There are probably as many as 5,000 people down at Ladd-Peebles Stadium for this week's Senior Bowl to evaluate some of the best prospects in the country. It's an event that's as big or bigger than any convention they have in Mobile, Ala., as well as being one of the premier events for scouts and NFL teams leading up to the draft. But obviously it didn't start out that way.
The first Senior Bowl was in 1950 and was actually played in Jacksonville, Fla., before moving to Mobile the next year. Attendance was bad, and to give you an idea of how unsophisticated the event once was, Rae Schuessler, one of the early directors of the Senior Bowl, would invite players by walking up to SWC coaches from Texas or TCU or SMU at conference media days and ask, "Hey, you got any guys that should be in our game?"
There was no real method for picking players, except that Schuessler had a lot of friends who were coaches, and they would tell him who the good players were.
Look back through the years, though, and the Senior Bowl has attracted the likes of Ray Nitschke (1958), Joe Namath (1965), Walter Payton (1975) and Bo Jackson (1986), all the way up to last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Eric Fisher of the Kansas City Chiefs.
It's amazing to think that this event has become what it is today. I first attended the Senior Bowl in 1957, when nine of the 12 NFL teams were there, and in those days, coaching staffs didn't exceed six or so people. Now, with upward of 5,000 people at the Senior Bowl, it's become everything from a means to evaluate prospects to a job fair. It's been a great thing for the city of Mobile, and it's given a lot of guys a big opportunity to show what they can do and enhance their position in the draft.
Jags, Falcons have edge at Senior Bowl
Jacksonville's Gus Bradley and Atlanta's Mike Smith have a big advantage over the other NFL coaches scouting the Senior Bowl. Everyone will be watching the game and the practices, but as the coaches for the North and South squads for the Senior Bowl, Bradley and Smith are getting a much closer, much more personal look at the prospects. They get to speak to the players within team meetings. They get to see how they act at dinner. They get a much stronger insight into how the players are aside from their athletic skills and talents.
Last year, Ziggy Ansah, a player from BYU who nobody really knew about before the season started, emerged on the radar during the season and went down to the Senior Bowl, where he got to work with then-Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who was the coach of the South squad. Ansah made an impression on Schwartz and ended up being the No. 5 overall pick to the Lions. One of the reasons this happened was because the Lions really got to know Ansah at a different level, recognized his talent and came to like him as a player.
Ansah wasn't the only prospect at the Senior Bowl who impressed Schwartz. Larry Warford, an offensive lineman from Kentucky who also played on Schwartz's South squad, was the Lions' third-round pick.
Why McCarron, others passed
The Senior Bowl has seen a lot of really good players over the years, but recently the talent pool has tailed off a bit with players choosing not to attend. There were a handful this year, but Alabama's AJ McCarron was probably the biggest name to pull out last week.
You might ask why a player would pass on the event, and there are a lot of reasons, but two that stand out. The first is that several agents just don't want their guys going to the event, primarily because it exposes the player to other agents, some of whom might try to sign the player away from them.
Another reason is the inactivity some players experience between the end of the regular season and the Senior Bowl. It's a big disadvantage for a senior whose team didn't qualify for a bowl, someone who's been out of football and structured workouts for several weeks, to suddenly expose himself to scouts again at such a big event. A player from Tennessee, who hasn't played since Nov. 30, isn't likely to be in as good of shape as a player from Auburn, who was active through the BCS title game on Jan. 6.