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Life of an NFL football scout more than game film

Thursday, November 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — It's halftime, and with Missouri leading Baylor 27-16, Bob Morris is taking his break. Seated in the last row of the Memorial Stadium press box, surrounded by dozens of open laptops and active fingers, his pen lays next to an open notebook.

An area scout for the Cleveland Browns, halftime is Morris' only reprieve. Even a quick trip to the bathroom can lead to a missed 84-yard touchdown pass. Something that's already happened today.

"I had to watch it on replay," Morris said with a laugh. "That's why you never leave your seat."

After more than 20 years as an assistant college football coach, Morris, who lives in Texas with his wife, is in his eighth season as the Browns' scouting eye in the southwest. And unlike Morris' press box neighbors, whose gameday work begins and ends a couple hours before and after kickoff, Morris' Saturday afternoons in autumn are just the beginning of days full of highway headlights, and the familiar feel of a freshly made motel bed.

By halftime Morris has been at Memorial Stadium for almost four hours. Each school's traffic is a bit different, he says. Better safe than sorry.

Upon arrival, Morris usually makes himself comfortable in the press box before enjoying whatever food is provided. About an hour before kickoff he makes his way down to field level for pregame warmups, his first stage of observation.

"You go out, get body types, watch them move around, get an idea of their athletic ability by the drills they do," Morris said.

A half hour before kickoff Morris gets settled in the pressbox, his notebook open in front of him. The seniors are circled, and each player on his list is indentified.

Then the struggle begins.

On each individual series Morris does his best to examine individual matchups — a cornerback on a wide receiver, a center against a nose tackle. He will often pull out a set of binoculars, but not necessarily for a better look. The binoculars provide a forced focus. Morris says that he started watching football the same way anyone does. He was a fan. And over the course of the game, even he needs reminding. He isn't here to watch a football game.

"We're fans like everybody else," Morris said. "If you don't come in with a plan and really discipline yourself, you'll end up watching the ball and saying, 'Gosh, what'd that guy do on that play?'"

While watching the game may mean getting caught up in the game, it's a risk Morris is willing to take. Plenty of scouts root their player assessments in the game film, a calculated assessment of footwork and hand placement. But Morris says that in a way his 20 years of coaching will never leave him. Game film and game day can be two completely different things.

"You can watch all the film you want. You can see practice. But there's something different about game speed, actually getting a true judge of speed, true judge of size," Morris said. "How does a guy act? Is he a leader? I can remember watching one player one time, he got taken out of the game and he was sulking on the sideline. That's stuff you don't see on film, but as a scout you want to get the big picture of a guy."

That big picture is the summation of a few hand-written notes that Morris jots throughout the game. He knows more coach speak than scout speak, he says. The notes are small observations that look simple at first. A receiver "snatched" the ball out of the air rather than catching it with his body. A player showed a burst of speed. It's not a secret language. Just a set of reminders for when he reviews the film.

Morris still speaks as a coach. He evaluates like a coach. He thinks like a coach. The difference is that he no longer lives like a coach.

He played and later coached at Colorado. From there he went to Northern Illinois, then to Indiana, Purdue and finally to Akron. But each season meant spending most of his time in one zipcode. Now, a single Saturday can involve an afternoon in Boulder as Colorado takes on Wyoming, and a 50-mile drive to Colorado State for a night game in Fort Collins.

"I was given a guideline my first year as a scout. You're on the road for 10 (days), you're off for four (days)," Morris said.

Each job has its merits. He talks about the ups and downs of coaching with a bit of nostalgia, a longing for the excitement of each game. But he enjoys the "slow, steady, build-up" to the NFL Draft, which he says is a three-month grind of meetings and conversations followed by a giant exhale.

He says his wife is less conflicted. Ten days on the road is worth the four days he gets to spend at home. Because the biggest difference between scouting and coaching is that when he's home, he's home.

"Even when you're home (as a coach) you're worried about some 18-year-old going to class," Morris said. "Or you're on the phone calling a recruit. We don't have to recruit them. We get to pick them."

Halfway through the third quarter, Morris shuts the notebook, gathers his things and makes for the press elevator. Fayetteville, and the University of Arkansas, are six hours away. He likes to beat the traffic.

 

 


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