MOBILE, Ala. -- This was the Senior Bowl “Unplugged” -- a stripped-down version of the annual college all-star game that packs much of the NFL universe into Mobile, Alabama, for a few days in January.
Typically the Senior Bowl is part convention, part job fair, part mixer for team personnel, agents and media as much as it is an invaluable opportunity to evaluate some of the nation’s top draft prospects.
Last week, however, the restaurants and bars and hotel lobbies were practically barren as teams focused on the one return to normalcy they relished most: a chance to see these players up close and personal, both on the field and in interview sessions.
“We stripped away everything during game week except practices and the game. We had to focus on that,” said Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who pulled the game together despite diminished resources and increased costs for things like daily COVID-19 testing of the prospects and team representatives. “It was a tough year for the players -- just the whole yo-yoing of the college season -- and the NFL. So bringing them together, that was the main goal.”
NFL teams didn’t get their usual opportunity to visit with players and coaches on campuses in the fall because of COVID restrictions. And there won’t be a scouting combine in Indianapolis this year. So this year’s Senior Bowl was even more valuable to teams and draft prospects than ever before -- even with teams limited to just 10 representatives per club.
Nagy also lamented the fact that fan experiences had to be significantly reduced.
“As much as we love having our community involved -- and it’s a reason why our game has always worked, because we’ve had so much support -- this year is about the NFL teams and the players, bringing them together,” Nagy said.
Some things stayed exactly the same, including a top QB prospect like Alabama’s Mac Jones generating a ton of buzz throughout the practice week and likely boosting his draft stock the way guys like Justin Herbert, Daniel Jones and Drew Lock did the past couple of years.
Some things were even better. Teams universally preferred the new setup with formalized 15-minute interviews scheduled with every prospect and every team over the course of the week instead of the “free-for-all” that used to exist with players being interviewed on the field after practice or in the hotel lobbies.
“It’s kind of like an accelerated speed-dating process. You have to find out whether or not you’d marry them in 15 minutes,” joked one AFC general manager, who said those 15 minutes were more “critical” than ever this year.
“This year the Senior Bowl is pretty much the only opportunity for us to get face-to-face conversations with these guys,” the GM said. “I didn't get to make it to many games because of testing protocols, so here gives me a chance to see how some of the players move and practice. The Senior Bowl is always one of the most important parts of the process, but this year it's even more critical.”
New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was among many others who echoed that last sentiment, saying, “It feels like we know less about this class of players than any class in recent memory, just because of the COVID restrictions, the restrictions on scouts getting into campuses -- as well as the fact that there were fewer games played in college football this year.”
Another NFC GM pointed out that it was “crazy” to be evaluating several players throughout the week who hadn’t played college football in more than a year because they opted out or because their schools had switched to spring schedules.
Loomis was one of an estimated 24 GMs on site last week. However the Saints didn’t bring their entire coaching staff as they usually do. Very few coaches attended because of the 10-person limit.
Nagy and his staff showed off their ingenuity when it came to setting up those speed-dating sessions. Each team had its own “pod” set up inside a massive convention center space, with two tables separated by plexiglass and spaced out from the next pod. They were arranged in alphabetical order by team with a one-way traffic flow.
“We spent $12,000 in plexiglass,” Nagy said. “So if you know of a resale market for plexiglass, hook me up. I don’t know what we’re gonna do with that.”
The COVID testing was even more costly. But NFL teams put their money where their mouths were when it came to proving how much they valued the experience. For the first time ever, all 32 teams agreed to “buy in” to the Senior Bowl. And they could pay more for a premium package that included extra interview sessions and their own suites at the University of South Alabama’s Hancock Whitney Stadium. (The location was another change from years past, though that was coincidental since the game was being moved to the upgraded facility regardless of COVID.)
All 16 suites were quickly snatched up. One NFC GM said it was a no-brainer to spend the extra money, both because of how important the Senior Bowl is for football reasons and because the team wanted to support the game and the Mobile community.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule, who was quarantined along with the players in two “bubble” hotels, said he especially enjoyed the isolated atmosphere away from the field.
“This really is a unique year, because there is no one in the lobby,” Rhule said. “I’ll walk into the lobby and see 10 players sitting around. In past years, they’re being pulled in a lot of different directions. So I get a ton of opportunities to visit and talk to those guys.”
Of course people had to learn to live without some of their favorite aspects of Senior Bowl week, as well.
The Panthers were without their offensive coordinator and linebackers coach because of COVID protocols.
At least one AFC team instructed its personnel not to go out to any bars or restaurants around town. And that seemed like a common approach, considering how empty those establishments were every night. In a normal January, some packed bars can feel like mosh pits.
One GM said he missed those opportunities to mingle with agents or other team executives in a “noncompetitive environment.” This past week was especially tough on coaches or scouts who are looking for jobs or hoping to get a little face time to make an impression.
Agents had to adapt last week, too. Since they weren’t tested, they were relegated to the same side of the field as the media -- away from players and team officials. If they wanted to get in touch with their players, they actually had to lean over the edge of the stands and shout down to them after practice.
Media interviews with players were conducted the same way, with reporters shouting down questions to a player on the field while a Senior Bowl official held their recording devices in a plastic container.
Some NFL evaluators lamented that they had to sit in the stands or in their suites instead of getting to watch players up close from the sideline. And this year, for better or for worse, teams had assigned seats for the weigh-in at the beginning of the week instead of camping out and racing to the closest spots in the front rows.
In general, though, the Senior Bowl was a welcome respite for everyone involved after a year in which “abnormal” became the new normal.
“They did a really good job of setting it up,” one of the NFC GMs said. “(All of) our people have been very positive about the experience and the information they’re getting. And I think there will be some things that can be copied (in future years).
“The situation down there was as good as it could get.”