Interview with Co-authors Jon Kingdon and Bruce Kebric
If you read our weekly Friday Wrap (and if you don’t, you can register for it here), you know that there’s a new book out called Al Davis: Behind the Raiders Shield. It’s written by Bay Area sportswriter Steve Corkran along with two men who knew Davis well: former Raiders scouts Jon Kingdon and Bruce Kebric. Also, Gary Peterson served as editor.
I’ve known Jon since the late ’00s in my days running all-star games, but only recently met Bruce (and his friendly and engaging wife, Liz). They’re both promoting the book around the Bay Area and nationally, so I took the opportunity to ask both of them a few questions about past Raiders drafts, as well as the scouting business. They were kind enough to spend a little time answering those questions, and we’ll have them for our readers this week. Here’s the first excerpt.
Looking back to your four decades with the Raiders, which draftee’s success (or failure) surprised you the most?
Kingdon: The late-round picks that make it are always the most satisfying. Ron Wolf getting the team to draft (DT) Reggie Kinlaw, who had a very good career and (who was) dominating in the Super Bowl win versus Washington. La’Roi Glover, another defensive tackle, who we battled to draft and went on to a great career. Unfortunately, it was done with the New Orleans Saints. Another was Ronald Curry who was a quarterback out of North Carolina that we tried as a safety and then went on to become a very fine wide receiver.
Kebric: As stated in the book, the players that we did not draft (Brett Favre, Aeneas Williams, Steven Jackson, etc.) stand out more than the ones we did draft. During my early years with the Raiders, I lived in Houston and scouted the Southwest. Two players that I recommended who performed beyond my expectations were SS Vann McElroy (Baylor) and DE Greg Townsend (TCU). The biggest disappointment had to be (former No. 1 overall) JaMarcus Russell (LSU), who I had rated as my third best player for the 2007 draft (behind Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson). As the book relates, we told Al that JaMarcus needed a structured environment but such was not provided in Oakland. We basically gave a young man $30 million and let him roam the East Bay.
Is life better overall for scouts now than it was 10 years ago? 20 years ago?
Kingdon: There has been a great evolution in scouting. When I was first hired, scouts would be lugging projectors around to the schools to watch their film. Sometime you would have to watch the film against the wall in the bathroom of a locker room. Going from film to tape and finally to digitizing also makes things a lot easier. Now the teams have film on every school from the prior season and receive it as the season progresses. Scouts are now able to watch a team’s film prior to showing up at the school, enabling the scout to determine where the players he is scouting line up prior to arriving at the school, saving time and allowing the scout to go right into the evaluation process.
Kebric: Worse. The (Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones mantra of “hiring 25-year-olds and paying them $25,000 a year” seems to pervade the league. When I entered the NFL in 1968, the scouts were held in much higher esteem since the majority had been NFL players, NFL executives or NFL/college coaches. Of course, until the late 1970s, the draft was held in early February, which did not permit the coaches to be as involved as today.
Wednesday, we ask Jon and Bruce how Al Davis would look at the analytics wave in football, and how Davis evaluated his scouts and draft team. Don’t forget to check out the book on Amazon.
On Tuesday, two of the co-authors of the new book, Al Davis: Behind the Raiders Shield, Jon Kingdon and Bruce Kebric, answered our questions about the book and about scouting in general. We had a few more questions, and their answers are below.
Did Al evaluate scouts and front office personnel? If so, how?
Kingdon: In his own way, Al would evaluate the scouts. He would rely more on the opinion of the better scouts in the department. He was very loyal to his employees and did not fire people easily. If someone proved to be disloyal to him or the organization, that was certainly grounds for termination. The coaches were a different story.
Kebric: He did know who could perform and who could not but remained loyal to certain individuals. On a number of occasions, he would tell us just to “work around so and so.” Of course, this created a burden on the rest of us.
Al was an innovator. How would he look at the rise of analytics in the game today?
Kingdon: I once heard a historian talk about the greatness of our founding fathers like Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and Adams. They wrote this amazing document using quill pens in bad light. It would be amazing to think what they could do with the facilities of today. I think the same think about Sid Gillman, Al Davis and the other great football minds that would sit in a room, cutting and splicing film as they put together their offenses. I’m sure that Al would have analyzed the analytics from all angles and perspectives and found a way to maximize its use in ways that may not have been considered.
Kebric: Perhaps, because of his health decline, Al did not adapt to modern devices (e.g., computers, cell phones, etc.). He remained reliant upon daily faxes and used an overhead projector to detail particulars of the Lane Kiffin firing. I once made mention to him about all the data that could be located on a computer and he replied that, “Jon Kingdon provides me with that information.” The book contains a comment from Al to the effect that history repeats itself and that what worked in the past once again will work in the future. He never really left the 1960s (Sid Gilllman’s vertical passing offense, etc.) and so, analytics would have been a tough sell.
Thursday, we ask Jon and Bruce the biggest mistake a team can make during the scouting process; how they think Davis would have dealt with evaluating players in college offenses that don’t translate to the NFL; and why some scouts and executives lose their effectiveness over time. Don’t forget to check in tomorrow, and make sure to check out their new book.
Today, we offer the final segment of our three-part series with former Raiders scouts Jon Kingdon and Bruce Kebric, two of the co-authors of Al Davis: Behind the Raiders Shield.
Do you think Al Davis would follow the trend of hiring young people with minimal football background or would he seek more experienced scouts for his staff?
Kingdon: Outside of Ron Wolf, Bruce Kebric and myself, the scouting department was primarily comprised of former players so I imagine he would have continued that process.
Kebric: No. He wanted experience and expertise.
What’s the biggest mistake a team can make in scouting and evaluation?
Kingdon: It’s important that a scout have a conviction in his opinions. I worked with a scout that would change his grade from a second round to a seventh round to a third round depending on what was the latest report that he heard. It’s a lot easier to defend your own opinion than someone else’s. A scout needs to be strong enough to admit when he is wrong and strong enough to admit when he is right. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes. Scouting is the process of humans evaluating humans so by definition, you are going to be wrong sometimes. Just learn from your mistakes. If you make a mistake, make it a mistake of commission, not omission.
Kebric: Hiring friends and “yes” people. You need people who do the work, stand up for their convictions, but are willing to admit a mistake. The best advice that I ever received came from a veteran coach who early on in my career said, “Believe your eyes, not your ears.”
The spread offense has created challenges for scouts, especially when it comes to evaluating the OL and QBs. How would Al have dealt with this challenge?
Kingdon: Scouting is scouting. Probably the same issues came up when teams were running the wishbone, wing T and run and shoot offenses.
Kebric: I think that the lack of patience more than the collegiate offenses is the primary problem. Players at these two positions are immediately put on the field today instead of being given two or three years to learn the NFL game. I watch Aaron Rodgers and wonder what his career would have been like if he had been forced to play immediately. Everyone wants instant success. Years ago, teams had three- and five-year plans; now it is one and two. My first two years with the Oilers, our record was 2-26. The next two it was 17-11 and then it was on to “Luv Ya Blue.” Do you think we would have been around for Year 3 today?
In Al’s final days with the Raiders, the team didn’t enjoy a lot of success. The same could be said for a lot of the game’s legends (Beathard, Landry, others). Is there a shelf life for success in the NFL?
Kingdon: There’s no way to come up with a palatable answer to this question.
Kebric: Merely a lack of patience on Al’s part. His mounting health problems created a desire for instant success and as the book mentions, he never recovered from the loss in the 2003 Super Bowl. Al won three championships with two coaches over a 19-year period. After that, he was making near bi-annual changes with both his head coaches and the offensive scheme (Vertical vs. West Coast).