Bay coach Ray Perkins as a graduate assistant when Perkins coached at Alabama – and was named the team’s Director of Pro Personnel in 1989. Two years later, he went back on the road as a scout, and stayed on the road for the next decade. In 2001, when Ruskell was promoted to the position of Director of Player Personnel, Webster took his friend’s old job as Director of College Scouting.
When Ruskell left for Atlanta with Rich McKay after the 2003 season, Webster filled Ruskell’s spot on May 8, 2005 (just three days after he interviewed for the same position with the Miami Dolphins). In fact, Webster’s excellence prevented the Bucs from pressing the panic button when Ruskell began his journey west, and he essentially filled that position for a year before being officially named to it. Asking Webster to oversee all scouting departments – the position he will hold in Seattle - was an easy transition. He had been working towards that goal for sixteen years.
Webster’s final Tampa Bay contract, a two-year deal, was signed in 2004. Bucs GM Bruce Allen, hired to replace Rich McKay in January of that year, was certain of the wisdom of that move. "I didn't know Ruston, but I knew his reputation in the scouting community," Allen said. "Guys like him are invaluable on draft day. They're the guys who work all year for this day. In two weeks, he'll start working on next year's draft."
Ruskell himself has talked about Webster’s assets to a team – his calm demeanor in a pressure-laden business, his ability to work as a team member, his relative lack of ego given his level of accomplishment. "In our league," Ruskell told Gary Shelton of the St. Petersburg Times in April of 2005, "that makes him a rare bird."
In some articles, Ruskell has been described as Webster’s “mentor”, but given the universality of influence in the pro football environment, it’s fair to say that both Ruskell and Webster learned at the feet of quite a few. Certainly McKay was an enormous factor in their careers, as was Jerry Angelo, the Chicago Bears’ current general manager, who spent fourteen years at Tampa Bay’s Director of Player Personnel and was hired away in 2001. Angelo’s departure allowed both Ruskell and Webster to find their way to the top.
A Scout’s Life
Webster was asked about the parameters of his job in December of 2002, in a very informative interview with bucpower.com. Fully entrenched in the scouting game, with player tapes in boxes spilling out into the hallway, he spoke from an otherwise Spartan office. Each Monday during the season, Webster’s mind was far away from the NFL activity on Sunday – instead, he found himself focused on Saturday’s college games. Webster was responsible for talking to area scouts, collating information, and starting to put a dollar sign in the muscle. ``We always ask: `Do you like them for the Bucs, or is it a hot-list (more generally talented) guy? '' Webster said. ``That's when we start honing in on a player. A scout may tell us they like this guy or they may go to a school and say, `There are no Bucs here.' ''
Mondays and Tuesdays were generally consumed with watching tape. Wednesdays were road days, as Webster and his scouts would visit universities, both to watch even more tape and observe practices. This would continue through the week. In that same interview, Ruskell (then Tampa Bay’s Director of Player Personnel) detailed what scouts look for at practices. ``You get more out of the tape, but you need to see the player in person,'' Ruskell said. ``Just to get the body language, how he moves in relation to the rest of the team. And what he's doing in between plays and how he affects a game, what is his role in a game. You can't get a lot of that off the tape. While tape documents talent and skills, face-to-face meetings provide opportunities to examine a player's character.
“You have to go to the school and hear what the coaches say about the guy. They can give you a good-faith estimate.'' On Saturdays, just about every Tampa Bay scout was at a college game somewhere. While some teams give their scouts Saturdays off, the Bucs didn’t operate that way.
Ruskell’s description of scouting at practices is completely in line with what the Seahawks do now, and did not do before his hire. It is here where Webster’s addition to the team may allow Ruskell to oversee other areas of operation, because he knows he has a man in the system who understands the way it’s supposed to be done. Before the 2006 draft, Ruskell went into great detail about Seattle’s current player evaluation process:
The Seahawks have one of the NFL’s most detailed methods when divining the true nature of a prospect, and it starts with the area scouts and the man-hours they put in. “They start looking at (players) the summer before, so that could be a five- or six-hour process,” he said. “Then, they go in August and see them in their training camps, and that’s an all-day deal. We ask our scouts to visit our prospects three times. Then, there’s the cross-check. Then, there’s the All-Star Game. Then, there’s the bowl game, if he’s there. Then, there’s the Combine. Then, there’s the workout. It adds up.
“It’s a lot of man-hours. When you talk about all the people involved, especially the area scout – he would be the number-one guy.”
Spoken like a former area scout.
And as Ruskell says, the Seahawks don’t hire private investigators to do any of that legwork. “No – these (scouts) have to put that hat on. When they go to the campus, we require them to talk to five different people about the prospects. That would be the Academic Counselor, obviously his position coach, when you can get the head coach, the trainer, the strength coach, the guy that does the housing – anybody beyond that is on their own. But we require those five people, and that takes time. That’s why you have to have the three visits. Not every visit’s going to be ‘film room/practice’. Some of the visits are going to be interviews, and getting the detective work done.
“So, it does add up, But our guys enjoy it, and we will live by that. We will always do it. They know that’s the process.”
Such depth in due diligence didn’t used to be the norm, but Ruskell says that is changing. “I think it’s becoming more standard,” he said. “I wouldn’t say, ten or fifteen years ago, that it was. I know that when I started visiting Academic Counselors, they were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ They always thought we should come, but they wondered why we didn’t. Now, that’s becoming standard, that everyone’s going to visit with the Academic Counselor and get another opinion, away from the coaches, of, ‘how does he work when the light’s not on?’”
Doug Farrar, “Draft 2006: Ruskell Goes Public, Part One”, Seahawks.NET, April 27, 2006
Together Again - For The First Time!
We asked Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com’s Senior Draft Analyst, to summarize his thoughts about Webster’s personnel acumen and how he will have an effect in Seattle.
“Webster is very highly regarded throughout the league for his eye for talent and dedication to the craft,” Rang said. “He and Ruskell seem to share similar philosophies on grading prospects. Both have the ability to locate players outside of the first few rounds that fit the specific requirements of the schemes their coaches prefer. Each also shows the ability to accurately project the board, maneuvering through the draft to address positions of need, while still maintaining value.
“The fact that two of Ruskell's additions to the Seahawks last season, defensive end Joe Tafoya and safety John Howell, were among Webster's first class as collegiate scouting director speaks of their alignment in the scouting process.”
The Wider Net, And What it Means
However, the two men are not carbon copies of each other – Webster has a few less compunctions about casting a slightly wider net at times. “The one notable difference between Ruskell and Webster is that the latter has shown at least some willingness to gamble in the late rounds and in free agency on players with off-field questions,” Rang noted.
Although more than one instance could be cited, there’s certainly no better example than former Georgia Tech cornerback Reuben Houston, who the Bucs signed as an undrafted free agent on May 8th of this year. Going into his senior season with the Yellowjackets, Houston was expected to make a showing as one of the nation’s finest defensive backs. That hope was scuttled when Houston was arrested on June 21, 2005. According to a federal criminal complaint filed in Fresno, California, Houston allegedly conspired to distribute and possess 94 pounds of marijuana valued at $60,000 in connection with a California operation.
One of 18 people indicted, Houston was suspended by the team over the summer, and reinstated on November 14 on the order of Superior Court Judge M. Gino Brogdon, Sr. Houston missed the first nine contests of the season and plummeted off every draft board in the NFL. He was sentenced to nine months probation on April 4 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and attempt to distribute. Houston has publicly apologized for his mistakes, and hopes to rebuild his life and reputation.
Although primarily known as the ultimate “character-first” talent evaluator, Ruskell himself has seen fit to look beyond surface charges or complaints on a couple of occasions. Leading up to the 1995 draft, Ruskell (Tampa Bay’s Director of College Scouting at the time) and Bucs GM Rich McKay desperately wanted Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp, and were willing to evaluate beyond the fact that Sapp tested positive for marijuana at the ’95 Scouting Combine after speaking to the player at a scheduled lunch.
This past season, tackle Sean Locklear was arrested on January 15, just days before Seattle’s victory over Carolina in the NFC Championship game, on suspicion of domestic violence. Locklear played in that victory and in Super Bowl XL. On January 18th, Locklear spoke to the media. "I would like to start off by apologizing to the community and everybody," he said. I’m not proud of the things I’ve done. I apologized this morning to the team and the coach, but I want to apologize again to the community, the fans and the NFL. This is not characteristic of my actions and I apologize."
In the big picture, however, Ruskell is renowned for scrubbing Seattle’s roster fairly clean of problem children. And given their longtime relationship, there’s no reason to believe that Ruskell and Webster won’t be on the same page regarding that issue.
Perhaps part of the reason Webster has been willing to look at players with “interesting” backgrounds is that he’s been hamstrung in recent years with Tampa Bay’s paucity of draft picks. Still, he’s made his mark as a personnel man with some pretty impressive choices. Rang talked about Tampa Bay’s drafts under Webster’s charge.
“Webster was in a tough spot as the director of collegiate scouting for the Bucs from 2001-2004,” Rang said. “Of his four drafts at the helm, the Bucs only held a first round pick in his first (2001) and last (2004) tries. Despite this lack of ammunition, Webster helped Tampa maintain a strong core of players through solid drafts. At least one projected 2006 starter was added in each of these drafts, including wide receiver Michael Clayton (#15 overall, 2004), quarterback Chris Simms (#97 overall, 2003), guard Sean Mahan (#168 overall, 2003), safety Jermaine Phillips (#157 overall, 2002), and offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker (#14 overall, 2002).”
In 2005, Tampa Bay drafted Auburn RB Carnell “Cadillac” Williams in the first round. Williams ran 290 times for 1178 yards and 6 TDs in his inaugural campaign, earning NFL Rookie of the Year awards. The Bucs also picked up Stanford TE Alex Smith in the third round, and Smith ranked second on the team in receptions with 41.
The 2006 Tampa Bay draft marked a phenomenon familiar to Seahawks fans, as the Bucs went with Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph over USC tackle Winston Justice in the first round due to character concerns on Justice's part. Tampa Bay filled their O-line void in the second round with Boston College’s Jeremy Trueblood, who moved from left to right tackle at the Senior Bowl and impressed scouts with his steady improvement and competitiveness. Penn State cornerback Alan Zemaitis could be a steal for the Bucs in the fourth round – in an interview with Seahawks.NET after Day One of the 2006 draft, Rang rated Zemaitis as possibly the best player not selected in the first day.
It was after last season and this draft, when Webster’s contract with Tampa Bay expired, that he made the move many had been expecting him to make ever since Ruskell was hired by the Seahawks in February of 2005.
Two years ago, the Seahawks were run by Bob Whitsitt and Mike Holmgren – a basketball executive and a genius on the offensive side of the ball. The drama between them made for interesting storytelling, but the synergy required of any successful front office was nonexistent. While Holmgren will continue to provide an integral voice, the personnel side will now be guided by two men who possess decades of road-tested scouting experience in Ruskell and Webster, making them as deep as any team in the league in that department, and further facilitating Ruskell’s “Moneyball Mien”.
The Rams, Dolphins and Texans have all wanted him at one time or another. The Buccaneers would have loved to hold onto him as the last vestige of the ultra-successful McKay era. The Seahawks have been pining for him for over a year. In the end, it would be his long-term friendship with Ruskell, the chance to be an integral part of something special for a number of years, and Paul Allen’s vast expanse of green (a rumored $700,000 per season contract) that finally turned Ruston Webster’s head toward the Emerald City.
When reviewing Seattle’s free-agent acquisitions of 2006 in future years, there’s no reason to think that this signing won’t be remembered as one of the best.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him here.