Exploring NFL Advance Scouting

by T.J. McCreight|November 12, 2023
Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

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This is a guest post from T.J. McCreight. McCreight has worked as a scout, director of pro personnel, director of college scouting, and a player personnel executive across multiple NFL teams.

With advance scouting a topic on the mind of many, it made me think about how the NFL operates regarding signals, groupings, and advance scouting.

For several years with the Arizona Cardinals, I was in the coach’s box during the game and my job was to tell our defensive coordinator, through the headset, what offensive personnel grouping that our opponent was putting on the field.  The offense has a coach, on the sideline, that is responsible for telling the players what grouping is on the field for that play.  Usually that coach would use a hand signal.  It may be 1 finger for 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end), a fist for 22 (two backs, two tight ends), three fingers for 11 (one back, one tight end), etc.

After I told our coordinator what the grouping was, he would send in the appropriate defensive group.  Some offensive coaches would get tricky (they knew someone was up there watching) and try to get you to send in the wrong group.

Some teams wanted to know what your defense would be so they would give you the correct signal and they would make sure I could see it.  One coach would clearly show me in the box after he showed his players to make certain I could see him clearly!  It was more important for that team to know what defense we were in rather than have us make a mistake.

I would go into that game knowing the signals because we would send a scout (the advance scout) the week before, and he would chart the signals so we would be prepared for the game.  The rule in the NFL is that it is required to have a press pass for the team you are playing the next week.  Each team sends a scout to that game the week before to gather as much information as possible.

You are totally free to “steal” anything you can see with your eyes.  The only rule is you are not allowed to use any type of video recorder.  So, whatever your eyes can see is legal.

This advance scout would not only look for the grouping signals, but he would also look for anything that the game film/tv copy would not show you.  The advance scout would try to pick up the quarterback’s cadence and rhythm, signals from the defensive coaches, injuries, and any sideline activity.  If you just focus on an NFL sideline with your binoculars for an entire NFL game, you can really pick up a lot of information.

On one occasion later in the season, our advance scout noticed a pattern for when a team was going to run a gadget/trick play.  The offensive coordinator would give a double thumbs up to the quarterback and mouth the words, “be smart.”

Our advance scout noticed this before each trick play and told me about it.  In the third quarter of a game, I saw exactly what I was told; the coordinator did the double thumbs/be smart and I told our defensive coordinator to be ready because something was coming.  Our defensive coordinator immediately told the coach on the field and alerted our defense.

They ran a reverse pass, and we stuffed it!

Little things do end up mattering on the football field.  One play can decide a game, which can decide a playoff spot.  A lot of things go on behind the scenes during a game, and everything is being watched and noted.

That is why hours and hours of work are put into the smallest details in the National Football League.

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