I’ll have practice observations from Day Three coming soon, but first I want to share what I would do to take the Senior Bowl into the 21st century if given the power to make major changes. The benefits would far outweigh the costs – especially in a league in its golden age making money hand over first.
Phil Savage is doing a lot to create an infrastructure that will address the minor flaws of the Senior Bowl experience. There is more organization with team interviews at the team hotels. There’s a greater level of separation among NFL team representatives, media, and fans. He has even gotten the NFL to allow fourth-year juniors with degrees to participate – a first. And as I’ve mentioned a couple of times this week, Savage wants the NFL more involved in scouting players it wants to invite to the game as well as encouraging prospects to accept the invitation.
The new director of the Senior Bowl understands that there isn’t much incentive for the highest profile seniors to attend the event. If I were an agent for Geno Smith, Tyler Eifert, or Tavon Austin, I wouldn’t recommend them to accept an invitation. It is common knowledge that 90 percent of the on-field portion of player scouting has already been done by now, why risk an injury before the NFL Combine? At present, the Combine and pro days have a greater perceived impact on a prospect’s draft stock and the prep time to “game” these pseudo-football drills is of precious value to a prospect. A player with a minor or nagging injury has more to lose exacerbating the injury or underwhelming observers at the Senior Bowl than skipping the event altogether.
I can appreciate what Savage is doing to tighten up the event even if what he is tackling is low-hanging fruit. However, he’ll have to make bigger changes if he wants to cut the 25 percent turn-down rate among first-invites to 10-12 percent. Savage and the Senior Bowl staff encouraged NFL team representatives multiple times this week to give feedback on how to make the event better.
If I were a high-ranking official of an NFL team and what I perceive as an outsider looking in is accurate, then I have a number of big changes that I would make to transform the Senior Bowl into a sterling, must-attend event that even the agents of the crème de la crème would have to encourage their clients to go. These are big-picture moves that would make scouting this game easier, enhance the image of the game and the NFL, begin to prepare the players for professional football both on and off the field, and ultimately increase the brand of the Senior Bowl to its customers and sponsors.
Hire Full-Time Coaching Staffs
I recognize the appeal of NFL staffs coaching the Senior Bowl rosters. The perception is that these teams offer players a wealth of football experience, cutting-edge teaching techniques, and it’s all backed by prestige of the NFL shield. This is my fourth year here and I don’t buy it.
The differences in quality and methodology among coaching staffs across the league are vast. Northern Illinois running back Chad Spann spent time with the Colts, Buccaneers, and Steelers during the 2011 season. The structure, the attention to teaching, and the culture of the teams all differed. It’s the same when watching the Lions run a practice compared to the Raiders, Bills, Dolphins, Bengals, or Vikings. The basic intent of some drills may be similar, but the methods, the pace, and the feedback are often worlds apart. Although there where good things I learned from the Raiders wide receiver drills, I would have felt cheated as a Senior Bowl receiver if I saw what the Lions staff did with its players.
One of the major changes I’d make is to ask the NFL to create a budget for a coaching staff with two head coaches and a full complement of assistants. The staff would assist Savage in scouting and selecting players for the event. Since there is only one game for the Senior Bowl coaches every year, the Senior Bowl committee could create programs where these coaches could hold seminars or panels for college and pro coaches to exchange ideas during the offseason. The Senior Bowl could become an incubator for coaching innovation – as my friend Sigmund Bloom would call a “Lyceum for football coaches.”
This job could have a lot of appeal for some of the great coaches of the game who may no longer wish to travel or have the same killer schedule as an NFL team, but still have something great to offer to the game as a professor emeritus of coaching. They could do consulting for NFL teams. Imagine Howard Mudd, Tom Moore, or Tony Dungy as assistant or head coaches-in-residence. The league could even have an NFL scouting school and these graduates or teachers are part of the ground-floor process of narrowing down players to invite for the game. There are a ton of far-reaching innovations from this idea that could prove lucrative for the Senior Bowl and provide long-term benefit to the NFL.
The best value of a change like this one for teams, scouts, and media is that I would require these coaches to agree upon the same drills to run prospects through their paces during Senior Bowl Week. The order, location, and execution of the drills would all be uniform. This would be easier for teams to know where to station its scouts, help the planning committee organize the viewing experience, and most important, make it easier to see how players performed relative to each other.
Add 3-5 Days to the Event
If the Senior Bowl were 10-14 days in length, the event could then become the place where the NFL has its rookie symposium. Although many of these rookies won’t make the NFL, several of them will play professional football of some sort in the CFL or Arena League. Helping these prospects become aware of the pitfalls a professional football life on and off the field can never start too early – especially during a time where players are shopping for agents, financial advisors, and are targeted to accept loans before they even see contracts. Make the Senior Bowl seminars a voice of proactive sanity.
Another benefit of extending the event is that the Senior Bowl should increase its invitation list and add another 22-44 prospects as “taxi squad” invites. They’ll attend the symposiums, study the playbooks, and have the opportunity to meet with teams, but they won’t practice unless a player from an active roster gets hurt or drops out. The additional roster spots give the bubble players a better chance to be prepared than flown down the day of practice and fitted into pads on the field while a coach is giving them a crash course of the practice schedule or scheme. This would reduce the number of players turning down the event and it would also alter the perception that the Senior Bowl is always scrambling at the last minute to fill its rosters.
Make the Mobile the “Official NFL Convention”
If the Senior Bowl could hire full-time coaches, create a coaching institute and farm out consulting, institute a scouting school, and host the Rookie Symposium, the Senior Bowl would no longer be the “Unofficial NFL Convention.” Mobile would become a hub where old and new exchange ideas, players make career transitions to scouts and coaches, and college prospects get top-notch coaching and exposure to wisdom on and off the field to prepare them for the profession. This type of investment would be good for the NFL on so many levels, I can’t see a downside. Can you?