4-10-01, 6:50 a.m.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. _ The difference between a scout and writer is two bags.
Paul Alexander, the Bengals offensive line coach headed to about his 30th campus visit in about 40 days and nights, shows up with a briefcase and an evaluation form for Maurice Williams tucked into his back pocket.
The writer, making his first trip ever to the University of Michigan, struggles to the trunk of Alexander's car as if it's
a snow-capped summit. There is a computer bag, a workout bag, a briefcase, a hanger with a shirt, a jacket, and a load of questions about the notorious life of a Bengals assistant coach on the road.
Notorious only because the Bengals are one of the few NFL coaching staffs virtually scouting full-time in the six weeks leading up to the April 21-22 draft.
And Alexander loves it.
"I'm always packed," says Alexander, looking disdainfully at the refuse now in his back seat. "My shaving kit and a change of clothes and I'm ready to go."
They are leaving on a peaceful spring Sunday night for a Monday morning workout and Alexander wonders why he's leaving hearth and home in the heart of the offseason to scout a right tackle. A very good right tackle, by the way, in Mo Williams. A guy projected to go in the second round or so. But a right tackle just the same for the team that has Willie Anderson.
The Bengals are a lock to take Texas left tackle Leonard Davis with their first pick, right? And if it's not Davis, it's going to be Florida right tackle Kenyatta Walker who moves to left tackle when the Bengals take him with the fourth pick in the draft, right?
Not so fast, Troy Vincent breath. This is a Ron Lynn trip. Lynn was the Bengals defensive coordinator in 1992 who showed up for the draft Saturday morning thinking the Bengals would take Vincent, a cornerback. Then he found out the Bengals were taking quarterback David Klingler .
So what is supposed to be a square in the first round could very well be a rhombus because of a trade, an injury, or fate.
What if receiver David Terrell just gets too tempting for a team thirsting for a third receiver for its new three-receiver sets? Or what if defensive end Justin Smith becomes a no-brainer for a team with the second fewest sacks in the NFL?
So maybe it would behoove Alexander to find out just how good Mo Williams is, and maybe it wouldn't hurt to find out if he can play left tackle.
"I wonder now why I'm going up there for this," Alexander says. "But after I go see a guy, I always feel better."
Plus, this is one of his favorite stops. Alexander broke in as a graduate assistant coach here 15 years ago under the legend known as Glenn "Bo" Schembechler.
All of which may be a bit of a surprise to the Bengals' observer who thinks the club makes its selections by firing darts into the draft board or waiting until the moon is in the seventh house to make a pick.
Actually, Monday's workout is the fourth time the Bengals will get a report on Williams and the second time Alexander has been around him.
During the season, two national scouts interviewed
people close to Williams and his college program, they evaluated his games, graded his practice habits, and did background checks.
Then on Nov. 5, Jim Lippincott, the Bengals' director of pro/college personnel, visited the school, interviewed another set of people, watched some tape, and filed his own report.
After making notes on film study from a handful of games, Alexander met Williams for the first time at the February national scouting combine. He jotted down Williams' cell phone, the fact he was a city tennis champion in high school, and that he was coming off only his second year on the offensive line.
"That's where you first see if you've got a chemistry with him," Alexander says. "If you can motivate him."
Folded into Alexander's form are the sheets filed by the national scouts and Lippincott.
"You get three guys thinking one way on a guy, that's pretty good," Alexander says. "It's when you have the disagreements that you have to check them out."
Alexander couldn't complete the form at Michigan's pro day last month because Williams pulled a hamstring before he could do the position drill and the shuttle drills.
But Alexander could talk to people about Williams. And not the usual suspects, like position coaches and head coaches. Alexander likes to pick the brains of people who haven't been briefed about what to say, such as video guys, secretaries and assistant equipment managers.
"That's the mistake young scouts make," Alexander says. "They write down just what the coaches say and hand that in as their report. But a lot of times, the coaches are trying to make their programs more high profile. You've got to talk to other people."
Except at Michigan.
"There's only one guy I need to talk to here," Alexander says. "Bo Schembechler.
And Bo knows Williams. Schembechler turned Lippincott on to him right away back in November.
So here we are Monday morning in, where else? Schembechler Hall, 12 days before the draft and waiting for Williams' re-scheduled 10 a.m. workout in the "Pro Scout room," a tiny enclave in the corner of a shrine to the Michigan head coaches. The writer almost knocks over a trophy for cornerback Charles Woodson from his Heisman season of '97 as he scrambles to make room for the scout from the Colts.
Since most teams begin their draft meetings this week, it's an intimate gathering in the Pro room. Besides Alexander, the only offensive line coaches are two of the league's most venerable in San Diego's Joe Bugel and the Jets' Bill Muir. The Patriots, Jaguars and Colts have sent their area scouts.
Since the draft is so close, the gag Monday morning is how close to the draft will these guys keep scouting. Muir tells the old Jerry Glanville story of working a guy out on the field and then hearing a fellow coach yell from the facility, "Hey Jerry, the kid just got drafted (by somebody else)."
The Bengals get ripped because most teams send their scouts to scout and leave their coaches home in March and April to work on football and with players. The result is many teams on Draft Day send their coaches into the lunch room instead of the Draft Room to find out who they will coach instead of letting them help make the decision.
"The criticism is that it takes away from our football," Alexander says. "The only thing the Bengals' system does is it takes away from our personal time than most teams, but who cares? I love football. How many guys get paid to do their hobby?"
So Alexander looks forward to getting mauled by 300-pound kids to find out if they have ballast, and can sustain, and can kick step, and if their feet and hands can work independently.
"I'd rather do that than go fishing," Alexander says. "Last month I was changing at home and my wife said, 'What are all those bruises on your body?' I told her, 'It's just scouting season again.' I've been abused from coast to coast."
So it's 10 a.m. and the 6-5, 309-pound Williams is already in the weight room, looking like the bright-eyed, enthusiastic kid you'd expect a Michigan kid to be. He's already bathed in sweat from warming up and flashes a pleasant gap-toothed smile when he sees Alexander.
"Hey Paul, how you doing?" he says, and when Alexander asks if he's got a blocking bag around, Williams jogs to get it.
There's somebody else here, too, and it's a reminder to Alexander just how treacherous scouting is. Former Michigan center Rod Payne, a guy Alexander took in the third round of the 1997 Draft, has come to watch Williams work. Fitting, because the ones who don't pan out always ride with a scout.
"In scouting," Alexander says, "the mistakes you make are more imporatnt than the bargains you find because a mistake is more severe."
The problem is, Payne is waiting for a Super Bowl ring for being on the Ravens' roster. Not that Payne was a mistake. He had trouble staying on the practice field, but his presence reminds Alexander of another guy that didn't pan out. His first pick in 1995. Syracuse left tackle Melvin Tuten in the third round.
"Thank God that's the first pick I made," Alexander says. "My picks are getting better. In the Bengals situation, it takes you three years in the organization to be an effective scout because you don't know coming in.
"I didn't talk to enough people," Alexander says. "I didn't listen to my own heart enough. I had severe reservations, but you don't have the experience. I went with my mind instead of my heart. I saw the athleticism. I saw the potential. I saw the ability. I saw all the measurables, but I didn't go with my gut instinct well enough. You take all the information and you either like him or you don't and if you try to change what your gut feeling about a player is, it generally is a mistake."
Now it's 10:15 a.m. in Michigan's indoor facility and it's like a junior high dance. No one wants to get it started. So Alexander steps forward and asks Williams to simply do some knee bends so he can see his flexibility.
Once at a workout, Alexander asked a guy named Trezell Jenkins to do that and when he couldn't, the workout was over for Alexander. He rejected him right away and when Jenkins went in the first round, Alexander got a lot of stares in the draft room. Not now. Jenkins is on the other board in the draft room. The one for released players.
"I like to scout because in my mind I have a vey clear picture of the type of player we need," Alexander says. "Certain things people do are more important to other teams. I know this. In our system, if you can't hold the point on the run and pass, you can't play. Period. If a guy can pull for us, it's a bonus. But if a guy gets tossed around, he can't play."
So while Bugel has Williams pull to the left and right out of his stance to hit a tackling dummy, Alexander runs at Williams with a blocking bag in his hand in an attempt to gauge his "anchorability," and strength. He's looking for a strong center of gravity and testing the power of Williams' punch with his hands.
Alexander compliments Williams after one rush that he could feel that Mo took the hit with the middle of his foot.
"Some guys you can feel like a bird pecking water," Alexander says. "You can feel no legs. You can feel when a guy is braced and is striking with his whole body. It's anchor. It's strike. It's ballast."
It's also dangerous when a 41-year-old man is running at a kid half his age. A kid who weighs about 125 pounds more. Alexander can work up quite a sweat at these things, but it's the only way he can verify if what he's seeing on film is because of the player's abilities or the team's style.
"Sometimes," Alexander says, "I feel sorry for the person sitting next to me on the plane."
On one move, Williams stones Alexander and Alexander tries to get by him by dipping his shoulder. Except Alexander slips to one knee, much to the delight of Muir and Bugel.
"Got to work on your technique, Paul," Muir says.
The scouts are getting nervous because the coaches are pounding on Williams, tiring him out for the shuttle drills. They start barking.
"Just two more things," Muir says, and after that, Alexander says, "Just one more thing for me."
This is a two-fold trick Alexander has picked up along the way. Just when the kid thinks the workout is over, tell him you want to do something else and watch the reaction in the face.
"That will tell you so much," Alexander says. "I can almost guarantee you judging by that reaction, he'll show up or not show up in the offseason if you ask him."
Plus, Alexander likes to "always do one thing different than the player has done before. Whether right or wrong. To see how quickly a guy adapts and if he has a natural understanding of technical football, which is so important in pro football."
So Alexander drops his watch on a yard line and tells Williams to line up across from it in a pass-protection stance. Then like a defensive end, Alexander lines up about three yards split to Williams' left. About seven yards in front of Alexander is a bag. He'll run to it and he wants Williams to cut him off before he gets to the bag.
It's the left tackle drill. Evaluating if Williams can make the switch to the other side of the line against the league's quickest pass rushers.
After about five rushes, Alexander has his answer. Except if he tells you, he'll have to kill you.
Welcome to NFL scouting, which is the biggest floating poker game in the United States from here on until the draft. Everyone is trying to hide who they like.
"You don't want to give anything away," Alexander says. "You have to watch everything. Your demeanor. Your facial expressions. What you say."
If a workout is being taped, some coaches have been known to like a player so much that they will make sure a guy looks bad on a drill so teams might be soured on him.
At the big pro days, you can even scout coaches scouting players. Who are they looking at and who are they not looking at?
Of course, there is an unwritten oath among the offensive line coaching fraternity that you won't be dishonest. Particularly among guys you respect. The discussions can be pretty frank and if you disagree on a player with one of those guys, you go back and check why.
After the coaches get done with Williams, and he takes a break before performing the shuttles for the scouts, Alexander is ready to drive the four hours back to Cincinnati. Some eyebrows are raised, but he's not going to watch a 309-pound lineman recovering from a pulled hamstring run around cones.
"Let's go," he says. "We saw what we needed."
Alexander won't say what he saw, but it works in Williams' favor that the coaches worked with him for just 33 minutes. The sweetest workouts are the shortest.
"Great kid," Alexander says. "Hard worker. I don't think there's any doubt he's going to have a productive career in this league."
Now Alexander is driving through the campus he loves because even the hockey and basketball arenas are named after football coaches and the trips are starting to dwindle.
He flies to Chicago Wednesday on his way to look at Northern Illinois guard-tackle Ryan Diem. And he won't tell you about his last trip on Thursday before he heads into the Bengals' draft meetings next week.
"A sleeper," is all he says.
Alexander stops for lunch and finishes filling out Williams' form in between the salad and iced tea. Better to do it when it's all fresh in the mind. He rates between 1-5 and the most important categories are flexibility, push-pull, anchorability, punching. There are notes. Does he step in or up on a post set, which evaluates if he takes the proper angle.
Then there's the bottom line. Where the national scouts would draft him, where Lippincott would draft him, and where Alexander would draft him.
If Alexander writes, "I want this guy," on his form, keep an eye on him. In the Bengals' draft room, the coaches almost always get their way. Except on the rare occasion of Ron Lynn, which is why we came in the first place because things can change on Draft Day quicker than a Cincinnati weather report.
"Not a bad trip," says Alexander, still sweating a little bit.
It all comes down to baggage, and Alexander is hoping he's still traveling light when he comes out of the draft room a week from Sunday.