Area scout Reggie Cobb felt embraced immediately by the Bay area when he first arrived as a running back in 1990
Reggie Cobb's return to Tampa was much quieter than his departure.
Last June, a month before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers began training camp, Cobb rejoined the team as a college scout. Nine years and two months earlier, Cobb, then one of the most productive running backs in team history, had left the Bucs as a free agent and joined their NFC Central rivals, the Green Bay Packers.
At the time, in 1994, the NFL's free agency system was in its infancy. The Bucs and their competitors were still wrestling with the more complicated aspects of a salary cap, franchise players and transitional tags. As the '94 open market period approached, the Bucs put their three transitional tags on DE Eric Curry, CB Ricky Reynolds and Cobb.
Free agency began in February. By April, the Bucs had determined that the tender offers to Cobb and Reynolds, which counted against the cap even before any contracts were signed, were too much of a burden. Both Cobb and Reynolds had their tags removed on April 5, making them unrestricted free agents.
Within two days, Cobb had an offer on the table from the Packers.
It took a few more weeks, but Cobb eventually left the Bucs for Green Bay on April 22. In some circles, the Bucs, coming off their 11th consecutive losing season, took a beating for letting their one-time 1,000-yard rusher go. The football merits of the move can be debated with a decade more perspective in the bank, but it wasn't exactly a popular turn of events at the time.
As it turns out, that same decade of perspective may have led the Bucs to bring Cobb back into the fold last summer. It was Cobb, after all, who ultimately made the decision to leave Tampa, and his reason for doing so reveals an aspect of his character that should make him a very valuable employee in his new capacity.
"I'm a guy who likes to control my own destiny," said Cobb, who had realized that a running backs' window of opportunity in the NFL is often very short. "Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's bad. When I make decisions or when things happen, I like to blame one guy, and that's the guy I look at in the mirror every day. I don't like passing the buck and saying somebody else did this or did that. I own up to my part in things, and that's part of what has made me successful so far."
Cobb says now that he had a very difficult time leaving the Buccaneers, for whom he gained 3,061 rushing yards and scored 22 touchdowns in four seasons. He had become convinced that the team's previous ownership was not sufficiently focused on winning; while that was the deciding factor in his departure, it didn't erase the affection he felt for the Bucs or the Bay area community.
And this is no revisionist history, meant to put a smiley face on his return. As his deal with the Packers was announced in 1994, Cobb said this: "This decisions should in no way reflect any negative feelings toward the Buccaneers. I have the utmost respect for (then Head Coach Sam) Wyche and his staff. The CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) era of the NFL and the salary cap have unfortunately forced teams and players to make decisions much earlier than in the past with regard to who the priority players are and where the best playing opportunities exist."
And so it was with no misgivings that Cobb jumped at a chance to return to Tampa last summer, leaving the Washington Redskins' scouting staff to take over the southwest region for the Buccaneers. After all, this is not exactly the same team he left. Not long after Cobb left, Malcolm Glazer purchased the Buccaneers and the team has since become one of the NFL's most consistent winners, as well as a Super Bowl champion.
"Nothing against the old regime, but I think there's an emphasis on winning now," said the diplomatic Cobb. "I don't think that was always the case here, and that was probably the toughest part of being here for me. We always had a lot of good players but we never found a way to keep them. We never could keep them happy, and I became one of those guys.
"Winning cures everything and winning is what we all play this game for. People who haven't played think that it's a money-driven business, and there are some guys who just collect a check, but I think the majority of guys want to win. If you've got any competitor in you, you've got to win."
As a player, Cobb's search for a winning situation took him to Green Bay just as the Packers were starting to hit their stride behind quarterback Brett Favre. He spent just one season in Green Bay, rushing 153 times for 579 yards and three touchdowns and catching 35 passes for 299 yards and another score. The Packers advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs that season, Cobb's first taste of the postseason.
The following winter, Jacksonville grabbed Cobb off the Packers' roster in the expansion draft but let him go after the season opener. Cobb then signed with the New York Jets in 1996 and had one more productive season before hanging up the cleats; as he had realized early in his career, running backs usually have a short shelf life in the NFL.
Of course, by any standards other than professional sports, Cobb was still a young man as he left the Jets, and he had one thing in particular he wanted to accomplish right away. His short-term goal was clear, even if his long-term plans were not.
"When I finished playing, I just decided I would go back to school," said Cobb, who left the University of Tennessee after his junior year. "I wanted to get my degree. It was important to me.
"One of the reasons I did it is because I never wanted to put a ceiling on myself. I didn't want to be somewhere and be doing something I enjoy and then have somebody say you can't move up because you don't have your degree. I know a lot of people who are in a position where they have a job, and they train a person and then that person becomes their boss. I didn't want to be that person."
Before his playing career took off, Cobb had pondered, in general terms, a career that would have satisfied him personally if not monetarily, such as running a youth recreation center. He might have even gone in that direction after getting his bachelor's degree in urban studies if football hadn't come calling again.
"I figured by the time I got my degree, I would figure out what I wanted to do," said Cobb. "I went to school for a year-and-a-half straight, walked across the stage and still had no clue."
He needed a master's degree to really take advantage of his degree, and Cobb had seen enough of school after his second stint at Tennessee. Not long after his graduation, he was at a celebrity basketball game when another former Volunteer, Reggie McKenzie, planted a bug in his ear. After a seven-year playing career in the NFL as a linebacker, McKenzie had joined Green Bay's scouting staff in 1994, the same year Cobb arrived. By his fourth season with the Packers, McKenzie was the team's director of player personnel.
McKenzie asked Cobb if he had ever considered going into scouting. Then another former Tennessee player, Todd Kelly, told Cobb that he had enjoyed a scouting internship with the 49ers but hadn't stayed in the business because he didn't like the travel. Cobb was intrigued.
"Travel doesn't bother me," he said. "So I went to Green Bay and interned with the Packers, and it was just a blessing because I found my niche. Coaching? Everybody I know who coaches, they want to be a coach. There's no indecision. But I had indecision about whether I wanted to coach or not. But I found this, and this is a way to still be around the game and be involved with it. I found my niche. I knew right away in that internship.
"The next phase was to find out if I was any good at it."
Cobb says he's still answering that last question, but the early returns sure seem good. He was picked up quickly by Washington after his Packer internship and spent two seasons as an area scout for the Skins. He then jumped straight to the Bucs. This year, as the draft approaches, Cobb is getting into a groove in his first year with the Buccaneers, working long hours in preparation for the NFL Scouting Combine and the busy weeks that follow.
Even as the scouts' workload steadily increases through the winter and spring, Cobb feels more and more certain that he has made the right decision in exploring another side of the NFL.
"There's no way around the work, and I like it," he said. "One thing that makes a good scout is a guy who enjoys it. It's not an easy job, it's not a real rewarding job. You probably get more self-gratification out of it than anything else. You do a lot of so-called grunt work. You have to dig some guys up and things, but I enjoy it. I'm very fortunate. I've seen my mother go to a job every day for 34 years that she hates, and I go to one that I enjoy. I wake up with a smile on my face every day and I look forward to going to work. A lot of people never get that opportunity."
You could say the 35-year-old Cobb has had that opportunity twice already, given that he enjoyed his playing career, particularly the prolific portion in Tampa. He says he felt embraced by the community the moment his name was called on draft day in 1990 (the Bucs took him in the second round with the 30th pick overall, a spot that would be in the first round these days).
Cobb returned the favor immediately, scoring a touchdown in his first NFL game, a 38-21 rout of the Detroit Lions, and going on to 779 combined rushing and receiving yards as a rookie. By his third season, he had become just the third Buccaneer back to crack the 1,000-yard mark, gaining 1,171 yards and scoring nine touchdowns. The joy of life in the NFL was obvious in those days, as clear as the cheers of the Tampa Stadium crowd when he found the end zone.
Now Cobb is getting his work gratification behind the scenes, as every scout does. The joy comes in recommending a player who eventually performs well for the team, or even another team, and in meeting promising young men at the beginning of their careers.
"It's good for me because I'm a people person," said Cobb. "I get to meet the kids, I get to talk to them and get to know them. Some of the guys are so impressive as individuals. They're just good kids and you want them to succeed."
In his assignment with the Bucs, Cobb scouts a region, not a specific position on the field. Thus, his running back expertise can only carry him so far. Cobb has to understand a cornerback's footwork and a guard's aptitude for blocking schemes, and he has to figure out which players have it. Fortunately, he's been learning on the job since before it was a job.
"It takes some time (to learn to scout), but I was very fortunate," said the Knoxville native. "As far as I can remember, I've had good coaches. I've had good and great coaches. I learned a lot about football. Some positions are still tougher than others; it's a process. You learn what to look for, and I'm still in the learning stages. I'm just in my third year. They say it takes five or six years to really get a niche, so hopefully they keep me around that long."
That would be several years longer than Cobb's first stint in Tampa, but this time there are no obstacles for a long-term relationship. Success is now everyone's goal.