For Rush personnel director, its more than name game
Chicago Rush player personnel director Scott Bailey's office walls are covered in names.
From Arena League players to undrafted college players to NFL cast-offs, Bailey scouts them all. In the AFL, where players sign just one-year contracts and roster turnover is second nature, he needs to be ready to fill a spot at any moment.
What it takes to play in the AFL
As player personnel director for the Chicago Rush, Scott Bailey needs to know how the skills in the outdoor game translate to the indoor game. At every position, Bailey has a specific skill-set he's searching for in the football players he scouts. "It's a little bit different but it's football: catching, throwing, tackling," Bailey said. "You can find players anywhere. You just have to coach them up on how we do things in the Arena League."
"We like guards that can move their feet. If we can get a big-time guy that's 6-foot-3, 330 (pounds), a bigger guy that can kind of clog up the middle and move his feet on an edge guy, being able to bounce outside with him, that's what we want."
"D-ends are d-ends. You want a quick twitch guy that can get after the quarterback. You don't want a block magnet. (For defensive tackle) you want an outdoor three-tech on the d-line or you want a speed guy, a guy that can really turn the corner quickly. That's really what you're looking for. You don't want a run stuffer. You need to get a guy that penetrates."
"A lot of times in the outdoor game, you'll get a shuffler and we're all backpedal in this league. Once you get them here they understand there's only a certain amount of routes that can beat you and they'll start learning the system. Outdoors there's a lot more field to work against.…
A guy that has foot speed and can play (man-to-man coverage), that guy can be tough. If you can't play man, you can't play in this league. You'll get lit up with that motion man."
"You've got to have an AFL quarterback. You'd love to have a rookie behind him and groom him to be the next guy, but going into the season, it's tough to start with a rookie quarterback. As far as quarterbacks go, you want a guy that's very accurate, gets rid of the ball quickly and has some touch on it."
"You're looking for guys that can get separation with obviously good hands and some speed. You've got to have at least two guys out of your four that can be a down-the-field threat, and then you want big size around the goal line, possession receivers. You can throw up the ball to that guy."
"A Jack linebacker is almost like a safety, but you want a bigger safety. A Mac linebacker you can go one or two ways; you can go an outside linebacker in the outdoor game with some pass rush ability or you go with an absolute thumper like a guy that was a former d-tackle and he comes in and thumps the middle."
"Athletic centers and guards would be great fullbacks because, most of the time in the outdoor game, your fullbacks are 230, 240. That's not going to cut it here because the Mac linebackers are bigger and you're slide protecting so you're going against defensive lineman all the time. You have to find a big, big kid.…
You're not really looking for an outdoor fullback."
— Chad Thornburg
"We've got to keep our eyes out on everyone," Bailey said. "There's 2,500-3,500 guys out there that are good players and you just need to find them."
Every player decorating his office walls has a grade. If given a name, Bailey can rattle of the player's college, position, height and weight, and he can offer some insight into what they can do on the field.
"He has a 'Rain Man' mentality when it comes to football," said head coach Bob McMillen. "He can remember anything you tell him."
Bailey keeps a watch list of about 20 players at each position handy at all times in case the Rush needs to make a personnel move on the fly.
"When you're on the road and we go back to the hotel after losing a game and a guy just got torched in our secondary, the head coach is going to say, 'All right, who do we have next?'" he said. "I've got to give him some options."
This scenario played out after the Rush suffered its worst defeat in franchise history, a 68-28 loss to the Utah Blaze on June 9. A shake-up in the defensive secondary was in store and the New Orleans Voodoo had recently released defensive back Jorrick Calvin. Bailey had a high grade on the former Philadelphia Eagles kick returner, and the Rush took a chance on him.
After just two days of practice, Calvin rewarded his new team by intercepting two passes in his debut against the Georgia Force the next week.
"Another man's garbage is another man's treasure," McMillen said.
In his eighth year with the Rush, Bailey, 33, spends much of his time scouring professional football rosters throughout the county, calling contacts in the NFL, watching hours of game film and grading every player on the market.
"You got to do your work or otherwise someone will sign in Utah, someone will sign in Spokane, you'll play them and they'll hurt you," Bailey said, before reliving the most recent example from a Week 17 loss to the San Jose SaberCats.
The Rush invited wide receiver Freddie Williams to training camp this season, but he signed with San Jose and torched Chicago for 164 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns in a game with playoff implications for the Rush.
"We liked him, but we were kind of full at that spot so we said, 'We'd like to have you come out to camp and compete,'" Bailey said. "San Jose offered him, and he lit us up. That's the type of stuff that can happen."
The structure of the Arena League lends itself to frequent player movement — player contracts are fixed at one-year, $400 per game and are non-guaranteed — and rosters are rarely recognizable from year to year, or even from the beginning of the season to the end.
"Every day, there's some kind of transaction going because the coaches are trying to find guys that fit the mold of their team," said linebacker Kelvin Morris.
Only three players remain on the defense from Chicago's training camp roster: Morris, defensive back Semaj Moody, and defensive back Vic Hall, who spent most of the season on injured reserve.
"With so many guys out there, if guys aren't producing you've got to bring in another," Bailey said. "You can't sit and wait because all of a sudden, you're four games under .500."
The AFL owners and players union are currently negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement and long-term deals are among the terms being discussed. The AFL announced that owners and players had reached an agreement on a deal in June, but as of Friday the deal has not yet been signed.
The long-term deals would provide stability for the Arena League rosters, something the league hasn't seen since before it folded in 2009.
"It's always good to have big pieces of the puzzle, then you fill in around it with the other little pieces," Bailey said.
Now, though, the Rush must essentially fill the entire puzzle from scratch. Next year's Rush roster likely won't resemble the one taking the field Saturday night in the season finale against the Cleveland Gladiators.
With the ever-changing rosters, Bailey acknowledges that it's difficult for AFL fans to get attached to its players.
"They're cheering for the team, but they don't necessarily form any sort of relationship with the players," he said.
The roster turnover isn't just an obstacle for the teams and the fan base; it's difficult on the players as well, particularly when midseason trades or cuts pull a player from the city he's entrenched in or where he may have a second career or family.
"It's very difficult, especially when you're going somewhere you've never been," Calvin said. "Being a football player, you have to deal with it. You might have to pick up and leave at any time."
When Calvin relocated from New Orleans to play for the Rush in Chicago, he had to leave his family in Louisiana behind.
"It's tough on your family," he said. "They want you to be there with them but you can't. You have to go make money to take care of your family. You've got to do what you've got to do."
Bailey said balancing the needs of the player versus the needs of the team during transactions is difficult, but what's best for the team must eventually come first.
"You form a relationship with them and you like them, but at the end of the day, if they're not producing and you have a chance to get better, you've got to make a deal," he said. "Your first commitment is to the coaching staff and to your team."
The Rush and most AFL teams, he added, will try to accommodate the player as much as possible such as entering trade negotiations with a team near their hometown first.
"It's a fine line because you don't want to hurt the kid," he said. "It's also their careers you're dealing with. They come into this league, they want to make plays, be on a team, win games and it doesn't always work out."
But the players understand that pro football is a business.
"It's always what's best for the team because one guy is not more than the team," Morris said. "That's the hard part."
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