Senior Bowl: More Than Just an All-Star Game
Before any fresh, raw football recruit arrives to lift weights, or the equipment and uniforms are unpacked, or new footballs are aired-up, every college football team goes through the first order of business: It sets goals for the coming season.
On that list is usually a conference championship, playing (and winning) a bowl game, and of course securing the national championship. Additional teams, realizing they are in rebuilding mode, simply wish to break .500 for the year, while others want to beat their bitter rival in the final game of the regular season.
Players desire all of these things as well. They realize that the more accolades the team receives the more nationwide exposure naturally comes their way, too. With the added publicity come more televised games, which garner face time to players and teams. Many a player has become nationally known simply because the team he represents played for some sort of championship.
And when the season has concluded, a tribute for every college football player is an invitation to a post-season All-Star game. The most coveted invitation is one to the Senior Bowl, played annually in Mobile, Alabama.
The Senior Bowl is a virtual Who’s Who when the annual NFL college draft has concluded. Each year an abundance of first and second-round draft selections will have heard their name called that spent their post-season competing against other top collegiate players in the Senior Bowl. In last year’s draft, selected in the first-round were 12 players who played in the 2010 game including QB Jake Locker, DE Cameron Jordan and LB Von Miller.
“It’s no secret that the Senior Bowl features the best of the best each and every year,” said Kevin McDermond, Public Relations Director for the Senior Bowl. “As a result, we have had 15 straight years with a Top-10 pick in the draft and 10 straight years with 10 or more first-round picks.”
Players in the Senior Bowl are divided into two squads—North and South. The game is annually sandwiched on the dormant weekend between the AFC-NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl. This year’s Senior Bowl is slated for Saturday, January 28 with a kickoff for 4 p.m. (EST). The nationally televised game is unique because two complete NFL coaching staffs tutor both squads. Players realize that this is their first true taste of what life in the professional ranks is going to be like.
“The Senior Bowl is your first game as a professional,” stated former Dallas Cowboys QB great Danny White, who played in the 1974 Senior Bowl. “All the NFL teams are there and players are watched closely as to their ability to play at the next level.”
As important as the actual game is, the entire week of practice is equally vital to the players. Because the Senior Bowl is basically an NFL convention, almost every head coach is in attendance (with the exception of the current year's Super Bowl squads), as well as every assistant coach and scores of scouts.
“Most every team sends all their coaches, front office and all components’ of player personnel as part of the week’s evaluation process,” stated Andy Dengler, National Scout for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “It introduces our coaches to the players. We can thoroughly evaluate all positions and grade the players based off of their week of practice and the game itself.”
What is impressive about this contest is the number of players who earned an NFL roster spot prior to the 2011 season. On opening day over 500 players in the league were all Senior Bowl alums, which calculate to about 30 percent of all NFL players.
And this game is not just about the NFL. Also in attendance during Senior Bowl week are representatives from the Canadian Football League, Arena Football League, United Football League and several other professional indoor football leagues.
”You want to go out there and show everybody what you can do,” said Cowboys linebacker Brady James, who played in the 2003 Senior Bowl. “I don’t know how (this game) would hurt you. It’s like big business.”
Being an unofficial NFL convention with about 800 scouts, coaches and general managers in attendance, Senior Bowl week has also become an instrument that existing coaches and newly hired head coaches utilize to fill vacancies on their staff. It is a known fact that many an assistant coach was interviewed between practice sessions and hired in Mobile to fill coaching voids.
“At no other time during the year are there that many NFL personnel in the same place to catch up with old buddies, network, and job search,” expressed Scott Wright, President and Draft Analyst of DraftCountdown.com. “The week is a job interview for them and probably the main motivation for those trying to get back onto a staff.”
The Senior Bowl rosters are formed by players who have finished all of their college eligibility. The North team is comprised of primarily northern, pacific and northeastern schools, whereas the South team has mainly southwest, California and southern colleges represented. Senior Bowl President and CEO Steve Hale is the driving force behind each year’s roster with an emphasis on recruiting the top seniors in the country.
“One of the more difficult things is putting together a competitively balanced roster,” McDermond explained. “The invitation process is long. (Hale) invites players on three criteria: interest from the NFL, interest from national media and local/regional interest.”
"Competitive balanced roster," meaning how to counterbalance the North's squad against a potentially explosive SEC dominated South roster.
About the first month of the college football season is when the invitation process actually transpires. Hale combines information from scouting services, NFL personnel, coaches and pro scouts about player candidates. As the college season goes along, changes are made regarding performance and injuries and continual updates are administered.
Because the quarterback position entices fans and a live television audience, instead of a few quarterbacks, the Senior Bowl invites six signalcallers to the contest. Consequently, the game has come through with future big names such as Dan Marino, Steve McNair, Andy Dalton, Ron Jaworski, Jay Cutler, Terry Bradshaw, Philip Rivers, Jake Locker, Joe Namath, Neil Lomax, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb, Christian Ponder, Brett Favre, Tim Tebow and Len Dawson.
On opening day of the 2011 NFL season, 11 starting QBs were Senior Bowl alum.
This year’s version will feature QBs Kellen Moore (6-0, 191 lbs.) of Boise State, Arizona’s Nick Foles (6-5, 240 lbs.) and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden (6-4, 218 lbs.).
Weeden is the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (9,260), attempts (1,102), completions (766) and touchdown passes (75) while winning 23 games against three losses as a starter. The Manning Award finalist finished the year ranked in the Top-5 in every major passing category. Foles threw for 4,334 yards as a senior—a single-season school record—and ended 2011 second in the nation in pass completions per game (32.3).
According to the Senior Bowl’s press coverage, Foles stated that, "It’s something that growing up as a kid you always want to play in an All-Star game like the Senior Bowl, and I have the privilege to be one of six quarterbacks selected."
Moore is college football’s all-time winningest QB, having finished his career with a stellar 50-3 record as a starter. This year alone, he set school and conference records for touchdowns (43) and completion percentage (74.3), and was voted the Mountain West Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Several QBs have taken the Senior Bowl as an opportunity to elevate their draft status. In 2009, West Virginia’s Pat White was predicted as a fourth-round pick—at best. After a stellar Senior Bowl practice week and taking home the Senior Bowl’s MVP trophy, White was selected in the second round (44th overall) by the Miami Dolphins.
“The same could be said for Joe Flacco of Delaware,” offered McDermond. “Flacco really impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl and later became a first-round pick by the (Baltimore) Ravens.”
Other sources agree with this process. “In many cases, NFL people fall in love with certain players during the practice week and that leads to them selecting those guys early in the draft,” said Wright. “The Senior Bowl is almost always a positive experience for the vast majority of prospects that take part.”
The Denver Broncos met Tim Tebow at the 2010 Senior Bowl. After getting to know him personally, they fell in love with his work ethic and eventually told Tebow they would do everything they could to draft him.
Unlike other college All-Star games that utilize existing college coaches such as the Casino Del Sol College All-Star Game and the East-West Shrine Game, as well as defunct contests like the Hula Bowl, Blue-Gray Football Classic, North-South All-American Game and Cactus Bowl, each squad at the Senior Bowl is headed by an entire NFL coaching staff.
The NFL teams selected to coach each squad has varied. At one time, the coaching staffs chosen were the best teams in the NFC and AFC that failed to make the playoffs. Today, the coaching staffs are selected by the NFL front office. In recent years, it’s been the NFL clubs with the highest draft pick in the upcoming draft that has not undergone a coaching change.
This year the full coaching staffs of the Washington Redskins and the Minnesota Vikings will challenge the newest draft prospects.
This means young players who are being seasoned for the NFL have an opportunity to be groomed by professional coaches in a pro football environment. The best the league has to offer have coached this game at some point: Don Shula, Paul Brown, Jeff Fisher, Marv Levy, Tom Landry, Tony Dungy, Mike Ditka, Bud Grant, Jon Gruden, Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher, Lou Saban and Hank Stram.
Other football fan favorites are the other skill position players such as running back and wide receiver. This year’s game will feature RBs Dan Herron (5'10'', 205 lbs.) of Ohio State, Texas A&M’s speedy RB Cyrus Gray (5'10'', 200 lbs.), and late first-round future draftee Doug Martin (5'9'', 215 lbs.) of Boise State. Nick Toon (6'3'', 213 lbs.) of Wisconsin and Baylor’s Kendall Wright (5'10'', 190 lbs.) are the game’s big name WRs and certain first-round selections.
The Senior Bowl is televised live by the NFL Network. Currently in a multi-year agreement, NFL Network began its stint as system provider in 2007, and the results have been significant.
The NFL Network is a plus for the overall presentation of the game because, for one, the network is owned and operated by the NFL. This is coupled with the fact that two complete NFL coaching staffs are on-hand all week as the overseers of both squads. With the broadcast arm of the NFL in a partnership with the Senior Bowl, the relationship between the game and the league has certainly been fortified.
The contest was televised live on ESPN for many years. Whereas ESPN would broadcast a daily snippet of events from practices, NFL Network tunes in hours and hours of programming each and every day with live feed from the Senior Bowl practice fields—plus expert commentary on the day’s events and trends.
The Senior Bowl receives the same experience that NFL Network’s regular season Thursday night telecasts produce. The broadcast team for the game is Bob Papa, Charles Davis and Mike Mayock, with various sideline reporters. In addition to ESPN and NFL Network, several networks have broadcast the game since it was first televised in 1958, including CBS, TBS and NBC.
The Senior Bowl began in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1950, with the South squad taking home a 22-13 victory. Jimmie Pearre, a Nashville businessman, had the inspiration of a postseason bowl game of strictly senior All-Star players. He secured the Gator Bowl stadium in Jacksonville as the first game with the notion that this game should be coached by actual NFL coaching staffs instead of college coaches. In the inaugural game, Bo McMillin of the Detroit Lions coached the North squad, while Steve Owen of the New York Giants took the reins of the South squad.
Citing poor attendance, Pearre sought other venues. Several Mobile businessmen, led by Finley McRae, were able to persuade Pearre to move the contest the following year to the Gulf Coast, a college football hotbed. The carrot dangled to Pearre was that the City of Mobile had recently constructed the 36,000-seat Ladd Stadium. Just as Super Bowls would be played in southern locales in the winter, the Alabama coastal climate was perfect for the January contest time frame. Along the way, Pearre transferred ownership of the game to the Mobile Arts and Sports Association (MASA), a non-profit organization.
Rea Schuessler, known as “Mr. Senior Bowl,” continued the idea that the development of the relationship between the game and the NFL was crucial, and became the game’s General Manager soon after the game was moved to Mobile. Schuessler theorized that invitations to the nation’s very best collegiate football players would make the Senior Bowl a success year-after-year. And for the best players to want to become a part of this particular game, they needed inspiration.
And what better inspiration is there than to have every NFL team’s entire coaching staff watching every practice and talking to players at the hotel with one-on-one face time?
“The Senior Bowl is the first time scouts, coaches, and front office personnel get together as a whole organization to watch and evaluate the players,” stated Jeff Shiver, college scout for the Chicago Bears. “You get to know the player on and off the field in a big way. It gives you an opportunity to interview, watch, and know all about the player—and then some. Most of all, you get the player’s correct cell phone number.”
Ladd Stadium has been the home field for the Senior Bowl since the game’s relocation. The stadium has also hosted 27 University of Alabama and Auburn University home games in addition to five American Football League pre-season contests, which featured future Hall of Famer’s George Blanda and Don Maynard.
The stadium was renamed Ladd-Peebles Stadium in 1997 to honor the efforts of longtime Senior Bowl chairman E. B. Peebles, Jr. In 2009, a $2.5 million upgrade project was instigated, which included the addition of luxury skyboxes. Currently, it is the largest outdoor stadium along the Gulf Coast with seating of 40,646.
The Senior Bowl has yet another function: as a charitable endeavor. Every year, different local and regional groups become the recipients of funds generated by the game. To date, over $5.9 million in donations have found their way into organizations that deserve something extra.
Who is the greatest QB to play in the Senior Bowl?
If the Senior Bowl could be summed up in one phrase, it would be this: As a player, you are auditioning for one of the greatest jobs in the world—and the entire NFL has assembled in one location for a solid week for your interview.
Without a doubt, this one game can help a player’s draft status. Denver’s Von Miller played in the 2010 contest and became the second overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
The main reason that a player’s draft status can improve as a member of the Senior Bowl is because there aren’t any weak or horrific players competing. For example, a defensive back accepts an invitation to play. During the week, one-by-one the best wide receivers are lined up across from him every play. If he can be dominant, what message does this convey to the watchful eyes of NFL personnel about his coverage abilities?
“The Senior Bowl is one to take very seriously and play the best football of your life,” surmised White. “Of all the bowls, it is the most important from the standpoint of improving draft status.”
“If a player comes (to Mobile) and really has a strong week, they will absolutely elevate their status,” McDermond added. “It also affords them an opportunity to meet with the hundreds of NFL scouts and other front office personnel in attendance that week.”
With a gaze at past Senior Bowl rosters, one could assemble some of the greatest NFL teams of all time. Players such as Walter Payton, Ray Nitschke, Dwayne Bowe, Art Monk, Bo Jackson, Matt Forte, Mean Joe Greene, Patrick Willis, Alex Karras, Derrick Brooks, LaDainian Tomlinson, Frank Gifford, James Lofton, Brian Urlacher, Sam Huff, Morten Anderson, Clay Matthews, Bubba Smith, Thurman Thomas, Chris Johnson, Franco Harris, Steve Largent, Brian Cushing, Tiki Barber, Jack Youngblood, Lynn Swann, DeMarcus Ware, Lee Roy Jordan and Ozzie Newsome are just some of the NFL stars who have graced the playing field in Mobile.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to go against some of the best and most elite players in the nation, and at the same time, be viewed and coached by NFL personnel,” proclaimed Ravens guard-center Andre Gurode, a 2002 Senior Bowl participant. “It was very important to attempt to do what the coaches wanted you to do there. Being voted captain was probably the most memorable thing.”
Bringing in the best of the best is a tough assignment for the organizers of the game, but a testament to the job that Hale does in not only doing his homework on these players, but also recruiting them and getting them to actually participate.
“I was a small-school guy. It was the only place for me to really showcase myself,” explained Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware, an annual Pro Bowler. “I think (my draft status) went up there. I was able to go against some of the top offensive tackles and was able to beat them. I wasn’t a starter when I first got (to the Senior Bowl), but I got that starter position and I got to sort of showcase myself in front of the scouts.”
The proof is in the pudding. This year’s Pro Bowl roster has a total of 26 former Senior Bowl players—including 12 starters. Here is the complete list:
Player Name/ Position/ NFL Team/ College/ Year Played in Senior Bowl
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans, Miami, 2010
Joe Staley, OT, San Francisco, Central Michigan, 2007
Carl Nicks, OG, New Orleans, Nebraska, 2008
Ryan Kalil, OC, Carolina, USC, 2007
DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas, Troy, 2005
Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay, USC, 2009
Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco, Ole Miss, 2007
Carlos Rogers, CB, San Francisco, Auburn, 2005
Matt Forte, RB, Chicago, Tulane, 2008
Scott Wells, OC, Green Bay, Tennessee, 2004
Davin Joseph, OG, Tampa Bay, Oklahoma, 2006
B.J. Raji, DL, Green Bay, Boston College, 2009
Brian Urlacher, ILB, Chicago, New Mexico, 2000
Lance Briggs, OLB, Chicago, Arizona, 2003
Mike Wallace, WR, Pittsburgh, Ole Miss, 2009
Logan Mankins, OG, New England, Fresno St., 2005
Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis, Syracuse, 2002
Von Miller, OLB, Denver, Texas A&M, 2011
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego, N.C. State, 2004
Arian Foster, RB, Houston, Tennessee, 2009
Nick Mangold, OC, New York Jets, Ohio St., 2006
Marshall Yanda, OG, Baltimore, Iowa, 2007
D'Brickashaw Ferguson, OT, NY Jets, Virginia, 2006
Elvis Dumervil, DE, Denver, Louisville, 2006
Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City, Penn State, 2006
Eric Weddle, FS, San Diego, Utah, 2007
For the players that compete during Senior Bowl week, they will never have a better opportunity to showcase themselves in front of so many NFL scouts and draft-conscience coaches. For some players, there is also a competition factor to prove themselves against the best of the best.
For the fans in attendance, the game brings into the fold dozens of NFL futurestars at one location with forthcoming memories. What a thrill it becomes the following season while watching an NFL match and seeing players who played live in Mobile before they were household names.
For the NFL universe, this one contest is a place to utilize every coach, scout and player personnel to gather more insight as they get to interact with the players at the practice field, in meeting rooms and in normal everyday environments. It’s an opportunity to see 100 of the best players in the country going head-to-head in actual football situations for an entire week.
“For many NFL decision-makers, the Senior Bowl is their first real exposure to the top prospects,” Wright concluded. “In many cases guys who will be calling the shots during the draft don't even begin to look at tape until their season is over, which for some isn't until mid-January. The Senior Bowl gives a chance to get an up close and personal look at many of the top prospects in one place, so the bang for your buck factor is huge.”
For more information and a complete 2012 roster, go to seniorbowl.com, or twitter.com/seniorbowl or facebook.com/seniorbowl.
Barry Shuck is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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