MOBILE RINGS, Ala. — It was Senior Bowl Unplugged, a stripped-down version of the annual College All-Star Game that brings much of the NFL universe to Mobile, Alabama for a few days in January.
The Senior Bowl is usually a convention, a job fair, a gathering of team executives, case managers and media representatives, and an invaluable opportunity to evaluate some of the country’s top talent.
Last week, however, restaurants, bars and hotel lobbies were virtually deserted as teams focused on returning to the normal life they enjoyed most: the chance to see these players up close, both on the field and during interviews.
During game week, we took everything off except practice and the game. That’s what we needed to focus on, said Bowl Director Jim Nagy, who set up the game despite limited resources and increased costs for things like daily testing of candidates and COVID-19 team representatives. It’s been a tough year for the players – just the yo-yo of the college season – and the NFL. Bringing them together was therefore the main objective.
NFL teams have not had the usual opportunity to visit players and coaches on campus this fall due to restrictions imposed by COWIDA. And there will be no Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this year. Therefore, this year’s Senior Bowl is more valuable to teams and more promising than ever – even if teams are limited to just 10 representatives per club.
Nagy also laments that the fan experience will be severely limited.
While we like to see our community involved – and that’s why our game has always worked because we’ve had a lot of support – this year it’s about the NFL teams and the players who bring them together, Nagy said.
Alabama coach Nick Saban visits quarterback Mack Jones, who may be promoted to coach after his performance this week. Mike Triplett/ESPN.com
Some things have remained as the QB’s best hopefuls, like Alabama’s Mack Jones, who generated a lot of buzz during practice week and likely increased his stock of drafts like guys like Justin Herbert, Daniel Jones and Drew Lock have done in recent years.
Some things were even better. Teams generally preferred the new system, with formalized 15-minute interviews scheduled during the week with each prospect and team, as opposed to the former free-agent system where players were interviewed on the field or in a hotel lobby after practice.
It’s kind of like speed dating. You have to think about whether or not you want to marry them within 15 minutes, joked one CFA director, who said the 15 minutes are more important this year than ever.
This year’s Senior Bowl is pretty much the only opportunity for us to speak to these guys in person, GM said. I haven’t been able to play many games due to protocol testing, so I see some players walking around and training here. The Senior Bowl is always one of the most important parts of the process, but this year it’s even more important.
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New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis is one of many who have echoed the latter thought, and he said: It seems we know less about this class of players than any other class in recent history, simply because of COVID restrictions, on-campus testing limitations, and the fact that college football has played fewer games this year.
Another director of the NFC noted that it was crazy to evaluate during the week several players who hadn’t played college football in over a year because they had stopped playing or their schools had adopted a spring calendar.
Loomis was one of 24 CMOs on the scene last week. However, the Saints did not take all of their leadership with them as usual. Because of the 10-man limit, few coaches participated.
Nagy and his team have shown ingenuity in organizing these speed dating events. Each team had its own pod set up in the huge conference center, with two tables separated by Plexiglas and some distance from the next pod. They are arranged alphabetically in teams of one side.
We spent $12,000 on plexiglass, Mr. Nagy says. So if you know any Plexiglas resales, let me know. I don’t know what we’re going to do about that.
The COVID test was even more expensive. But NFL teams didn’t let up when it came to proving how much they appreciated the experience. For the first time, all 32 teams agreed to purchase the Senior Bowl. And they could have paid more for a premium package including additional interviews and their own songs at the University of South Alabama’s Hancock Whitney Stadium. (The location was another change from previous years, although this was coincidental as the competition had been moved to the upgraded facility independently of COVID).
Reporters shout questions at Daelin Hayes as the senior bowler holds his recording equipment in a plastic container. Mike Triplett/ESPN.com
The 16 rooms were occupied quickly. An NFC general manager said spending the extra money was a no-brainer, both because of the importance of the Senior Bowl to football and because the team wanted to support the game and the mobile community.
For the two teams that agreed to coach all-star teams, the Carolina Panthers and the Miami Dolphins, the experience was even more rewarding.
Panther coach Matt Rhule, who was quarantined with the players in two bubble hotels, said he especially liked the secluded atmosphere off the field.
It’s really a unique year because there’s no one in the lobby, Ruehle said. I walk down the hall and I see ten players sitting. In recent years they have been pulled in different directions. So I have many opportunities to visit them and talk to them.
Of course, people had to learn to live without some of their favorite aspects of senior week.
Due to COVID protocols, the Panthers are devoid of their offensive coordinator and linebacker coach.
At least one AFC team has ordered its employees to stay out of the city’s bars and restaurants. And this seemed to be a common approach, given that these establishments were empty every night. In normal January, some packaged bars can look like mosquitoes.
One GM stated that he missed the opportunity to talk to agents or other team leaders in a non-competitive environment. Last week was particularly difficult for coaches or scouts looking for work or hoping to have time to impress.
The cops had to adjust last week, too. Since they were not tested, they were banished to the same side of the field as the media – away from the players and team officials. If they wanted contact with their players, they had to lean over the edge of the stand after practice and shout something at them.
The media interviews with the players went the same way: Reporters shouted questions at the player on the field while the senior kept his sound recording equipment in a plastic container.
Some NFL evaluators have complained about having to sit in the stands or in their rooms instead of watching the players on the sidelines. And this year, the teams assigned spots for the weigh-in at the beginning of the week instead of camping out and competing for the closest front row seats.
Overall, though, the Senior Bowl was a welcome change for all involved after a year in which the abnormal became the new norm.
They did very well, a GM NFC said. (All) our employees were very positive about the experience and the information they received. And I think there will be a lot to copy in the coming years.
The situation downstairs was as good as it could be.