INDIANAPOLIS – Each year Joe Schoen arrives for the NFL Scouting Combine, it means more than simply being where the nation’s top college football prospects audition to play at the next level. It means more than gathering with fellow executives, as well as coaches from the league’s 31 other teams and player agents, to talk business and trade stories and some laughs.
For Schoen (pronounced Shane), the week also serves as a homecoming. The Buffalo Bills’ assistant general manager grew up about two-and-a-half hours north of here in Elkhart, Ind. “It’d be quicker if the speed limit on Route 31 wasn't 55,” he says with a smile over coffee at the JW Marriott, where he and the rest of the Bills’ combine contingent are housed.
Schoen was a standout in football, basketball and baseball, captaining all three teams at Elkhart Memorial High School. He played quarterback as a freshman at Indiana’s DePauw University, where he majored in communications, before switching to receiver for his final three years.
Schoen knew he wanted to stay in sports after college. When playing professionally didn’t prove to be an option, he began exploring the possibility of working for an NFL team. Through a friend of a friend, his mother helped him get his foot in the door in 2000 as an intern with the Carolina Panthers, where he met Brandon Beane, a front-office executive prepping for the GM job he eventually landed with the Bills. Schoen started off in the Panthers’ ticket office before Beane had him working in football operations.
That meant doing a whole lot of menial chores, such as hauling beds and televisions into the dorm rooms of players and coaches at training camp, while also making sure the refrigerators were stocked with Gatorade.
“I hated Beane for a while, because there was a coach that wanted coffee made at 5:30 every morning,” Schoen recalls. “Another intern and I were going to rotate. I got up and made the coffee the first day right at 5:30, and his first morning, he oversleeps. So Brandon says, ‘Joe, I'm going to need you to do this every morning.’ I remember calling my mom complaining, ‘He makes me get up at 5:30 every morning.’ She said, ‘Joe, sometimes you get punished for being good. You may look at it as a negative, but it’s actually a positive because he trusts you to do your job.’ ”
That trust led to a meeting with Beane 18 years ago during Combine week. In his final months before graduation in 2001, Schoen had an offer to work for Stryker, a medical technologies company based in Kalamazoo, Mich. It called for a base salary of $45,000 and a $4,000 signing bonus. Beane was talking about an entry-level scouting position with the Panthers that would pay $10 an hour.
“I don't have a dollar to my name,” Schoen says. “My buddies who are working for (Stryker) are telling me, ‘After two years, if you're doing your job, you’ll be making $200,000.’ That afternoon, while I’m here, someone from Stryker called me to say, ‘If you haven’t decided you’re going to accept the offer, we’re going to take it off the table.’ I was so torn.”
Schoen joined the Panthers, spending seven years as a scout before joining the Miami Dolphins, for whom he was a national scout and an assistant director of college scouting before being promoted in 2014 to director of player personnel. During Schoen’s time in Miami, Hall of Famer Bill Parcells served as executive vice president of football operations.
Soon after Beane became the Bills’ GM in 2017, he brought along Schoen to be his right-hand man.
In the latest edition of “One-on-One Coverage,” the 39-year-old Schoen took some time from his work at the Combine to sit down with The Buffalo News.
Buffalo News: Define your role.
Joe Schoen: I try to handle a lot of the low-lying fruit, so it doesn't have to get to Brandon's desk because he is very busy. I work with the analytics department, I work with our personnel department, sometimes with football operations. I work with our communications. I touch a lot of different departments throughout the building. If it has to get to Brandon's desk, then it gets to Brandon's desk, but if it's something I don't think he needs to deal with, and I can squash it or take care of it or implement a policy or procedure, then I'll do it.
A lot of my background is the personnel, so watching film – pro, college draft prospects, free agency, the waiver wire – that's a majority of my day. But when we got to the Bills, we had to hire a scouting staff. We didn't have an analytics department, we didn't have a scouting system so early on, Brandon and I did a lot of that together. The grading scale is pretty simple, like 7.0 is a first-round pick and a first-year starter who makes an immediate impact.
BN: At what point did you say, “I want to do this?”
JS: I didn't know much about scouting, so when I actually went to interview for the job, Brandon actually got me the interview for the scouting assistant job with Jack Bushofsky (the Panthers’ director of player personnel at the time). Jack's an older, Pittsburgh, rough guy. I said, “I just want to get in.” He said, “I don't want somebody that wants to ‘just get in.’ I want somebody who wants to scout.” There might have been a couple of F-bombs in there, too. And I was like, “Oh, boy!” Luckily, I got the job. But I didn't think I was going to get it after saying what I said.
BN: Did you have any idea of what you were getting into with scouting?
JS: I remember calling Jeff Morrow, one of the Panthers’ scouts who is still there as their college scouting director. I was watching like three players at Northwestern. And I asked, “Do you rewind the play three times and watch all three or do you watch one and go back and watch the other two?” I didn't know. I never looked at a left tackle, I never looked at a guard. I remember another time calling Jeff and saying, “Hey, I'm looking at this left tackle, Mike Williams at Texas, and he looks good. But what are you looking for when you look at him?” He just kind of walked me through it: athleticism, feet, hands, balance, body control. He was a mentor of mine that kind of helped me initially, because I didn't really know what I was getting into.
BN: What’s the relationship like between you and Brandon?
JS: I think both of us are very competitive, passionate and want to win, so it may be Sunday at 6 o'clock and I'll get a random text from him about something. We're just always communicating about football, our roster. It can be in-season, it can be offseason, but always asking the question: How can we get better? We're just always spit-shooting ideas off each other, whether it's our roster, upcoming games. We're very good friends, we're close, and we’ve got a great professional relationship.
We can argue, we can disagree. We’ll come to a common ground at some point, whether it's, “Hey, let's go put on the film together. This is what I saw, this way you saw.” Or, “I don't agree with this decision because my experiences say X, Y and Z.” Or, “When I was here, it worked because of this, this and this.” And then eventually we’ve got to come to a conclusion and we do and we walk out where you're still great friends. He's a consensus builder, too, in the draft. He says, “It's not my board, it's our board.” We don't ever move a guy up or down on the board unless all the scouts are in town.
I think Brandon and I are aligned in that we both believe in the draft and building through the draft. It's kind of our Super Bowl, our chance to affect the roster moving forward, not just in 2019 but hopefully on into the future. We understand the task at hand and how important it is. There's not a big margin for error.
Before we got here, they had a good draft with (cornerback) Tre’Davious (White) and (offensive lineman Dion) Dawkins and (wide receiver) Zay (Jones) and (linebacker Matt) Milano. And we feel like some guys contributed last year that’ll hopefully contribute in the future and you're starting to build that foundation.
BN: Do you feel that sense of pressure, along with Brandon and Sean McDermott, that comes with the huge responsibility of having nearly $80 million salary cap space?
JS: Absolutely, because we're still at the beginning of this process. I personally think we've done a good job so far with laying the foundation with some young, talented players and supplementing it. Getting Lorenzo Alexander back was important from a leadership standpoint. You have all this cap space, you want to spend it, but you want to spend it on the right type of guys because I've been places where we spent a lot of money and you bring guys in and you're patching the holes just to get you through that year. Well, we're trying to build something to sustain success and those players that you're going to pay that type of money, everybody in the locker room is going to look around and look at what type of guys those are.
So not only is it spending the money, but we’ve got to be right on the guy, we’ve got to be right on the talent and it's got to be right for our program. Free agency is a big burden, but I think we're well prepared. I think we've done our research, we've got targeted guys. We’ll kind of draw a line in the sand what we're comfortable spending on certain players and if it gets above that, you’ve just got to have a walkaway point and we will.
BN: What’s your philosophy when it comes to scouting players?
JS: Coach Parcells told me one time, “Coaches are going to come and go, so you’d better find out what type of players you like and go get those type of players.” Because we may have success and Brian Daboll or Leslie Frazier are coordinators in here, but if they had a certain type of player that they liked that only fit their scheme and then they leave, now you’ve got this player who was pigeonholed into that scheme. It's the versatility you’re looking for. Like, OK, we’re a press team. Well, I want corners that can play press and off.
It's an organizational system with Sean and Brandon being at the top and then you know the communication is great within our building in terms of what we're looking for and it helps us as scouts when those guys hit the road, “Hey we're looking for X, Y and Z, and this is why.” And now we throw in analytics.
BN: What’s it like to work with Sean?
JS: I've learned a lot from Sean in the short time with him. Probably the biggest thing – and he said this after I was probably in the building for two weeks and it really resonated with me – is that some of his best teams weren't necessarily the most talented teams. So it's not going out and just acquiring all this talent. It's trying to build the best team where everybody's pulling in the right direction. And a good example is, during the year we go to the playoffs, we lose a couple in a row and you’ve got guys like Lorenzo Alexander, Kyle Williams, high-character guys in the locker room. We easily could have gone in the opposite direction and we didn't, because we had those high-character guys in the locker room and leaders that can continue Sean's message down in the locker room. It's probably the biggest thing that I've learned.
In Miami, we were collecting talent. We had some big-name guys here and there, but when you don’t have high-character guys and the right type of guys and things are great, they're at the front of the line. When things are bad, they’re pulling people with them to the back of the line. When I was in Miami, we scrimmaged Carolina the year they went to the Super Bowl. Joe Philbin was our coach and afterward we were like, “We're going be pretty good. These guys aren't gonna be very good at all.”
The Panthers had some older players, (receiver) Jerricho Cotchery, (cornerback) Charles Tillman, (safety) Roman Harper. And they went 15-1, while our coach gets fired. We had talented individuals, but we didn't have the team. They had guys that were instinctive and still had enough in the tank that they could play. Eleven guys on the same page. That gets overlooked a lot of times when you're looking at how a team is constructed.
BN: Character is always the hardest thing to judge, isn’t it?
JS: With scouting, I've always felt we miss more on the person than we do the talent. I think that's the biggest margin for error. So that's why we're here, that's why we go and see these kids on campus. It's a relationship business, so the more contacts you have at the schools and more people you can talk to, the more they trust you, the more you trust them, the more you get the information and you can make those decisions. And we’ll weed out our board of guys that we don't think are going to be fits. There's a certain time in the draft where maybe you take those guys, but the issues usually don't change.
Free agency, I think, is the hardest because now you’ve got a guy that's four or five years in the league, maybe more, and you can't call the opposing team or your buddies with other teams and say, “Hey, tell me how that kid was?” They may not shoot you straight because they're trying to keep their competitive advantage because they want to bring the player back. The players might have had injuries that you don't know about. You don't know that they didn't practice three days out of the week, so you just can't do as much research, whereas with the draft we should have very good knowledge of the kids to feel comfortable with.
As an area scout in Miami, (then-Dolphins GM) Jeff Ireland told me, “You're the GM of your area, so don't leave the school until you're comfortable either turning the pick in or not.” So if one guy said, “This guy can learn football,” one guy said, “He can't learn football,” there's a disconnect there so you need to figure it out before you leave the school. You need to talk to more people or whatever it may be. If three people talk good about them but one person doesn't, there's something there that you need to dig more on.
When you come to the Combine, a lot of these kids have been coached up about what to say in our interviews for the last month. So you’ve got to see through that and you try to throw them curveballs, something off the cuff, or make them really drill down on why something is that they may not have covered. We've had somebody come in and talk to us about interview techniques, so we'll apply some of those through the process to kind of get guys off their game.
BN: What was it like to work with Bill Parcells?
JS: Here's what I'll say about Coach Parcells: When you're around him, he’s always coaching. I was a national scout at the time, didn't know him from Adam, and we'd be in a meeting and he'd say, “You know what Tom Landry used to tell me?” I’m like, “Oh my God! Tom Landry, Bill Parcells, and he's about to tell me something that they talked about?” I was always typing stuff, writing stuff down. He gave so much information. It was just awesome to be around him.
You know he's a Hall of Famer, you know he's one of the best ever, but then when you're around him, you see how genuine he is as a person. He treated us all the same, he enjoyed being around us. I golfed with him several times. And you get him and Dan Henning, another mentor of mine who I got to know when he was (offensive coordinator of) the Panthers, and the amount of football they know and the experiences they have and what they've been through, I mean I'd pay money to go play golf with those guys. It was so much fun. And I actually took notes on the golf cart.
BN: What are you doing while you’re here?
JS: Obviously, watching the workouts, taking notes on my Surface. We actually have a function where the notes we write go directly into the player’s page. We've already seen all these guys at one time or another, so we've got a good feel for them.
Some of what we’re looking at here is validation, confirming what we already think. Some guys will test out of the water and you're like, “OK, we need to go back and do some work on this guy.” The interviews at night are very important, the preparation for those. And then any agents that we know, we’ll talk to them about you know their college guys, what they know about them, where they're training them, if we want to set up any private workouts with them.
BN: What’s your long-term career vision? Ultimately, an assistant GM wants to be a GM, right?
JS: Yeah, I mean, somewhere down the road. But one of my mentors along the way said, “People are too worried about their next job instead of the job they're doing.” And I've always kind of approached it with that mindset. I love Brandon to death; he’s like a brother to me. And the people that I work with – Sean, (director of player personnel) Dan Morgan – I can go on and on about the organization. It's like a family because we're in there all the time, we're working together and I love Orchard Park.
So I'm in no rush to get out anywhere. I think Buffalo's a unique place. It's a historical franchise and there's nothing I want to see more than bringing it back to where it was in the ’90s when I was growing up watching them.