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Sacco Sez: Back to the basics in NFL scouting

The pandemic has had its way in influencing every aspect of life in America, and the National Football League is no exception.

While the NFL and its member teams have done a great job in getting every game of the 2020 season played, the league and its constituents continue to make changes in how work is conducted.

Perhaps the biggest pre-draft event of the offseason is the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. But not this year, as the league has informed all the teams that the Combine "will be conducted in a different format" for 2021.

The major change is that there will be no in-person workouts held at the Combine this year. Instead, any workouts will occur at pro days at college campuses.

Medical information will include testing done at medical facilities near the prospects, with in-person follow-up exams likely to occur in early April.

And the team interviews with prospects that were such a big part of the Indianapolis procedure, both for the player and the teams, those will all be done virtually as well.

For the players and younger coaches and scouts (and the media), this is a big change from what has been a staple of the NFL offseason going back to the Combine's beginnings in 1982. The Combine literally began a year before John Elway's rookie year, and it moved to Indianapolis in 1987, where it has been ever since.

But it seems like back to the way things used to be for me.

Once upon a time, scouting was not anywhere near as in-depth as it is today.

The Denver Broncos famously did their first draft out of "Street & Smith's College Football" magazine, by far the most prominent publication covering college football for a couple of decades — but just a magazine, nevertheless.

I can remember when the season ended and the Broncos sent their assistant coaches out on the road to a select number of schools to scout out what certainly was a limited number of players.

There is much speculation that the Broncos are studying the veteran quarterback market closely this offseason. But the Broncos' first quarterback, legendary veteran and Ring of Famer Frank Tripucka, had joined the team as a quarterbacks coach in 1960 and was asked by head coach Frank Filchock to put on the pads and "give the fans a show" at the team's end-of-camp scrimmage.

Tripucka did so, became one the first 3,000-yard passers in football history and did not get to take the pads off for four years.

So that was the scouting story behind our first quarterback.

Back before so many teams did all their own scouting and did not share information, there were league-wide scouting organizations, most notably "BLESTO," which was primarily but not exclusively a Bears-Lions-Steelers group. More teams could join, but the name BLESTO stuck, and it continues under that name today.

The other league-wide scouting organization in those days was National, which much of the rest of the league took part in.

BLESTO and National filled in a lot of scouting gaps for the NFL, eventually to be superseded by by the creation of the Scouting Combine in Indy.

Perhaps the most unusual scouting story of a major player in Denver Broncos history was that of star defensive end Lyle Alzado, who was discovered by defensive line coach Stan Jones.

Stan was on a scouting trip in Montana when he encountered car trouble. He stopped in Butte for repairs, and while he was waiting, he got a ride over to Montana Tech to see if they had any film he could look at.

In looking at the film, Jones saw a player on another team, Lyle Alzado of Yankton College. He noticed that Alzado played with an intensity and ferocity matched by few he had ever seen before, and remembered it.

Stan Jones is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his play with the Bears, so he certainly knew what he was watching.

Alzado jumped from a grainy small college image on a wall into the mind of Jones and eventually into a starring role in the NFL.

In the fourth round of the 1971 draft, Jones pushed for Alzado, who became one of very few players from Yankton ever to make the NFL.

His college, Yankton, is now used as a federal prison in South Dakota, which seems entirely fitting for the wild playing style of Lyle Alzado, who was a great pass rusher (and a legitimate Ring of Fame contender) on our first Super Bowl team and beyond.

Both Jones and Alzado were close friends of mine, and the retelling of this scouting mission was always accompanied by the chuckles of "can you believe this?"

I sat in on many of those draft sessions in the 1970s and the conversations always involved all the intelligence a team had on players, and it was often completely lacking in the sophistication of today.

Our now highly sophisticated scouting department and new General Manager George Paton will aggressively leave no stone unturned in looking at talent this year.

George Paton has let it be known that the Broncos will not be outworked or out-prepared, so I have no doubt that the Broncos will be successful in player acquisition, whether by the draft, undrafted free agency, veteran free agency or trades.

But it will be different this year. Not worse, just different.

It is always about players and their acquisition, and this year will have a little "blast from the past" feel to it for me.

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