April 11, 2011
Drew Edwards had an excellent piece in The Hamilton Spectator recently about attending a free-agent camp the Hamilton Tiger-Cats held for prospective CFL players in Buffalo last month. As Edwards pointed out over at The Scratching Post, the piece was substantially delayed thanks to his vacation and work on running coverage. The delay may actually have made it better, though, as it gave the team time to make decisions on some of the prospects they looked at, which allowed Edwards to use some of their names (the Tiger-Cats had earlier stipulated that he'd only be able to write about the camp on the condition he left names out). What's most interesting about the piece isn't the specific players involved, though, but rather the detail it provides on what's usually a very off-the-radar process. I found this description of how the Tiger-Cats winnowed the prospects down particularly notable:
"If we don't think you're good enough we may ask you to leave - it's nothing personal," [general manager Bob] O'Billovich says to the group after the light switches have been found and the players gathered. "If somebody impresses us enough, you may get signed - we have to see you with our own eyes so we can make our own decision on your abilities."
Over the course of the next two hours, the players will run through series of tests and drills aimed at measuring their raw athletic ability. There's a 40-yard dash, the short shuttle and a series of position-specific drills that emphasize agility and footwork.
Head coach Marcel Bellefeuille and all three of his co-ordinators are here, as is assistant general manager Joe Womack, his friendly Louisiana drawl offering a constant stream of encouragement.
...As his co-ordinators run drills, Bellefeuille moves from station-to-station, taking it all in. He says each segment of testing further reduces the number of players under consideration.
"First, you look at the measurables like the 40, and if they're OK, then you've got my attention. In the drills, you're looking for athleticism and football sense," Bellefeuille says. "By the time you get to the one-on-ones, you're looking at maybe 15 guys."
As I've written before, there are significant flaws to relying solely on measurables. Plenty of players have gone on to potent professional careers despite not blowing people away with their measurables; Tom Brady wound up getting picked in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, a slight he remembers to this day, and he was even behind CFL quarterback Michael Bishop on the Patriots' depth chart that fall. Moreover, the CFL's often found some of its best players from those passed over by the NFL thanks to particular measurable defects or other biases; both Doug Flutie and Cameron Wake were initially thought to be too small for the NFL. Making decisions based solely on measurables probably isn't the best idea.
However, I don't think that's entirely what Bellefeuille (pictured above on the sidelines in an Oct. 3 game), O'Billovich, Womack and the rest of the Tiger-Cats' management are doing here. It's worth pointing out that they're not going into these camps blind (except perhaps in the case of guys like Kash Kiefer, the gate-crashing punter described in Edwards' article). The vast majority of players at these camps have been invited by the team, which means that the Tiger-Cats already have plenty of information on them, from statistics to game tapes, and they probably already have an idea how these guys do in the 40 and the shuttle from NFL combine data and the players' individual pro days (so the team is comparing their measurables not just against other prospects, but against their own previous marks). If someone looks great on tape and has put up impressive stats, but doesn't run the fastest 40, I'd imagine they're probably not going to be ruled out solely on that. The measurable tests here seem like a useful way to see how these players have progressed since their last tests, and they also provide a glimpse of how they stack up against others at their position in terms of sheer speed and agility.
It's notable that the camp goes well beyond measurables, too. The Tiger-Cats also carry out position-specific drills to try and further winnow down the pool of free agents in the camp, and then they move on to one-on-one battles (such as receiver/defensive back drills). Most CFL teams do a lot of these camps over the offseason, so they're looking at a wide variety of players in person, and they also keep track of many more players on tape and on paper. I mentioned earlier today that the CFL's offseason really isn't a break for players thanks to the extensive conditioning they have to do, and the same's just as true for CFL coaches, scouts and personnel executives. They have to do an incredible amount of work to get their roster ready for the year, and often there aren't a lot of immediately-tangible results from all the time they put in (Edwards' story only mentions one player added to the team's negotiation list, 6'6'' receiver Jeremy Kelley, and even that doesn't mean he'll suit up for the team any time soon). All that work does pay off, though; the talent level in the CFL is consistently high despite stars retiring and leaving for the NFL, and much of that is thanks to scouts and executives going the extra mile to find and evaluate a wide range of players at camps like these.
That's what's particularly intriguing about Edwards' piece. It doesn't necessarily give us a lot of insight into how the Tiger-Cats' roster will look this coming season, as only a couple of players are mentioned by name, and it's very possible that no one from this particular camp will turn into a notable contributor at the CFL level. However, it provides a great inside look at a process that's typically under a veil of secrecy, and it does so in a way that isn't likely to be at all damaging to the team's roster plans or on-field prospects. It's nice to see CFL teams providing more access to media (and the league itself trying to give fans similar behind-the-scenes looks, as it did with the John Surla E-Camp documentary), particularly on processes that fans don't often get to learn the details of.
Obviously, teams and the league have to keep some information secret for competitive reasons, and it's always tricky for media members to cover an event where they have to agree to reporting restrictions, but this piece demonstrates that the interests of teams (promoting the game and getting information to their fans without damaging their competitive prospects) and media organizations (reporting as much relevant information as possible on the teams they cover) aren't always diametrically opposed. Many sports leagues and teams are trying to become more restrictive with their access (see the debates around Toronto FC's attempt to close their locker room, or Augusta National's decision to keep a female reporter out of the locker room at this weekend's Masters), so it's refreshing to see some steps in the opposite direction on the CFL front. It's possible to find solutions that work for teams, the league, media outlets and fans, and Edwards' piece reflects that; hopefully, these moves towards extra access for media members and fans will continue that.