September 9, 2015
By Todd Dybas
It’s a lonely office, hollow and dim. The glass cases are empty. All four TVs are off. A cardboard box in the back corner has its four flaps open, inviting, but is ignored. Scattered objects populate the palatial desk. A phone, cans of chewing tobacco, contact books. Otherwise, just the barrenness.
“That’s me,” Washington Redskins first-year general manager Scot McCloughan says. “Simple.”
The adjacent draft room has life. Game tape of players runs on the screen at the head of the room. Along one wall is the Redskins’ depth chart. Filling the other is the roster of every NFL team, in alphabetical order. On the left, offense. On the right, defense. From the ceiling to the floor is a list including the famous and unknown. In the back right, the NFC East is aligned.
This is the simple and delicious for McCloughan. The son of a lifelong scout, given his first NFL job by one of the godfathers of team building, Hall of Famer Ron Wolf, McCloughan thrives on trying to figure out who will be a successful football player. Tape is only the beginning, he’ll say. Getting to the crux of the person, what lurks inside, the detriments and potential, that’s the key. Big, fast, strong? Fine. Tough, competitive, desperate to be better? Great.
In a way, he’s looking for players who mirror himself: The talented grinders. McCloughan stakes his scouting ability not just on his skill to assess, but also on never-ending hours working visits, contacts and tape. An August day that starts at 7 a.m. can end at 10 p.m. The more laborious ones end at 1 a.m. He’s trying to operate with success in the inexact world of human assessment. Results with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks indicated his formula is effective.
“It’s one of those things, you either have that ability or you don’t,” Wolf says. “I’m talking about the ability to evaluate. Some people think they can do it, but they really can’t.
“I mean, he’s got it. Whatever it is, he has it.”
Yet, nothing can be this free and easy in the NFL, in particular at Redskins Park, a swath of land with football fields and hidden bear traps. McCloughan is in Ashburn because of talent and availability. Typically, someone with so much of the former doesn’t have much of the latter. But, here he is, at 44 years old, starting again. He produced with the 49ers and Seahawks, two power franchises of the last five years, then left. McCloughan calls departing the Seahawks in 2014 a “mutual decision.” San Francisco CEO Jed York said McCloughan leaving the 49ers in 2010 was a “mutual parting.”
This is where things become sticky. You see, this league, this team, this man’s past, do not do simple.
Getting his start
Wolf called, and McCloughan said he would take the job for free. Being a regional scout for the Packers paid $18,500, which was less than McCloughan was making as a fledgling minor league baseball player in 1994, but it paid something, so all the better. When he flew from Seattle to Green Bay to sign his paperwork, he met current Packers general manager Ted Thompson, at the time Green Bay’s director of pro personnel. He told McCloughan that he was the first hire Wolf did not vet by asking him to watch tape and write a report.
Wolf and McCloughan’s father, Kent, built their bond with the Oakland Raiders. Kent McCloughan was a cornerback out of Nebraska who was drafted in 1965 by the Redskins. The Houston Oilers also selected him in the AFL draft the same year. He ended up in Oakland, was a two-time All-Pro cornerback, then a scout for 39 years. Kent worked a lot, a lesson his son would absorb and apply.
“His dad told me he would do an excellent job, and I couldn’t have a better form of reference than that,” Wolf says, “from a person himself who was a superb football player and a really good judge of talent and knew what it took inside, inside, to be successful as a scout.”
McCloughan’s intertwining with Seahawks general manager John Schneider began in Green Bay, setting them on a path of friendship that feels similar to the one Wolf and Kent McCloughan went down. Schneider was an intern for the Packers. Both were recently out of college. They loved the road, football and scrapping for some element of advantage. Instead of their like personalities clashing, they blended.
“John and I, always, always will, have a tight bond just because I think we are similar people,” McCloughan says. “We just fight for what we try to get and respect each other from the standpoint that we fight for what we get. He’s a great person, a phenomenal man. … He’s a high-, high-, high-character guy and I respect the living crap out of that.
“He’d do anything for me. I’d do anything for him, no matter what. And, he loves football like I love football. He loves building something like I love building something. We’re very, very, very similar. He’s just shorter.”
Schneider did not question if McCloughan was handed a job more because of lineage than talent.
“I think it was pretty evident he knew to handle himself on the road and knew how to identify football players, ask the right questions and keep probing,” Schneider says.
Besides, they were having a hell of a time.
Green Bay was the starting point of an ascension for each. By 2008, McCloughan was the general manager of the 49ers. In 2010, Schneider took the same position with the Seahawks.
Wolf taught McCloughan core lessons of team building: Go find the competitive person who can still operate in a team environment. Invest in a quarterback, if possible. Find someone who can pressure the quarterback, someone who can protect him, and fill in. With those suggested baselines, McCloughan looks at players and wonders if they can move from average to good, and good to great. Wolf also emphasizes an ego-smashing lesson that is crucial for the talent assessor.
“At some point, you’re wrong, and it’s how you adjust from that standpoint,” Wolf says. “Whether you become a 50-50 guy or whether you grab the bull by the horns so to speak, realize you made a mistake, [and] realize that not in any form or fashion, is this a scientific event here. It involves human beings. You’re going to be wrong more than you’re going to be right. It’s how you get over that hump that determines how well you can do, and Scot had that ability.”
“You can’t be stubborn,” McCloughan says.
In San Francisco, McCloughan gathered picks and future Pro Bowl players such as running back Frank Gore, tight end Vernon Davis, inside linebacker Patrick Willis and offensive lineman Joe Staley.
He was a first-time vice president, then general manager. The bespoke Mike Nolan was a first-time NFL head coach. There were surprises neither were prepared for, McCloughan says, so they adapted as needed.
As general manager, McCloughan worked with a ubiquitous rule. His hands were in everything. He had to go see every player. Every decision started and ended him. The stress was as perpetual as his desire; the combination created an insatiable, then debilitating loop.”And, it wasn’t right,” McCloughan says. “I wanted to make sure everything was taken care of no matter what. So, 24/7, I was thinking about the whole organization. That was tough, that was tough. That’s when I got my issue.”
A month before the 2010 draft, York described McCloughan’s departure as a “private personnel matter,” the kind of vague code-wording suggesting something is amiss. McCloughan was forthright in an ESPN The Magazine story in December 2014, admitting an alcohol problem which sent him to the Betty Ford Clinic during his time in San Francisco. He returned from rehab, and a short time later, was served with divorce papers. His demons were fed anew by the news. In the ESPN story, he said he still consumed alcohol.
Schneider, in many ways, temporarily rescued McCloughan by hiring him in 2010 as a senior personnel executive. He worked the drafts that claimed Russell Wilson and Pro Bowl players such as Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor in the fifth round.
“I was happy to be able to offer him the opportunity for us to be able to work together again,” Schneider says.
Things quickly came together in Seattle. Coach Pete Carroll delivered his quirky cultural influence. A team that had so long been an NFL bit player surged to become an audacious force. The Seahawks delivered McCloughan his second Super Bowl ring.
McCloughan’s ability to find players is strong and touted. But, after three years with the Seahawks, McCloughan’s reliability was rumored to be in question. He had another “mutual” separation, this one from a longtime friend. More vague words as to why followed.
“That is something that I can’t, that I should not get into,” Schneider says after a pause. “I think that’s a question for Scot. But, suffice to say, we’re still very good friends.”
“Mutual decision,” McCloughan says in the near-empty office. “Very mutual decision. Best for my career; best for my family. I [had] just got engaged at the time. Going forward, that was the best thing to do. I felt like I had opportunities when I left San Fran to go different places – a lot of places. And, I wanted to make sure, because John was in his first year as a GM, I wanted to make sure I could do anything to help him as a general manager and put myself in a situation where I could still see my kids – I [had gotten] divorced.
“It was mutual. And, you know what? I loved it there. Pete Carroll is a phenomenal head coach. The staff is phenomenal. John and his staff’s phenomenal. It was incredible. Beat the crud out of Denver [in the Super Bowl], you know? Just seeing everybody, excitement in their eyes, it was incredible. But, it was time for me to go on. It was time for me to change.”
‘A scout with a title’
After a year away running a scouting service, McCloughan had to come back. Sundays were emotionless. No thrill, no pain, just football on the TV in a quiet town north of Seattle. He says he had options, but the Redskins felt right. He’s known team president Bruce Allen for more than 20 years. He did not know Snyder. He had heard what everyone has heard about the Redskins’ owner.
“We all have strengths and weaknesses,” McCloughan says. “I got the feeling – just meeting him – I was nervous, I didn’t know what was going to come out of it, but I knew right away that listen, this is about the Redskins, this is about the whole organization being together, fighting together, good days, bad days, whatever, and he totally understood.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t have the opportunity to do it his way,” Wolf says.
McCloughan’s hiring seemed to counter the Redskins’ recent run of overreach and haphazardness in team building. The list of things McCloughan would do before overpaying a late-career name veteran, or shipping three first-round picks and a second-round pick for one pick, is expansive. He wants to build through the draft, “We have to have picks,” he says, and is trying to construct a culture akin to the one in Seattle and formerly in San Francisco: A cutthroat camaraderie existed in each place that stars were pushed to maintain.
McCloughan, who says he’s just a “scout with a title,” has begun to delegate, learning from his error in San Francisco. Other scouts can take a first look at a player or first run through tape. When the season starts, McCloughan says he will follow the team closely, trying to decipher how everyone ticks, looking to sniff out angles for improvement. Schneider, who oversees a team that has been to back-to-back Super Bowls, describes this aspect of the job as a dog chasing a car.
“We just feel like there’s never, ever any finish line in anything we’re doing,” Schneider says.
McCloughan will also be on the road as the leaves change. When he goes, he’ll arrive in a college town in the morning. He will not talk to the player he is interested in during the season. McCloughan will instead watch tape, talk to his contacts at the university, watch practice, then take another flight or drive to the next stop as he tries to reconstruct the roster.
The Redskins’ attempts to move from quarterback-centric to team-focused are subtle, but telling. There was a reduction in space occupied by Robert Griffin III’s jersey in the team store at training camp in Richmond. In addition to Griffin, the jerseys of DeSean Jackson, Ryan Kerrigan, Alfred Morris and Pierre Garcon were available. Many Redskins walk around in a team-issued T-shirts that read, “Stronger together,” with the Redskins’ logo forming an O. On the back, it reads, “TEAM>i”. New strength and conditioning coach Mike Clark put together the slogan.
Were they presented with a blank 53-man roster, Wolf and Schneider would select a quarterback first. McCloughan says he prefers to focus on the offensive and defensive lines. Maybe it’s a savvy public relations response, considering the organization is trying to drum out the singular importance of the quarterback and construct a whole franchise. Though, his personnel decisions since taking over show he meant it.
The Redskins gave a contract extension to Kerrigan, added multiple players to the defensive line, extended the contract of left tackle Trent Williams and selected an offensive lineman, Brandon Scherff, fifth overall. They also drafted Matt Jones to provide bruising support to Morris in the backfield. Griffin was demoted the final week of the preseason and Kirk Cousins was named the starting quarterback.
“The core of your team is built with middle men,” McCloughan says. “That’s why it’s important to draft so well, to have draft picks. To not just be starters, but backups, great special teams players. That’s how you build your roster. You’re going to have your superstars. You’re going to have four or five. The majority of your team is built with good football players. That’s why it’s so important to me to have smart guys, tough guys, intelligent guys that understand their roles and understand it’s about the team.”
Who is McCloughan?
In August, Wolf was set to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He had not seen Kent McCloughan for about a decade. Scot McCloughan was making the trip to Canton, Ohio, for the induction despite training camp going on. He called his dad, encouraged him to leave Colorado and go. Kent acquiesced. Scot set up a car to pick up his 72-year-old father in Cleveland and take him to Canton on Friday night. The induction was Saturday.
Scot sent Wolf a text saying his dad would like to chat, face-to-face. They met Saturday morning at a Bob Evans restaurant. Outside, Kent and Wolf talked. Later at the ceremony, Wolf pointed at Kent on his way across the stage. Scot was sitting next to his dad. His father shook his hand and thanked him for the trip afterward. Recounting the day leaves Scot tapping the executive desk in his new office. His voice wobbles. His eyes shine.
“I want to be thought of, when I’m all done with this, as a good person, a good scout and [that] I took care of my guys,” McCloughan says. “That’s what matters to me. Wins, losses very important. I understand that. But, good person. Ron Wolf was a phenomenal person. My dad is a phenomenal person.”
Figuring out what lays inside the person is the last part and hardest of scouting. It’s when simple turns to difficult, like McCloughan’s time in Washington suddenly did the first week of September. His second wife, Jessica, used Twitter to accuse an ESPN reporter of exchanging sexual favors for information about the team. She also insinuated McCloughan was having an affair with the reporter. An apology said to be from her was issued through the Redskins. The man here to quiet the Redskins’ maelstroms, who is also working to leave behind his, was in the middle of one, insinuating the troubling pull of Redskins Park is unavoidable and re-raising questions about McCloughan’s personal side.
Back in the 1990s, McCloughan told Wolf he would work for free, even when they talked about a raise after his first season. It was the job, not the money, that drove him. McCloughan loves football to no end. He loves the constructing, the talent tapping, the good times, the Sundays. He loves asking questions. He loves trying to find the right players.
“What’s so important to me,” McCloughan says, “is to talk to my contacts who have been around [a player] for two, three, four years, and say listen, ‘Who’s this guy? What’s he bring as an individual? What’s his character? What’s his passion? What’s he doing when he’s not in the building?'”
As he embarks to fix the Redskins, the same questions are being asked about him. Who is McCloughan? A gifted man who can read other souls, but can’t control his own? Someone who has learned or someone who repeats? The fixer of Ashburn or another of its victims? The “scout with a title” wants to live his football life. It’s just not that simple. It never is at Redskins Park. And it hasn’t been yet for McCloughan.