LOVELAND, Colo. — Scot McCloughan sits in his overstuffed living-room chair, eyes fixed on the 52-inch TV screen that’s connected to his iPad loaded with every college football game contested in 2016, and rewinds until he finds the precise moment that excites him so.
“Look at that jump-cut!” McCloughan says, pointing the red light that emanates from his Bluetooth remote control at the running back’s feet. “He’s got the vision to see the hole open up to the left. And see how strong he is? He’s always falling forward. That’s another three yards!”
Six months after being fired as the Washington Redskins’ general manager barely two years into a four-year contract, McCloughan is preparing for the 2017 NFL season the same way he has for the last two decades. He is analyzing film of top college prospects — in this case, a Southeastern Conference running back he is evaluating for one of the NFL teams that subscribe to the private scouting service he now operates out of his northern Colorado home.
McCloughan has watched this particular game several times, rewinding and replaying slowly, then full speed, scrutinizing the back’s footwork, power and instincts from the sideline camera angle and end zone angle.
“With running backs, the vision is so important,” said McCloughan, his reading glasses and a legal pad covered with notes on the end table beside him. “They can’t teach that. They’ve got to be able to see it.”
McCloughan has taken the high road since Redskins team President Bruce Allen released a four-sentence statement March 9, the opening day of the free agent signing period and just weeks before the NFL draft, that he had been “released.” While stunning, given that Allen had personally vetted and introduced his handpicked general manager in January 2015, McCloughan’s ouster brought an end to an increasingly untenable situation in which he was barred from speaking to the media and excluded from essential draft-day preparations.
McCloughan said nothing publicly as Redskins officials didn’t dispute speculation on the team-owned radio station that he was abusing alcohol. Nor did McCloughan defend himself against a Washington Post report citing an unidentified Redskins official alleging that he had reported to work intoxicated.
McCloughan denied all interview requests, auctioned off his signature items of Redskins memorabilia to benefit the team’s charitable foundation and, with his wife, Jessica, loaded their belongings in a U-Haul truck and moved back to Loveland, where both were reared.
It was only last month that he reentered public life in measured steps, opening a Twitter account to interact with NFL fans and making occasional radio appearances on WJFK-FM, 106.7 The Fan, in Washington. He used his first Twitter post to express his affection for Redskins supporters and his faith in the organization, writing: “I miss Redskins nation . . . the fans, coaches, players, trainers and the owner. Stay positive, they will compete.”
Asked in a lengthy interview at his Colorado home whether the Redskins were wrong to allege in veiled fashion that drinking on the job was among the reasons for his firing, McCloughan said: “I can’t really get into that because there is still the settlement,” confirming for the first time that he has filed a grievance with the NFL over the team’s decision to fire him “for cause” and, as a result, not pay the balance due on his contract.
Neither McCloughan nor his agent and lawyer, Peter Schaffer, would discuss the money at stake. But based on an annual salary of $1 million to $2 million — the conservative end for NFL general managers — McCloughan would be entitled to as much as $2.6 million if the NFL’s private grievance process concludes he was fired unjustly with 22 months remaining on his contract.
Redskins senior vice president of communications Tony Wyllie said Saturday that the team had no comment on McCloughan’s grievance filing.
“I know who I am and what I did there,” McCloughan said, with no sign of animus in his voice. “Did I build a Super Bowl champion? No. But I did a good job, along with other people there, of making the roster better. I did a good job, with [Coach] Jay [Gruden], in making the quarterback change.” McCloughan persuaded owner Daniel Snyder and Allen to bench Robert Griffin III on the eve of the 2015 season in favor of Kirk Cousins.
“If it comes down to my past, it’s their choice,” McCloughan continued in his first in-depth interview since he was fired. “But I’m in a good place, back in my home town. I’ve got a great wife, great kids. We’re going forward. The past is the past.”
Loveland, about an hour’s drive north of Denver, is nicknamed “the Sweetheart City.” It is fitting the McCloughans returned to its embrace. Scot’s two brothers live within 10 miles; his parents are close by. Jessica’s family and ex-husband live here as well, making it easy for her two young children to alternate weeks at the home of each parent.
In a handsome home set against a Rocky Mountains backdrop, McCloughan has relaunched Instinctive Scouting — the company he started after abruptly resigning in April 2014 as a senior personnel executive with the Seattle Seahawks. In an interview with ESPN later that year, he spoke openly about his struggles with alcohol abuse that had forced him from two NFL jobs and explained that he had the problem under control and was able to have an occasional beer.
Today, McCloughan spends his days evaluating top college players for NFL teams that each send him a list of 150 prospects to study. He reviews their college games, granted his clients’ access to a shared NFL video database of every college football game from previous years, then writes reports.
The reports aren’t tailored to specific NFL teams but are general in nature, consisting of an analysis of a player’s strengths and weaknesses, a summary, a list of games reviewed and a final grade.
A report McCloughan recently wrote on a cornerback, for example, cited “foot quickness, man-coverage ability and confidence in his play” among his strengths and lack of “tackling making plays on the ball” among his weaknesses. The summary noted “great quick twitch reaction . . . has the range and speed to play off the ball . . . needs work on tackling and run support.” It added up to a grade of 2.2 under his scoring system, which meant McCloughan considered him worth a pick in the bottom half of the NFL draft’s second round.
McCloughan, who asked that the cornerback’s name not be made public, said that under his agreement with his clients, he is not at liberty to reveal which teams he is working for and which players he is evaluating.
“It’s not rocket science,” said McCloughan, 46, who looks healthier today than he did in his final months with the Redskins despite a decades-old knee injury that will soon demand joint replacement.
McCloughan, who is camera shy by nature, has turned down opportunities to be an NFL broadcast analyst since his firing.
His work attire is shorts, T-shirt, sneakers and baseball cap. And he exudes contentment, pursuing his life’s passion from the comfort of a home that he and Jessica share with her children and a 4-month-old puppy named Raider (black fur, silver spot on his chin and a wild, playful disposition).
“It’s just a game,” McCloughan said of analyzing game film. “People make it out like life and death. But it’s a bunch of big kids knocking the crud out of each other. Still, you’re not always accurate. The talent is easy to see. The most important thing is you’ve got to identify the person.”
McCloughan was hailed as a savior when he arrived in Washington in January 2015, winning over fans because of his track record as a talent evaluator in San Francisco and Seattle.
He had a clear philosophy of team-building. He believed in drafting big, tough-nosed players who’d won big games for major college powers. “Football players,” he called them, as if an honorific. He believed in prioritizing offensive and defensive linemen, who control the game. He favored re-signing promising young players before their rookie deals expired. And he shied away from free agent spending sprees, convinced that winning teams developed their own talent.
Finally, it seemed, the Redskins had a football man in charge.
But as the Redskins’ fortunes improved, Allen grew jealous of the credit McCloughan was getting for the team’s improved play — a 2015 NFC East championship and the first back-to-back winning seasons in nearly two decades — according to people close to the team’s front office. Some speculated that this played a part in McCloughan’s dismissal.
By all accounts, Allen gave McCloughan free rein on scouting, evaluating players and running the draft. But as the 2016 season drew to a close, people inside Redskins Park said Allen increasingly found fault with McCloughan’s efforts to build relationships with players and help them through difficult times.
Asked recently by one of his 27,000-plus Twitter followers to describe Allen in one word, McCloughan replied: “Politician.”
Reflecting on his Redskins tenure last week, McCloughan declined to elaborate on that answer, saying: “I don’t want to take shots at Bruce. It just didn’t work out. I helped the organization to back-to-back winning seasons. I’m not saying we were great, but we had a chance to go to the playoffs back-to-back seasons.”
McCloughan offered nothing but gratitude to Snyder, and his wife agreed. “He was great to me; great to Jess and me, both,” he said.
As for Allen, McCloughan said: “He let me do my job. He did what he thought was right. I did what I thought was right. If I was successful, that’s great. If I wasn’t, he has the right to fire me. Coaches, scouts, GMs get fired every year. It’s part of the business.”
So how well did McCloughan do in his two seasons with the Redskins?
His free agent signings have produced mixed results. Of his 17 draft picks, four enter the 2017 season as projected starters: Right guard Brandon Scherff (a 2016 Pro Bowl honoree), wide receivers Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson; and linebacker Preston Smith. Fewer than half (eight of 17) remain on the roster, including linebacker Martrell Spaight, cornerback Kendall Fuller, defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis and safety Su’a Cravens, though Cravens is currently not on the roster after having told the team that he plans to retire.
The Redskins have given up on some of his draft picks; they recently released running back Matt Jones, a third-round pick in 2015, for example. Some fans and analysts also question the wisdom of using the team’s 2016 first-round pick on Doctson, who missed all but two games of his rookie year with Achilles’ injuries. Doctson will be in the lineup Sunday when Washington opens the regular season against the Philadelphia Eagles.
McCloughan said he still believes in both players.
“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong — but I still, to my heart, know that Matt Jones is going to be a good player in the NFL,” McCloughan said. “I guarantee it.”
He believes the same of Doctson. “I evaluated all the tape, and I evaluated the person. Everything was A-plus across the board. It’s going to prove out, definitely, because he’s a great kid, and he has talent and it’s important to him.”
Even as McCloughan’s scouting business now occupies his days, it’s clear he remains emotionally and professionally invested in the Redskins’ success.
He’s concerned about the amount of change the coaching staff and roster have undergone this offseason, with two new coordinators, a new defensive staff and 21 players on one-year contracts, by his last count.
“Change is never good for an organization,” McCloughan said. “You need consistency. It’s a fine line between patience and anxiety. All the sudden you lose two games and it’s, ‘Oh no! We need to change something!’ But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to have patience; you have to stay steady, because players feel it if there’s tension.”
McCloughan said he wouldn’t have let veteran wide receiver Pierre Garcon depart via free agency, as the Redskins did, calling him “the whole package — leadership, toughness competitiveness.”
As for Cravens, whose wish to retire at age 22 stunned the Redskins, McCloughan said he has no insight into Cravens’s thinking but insists he not only displayed rare talent in college at Southern California but also great love of the game.
“I don’t know what’s going on now,” McCloughan said, “but I know he’s a good kid. He’s not malicious.”
Regarding Cousins, whom he and Gruden jointly pushed for the starting nod in August 2015 despite considerable resistance from others in the front office, McCloughan acknowledged that the Redskins missed an opportunity to sign him to a long-term contract after he led them to the playoffs that year.
“I was hoping he would be a long-term answer,” McCloughan added, declining to discuss the contract negotiations but voicing his admiration for Cousins as a quarterback and person.
As Thursday evening neared, McCloughan dispensed with his film study and settled in with Jessica and their puppy to watch the NFL’s 2017 season opener between the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. There was a can of club soda by his side and a spread of meats, cheeses and crackers on the coffee table.
Without an NFL team of his own to build, he and Jessica recently joined a fantasy league with a dozen or so friends and took turns drafting their squad. He chose quarterback Tom Brady with their first pick; she chose Houston’s defense before he could point out that the Texans’ home games might be relocated because of Hurricane Harvey.
As the high-scoring game unfolded, McCloughan slowly realized that playing fantasy football altered the way he viewed the game. He needed Brady to throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns, he figured, if Team McCloughan was to dominate its fantasy league in Week 1. But Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was the first player McCloughan drafted in real life, while vice president of player personnel in San Francisco, so his loyalties were torn.
The Patriots scored on their opening drive, but Mike Gillislee’s rushing touchdown did nothing for Team McCloughan.
“C’mon, Alex! Atta Boy!” McCloughan urged as Smith moved the Chiefs downfield.
“We want Kansas City to score, honey,” he said to Jessica, “because it makes Brady throw the football more.”
But it wasn’t long before McCloughan’s eyes and attention turned to the Patriots’ and Chiefs’ offensive and defensive linemen — even though nothing they’d do in the game would help his fantasy score. McCloughan found himself looking for linemen who got the most explosive burst off the line. He looked at feet placement. He looked at hands. At leverage.
The lifelong NFL scout was looking for football players.
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