MOBILE, Ala. — It’s after midnight on a Tuesday night in Alabama, and the oddest week in the NFL calendar is just getting started. At one local dive, an Oakland Raiders scout is stopped by a stranger while exiting the bathroom: “You got a card or anything?”
A few blocks down, another watering hole has attracted a rub-your-eyes cast straight out of a psychedelic football dream: There’s Dan Marino, a table away from rising coaching star James Bettcher, who is just two hours into his tenure as Giants defensive coordinator. There’s Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones, and Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, and an Australian ex-rugby-player-turned-NFL-hopeful showing off his eight-and-a-half fingers that resulted from a long-ago crocodile attack.
And look, leaning against the piano and chomping on an unlit cigar is Jerry Jones himself, a perfect embodiment of the retro NFL spirit that comes to life here every January.
“NFL football brings us all together,” drawls one fan to Jones, before asking for a 1:30 a.m. selfie.
Welcome to the Senior Bowl, a January rite of passage that’s part college All-Star Game, part job fair, part scouting extravaganza, part industry convention, part spring break trip and part 20th century time warp.
The NFL Scouting Combine, which begins this week in Indianapolis, is by now a familiar part of the draft process, with televised positional drills, widely publicized negotiations and a heavy spurt of national attention. But it’s the lesser-known, slightly weirder Senior Bowl that serves as the unofficial start to the lengthy player evaluation process, which culminates each spring with the league’s seven-round draft.
“How many times a year does everyone from the NFL come to one town. Like, twice?” asked longtime ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “It’s Indianapolis once for the combine, and Alabama; that’s it.”
The NFL has 30 full-time homes, almost all in major media markets with modern venues that host the league’s premier events: conference title games, Super Bowls, the draft. Its 31st stop comes at a 68-year-old stadium in a southern port town that rings in the new year by dropping a giant Moon Pie, where residents are happy to tell you about that time Ron Rivera visited their restaurant for dinner or Bill Cowher hung out in the bar across the street.
“It’s one of the last bastions of the old-school NFL,” said Alex Marvez, a veteran reporter who has traveled to Mobile for two decades.
“For someone like myself who’s doing this 30 years, it’s like you’re coming home for Thanksgiving dinner,” said Alan Herman, a longtime NFL agent.
“I mean, look in the stands,” former defensive lineman D’Marco Farr said during one practice session. “Everybody who’s anybody in the National Football League is here.”
That includes media; more than 500 credentials were issued for this year’s event, a number that has nearly doubled over the past decade. It includes coaches, and scouts, and agents, and suit salesmen, and jewelry salesmen, and financial advisers, and the diehardiest of fans, including a group of radio listeners that assembles here annually for tailgates and an awards dinner.
“I can’t explain this — why we’re here and what we do here — to civilians,” said Todd Chrisman, who took off work and traveled from Maine to hang out with virtual strangers. “It’s like funeral rules: If you know about it and you think you should go, you should go.”
There are actual football players, too. Senior Bowl week is considered a crucial part of the NFL’s yearly restocking: a first chance for team executives to sit down with fresh-faced prospects, an opportunity to watch players from disparate leagues and divisions compete head-to-head in real, live practices, an opening for smaller-school prospects to prove their credentials ahead of a draft process that will begin to focus largely on 40-yard dash times and private workouts.
“For us, this is the last time we get to see them actually play football,” Los Angeles Rams General Manager Les Snead said.
And so this is where question marks like Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield can start convincing the NFL they’re worth the risk. It’s also where future household names bubble into the mainstream, like Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen — one of this year’s most scrutinized players — or Texas-San Antonio pass rusher Marcus Davenport, one of the buzziest attendees.
“I feel like I’ve done more [interviews] in these two days than in my whole college career,” a grinning Davenport said during Senior Bowl week, in the midst of his rise from relative unknown to first-round prospect.
Put it all together, and you’ll understand why football assembles every year in Mobile, from hotel lobbies (there’s Doug Williams!) to the concourse (Andy Reid!) to the sidelines (Nick Saban!) to a stadium ramp, where Jerry Jones happily chatted up fans curious about his niece and his grandson and his starting quarterback.
Does he enjoy this?
“Enjoy,” Jones said, “is an understatement.”
“I’m the eagle,” Stanford’s Harrison Phillips said, and he wasn’t talking about the Super Bowl champions.
For 48 hours before those 100-some prospects held their first practice, they began their mating dance with the NFL, weeks of auditions and interviews in which teams attempt to find order out of chaos.
Here — like in Indianapolis for the scouting combine — much of the work is done while sitting down. There are formal interviews, in which players spin through 40-minute rotations in eight-team pods. (“It’s like speed dating up there,” one Senior Bowl official said.) There are also informal interviews, with team personnel wrangling players inside the downtown Renaissance Riverview hotel, bringing them to divans, or folding tables, or a secluded nook behind a pair of grand pianos.
“Where’d my Georgia guy go? You let him run off?” asked one flustered Cowboys scout to a colleague after the Baltimore Ravens swooped in to grab touted Bulldogs guard Isaiah Wynn.
Then there are the tests: written questionnaires, iPad quizzes and a round of psychological testing, including the one that informed Phillips, a defensive lineman, that his athlete type was an eagle.
“Clean-cut, image-conscious, likes tradition and rules, awareness of how everyone is behaving, tries to live up to expectations, good work habits, punctual, neat and tidy,” Phillips explained, reading off his results. The emailed report further informed him that Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr, Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt were also eagles, and that the eagle’s strength is working to please others and remaining optimistic and cooperative.
“Holy cow,” Phillips thought when he read this assessment. “It tells a lot about me.”
There aren’t just animal comparisons. Players are given sequences of numbers and asked whether they’re identical. They’re told to track six out of 20 bouncing balls on a screen, and then to point out those six balls when they stop bouncing.
And they’re asked to recap their personal lives, in 15- or 20-minute chunks, over and over again. Walk through the hotel lobby and these pseudo-interviews are impossible to avoid, even among the agents kibitzing and job-seekers pressing hands and autograph-seekers flipping through notebooks.
“Are you excited being here?” one team employee asked a prospect on Monday, a conversation easy to hear for anyone in the vicinity. “Did you grow up going to church? Oh, so you’re engaged? When are you going to get married? Do y’all live together? Have you ever been in any trouble?”
Imagine doing this in public. Then imagine doing it 32 times.
“How’d you grow up, your parents, where you went to high school, what positions you played, what sports you played, how’d you get to the school you ended up at, what other schools did you look at, how much did you weigh when you got there, how much do you weigh now, how much did you weigh junior year, sophomore year, why are you driven to play football, why are you here, what are you planning to show when you get here?” recounted Humboldt State offensive lineman Alex Cappa. “You basically just do that about 30 times, for about three hours straight.”
Then there’s the strangest moment of all, when players gathered behind a stage in a massive convention hall are paraded out one-by-one, wearing nothing but tight shorts, to be measured and weighed as the hushed crowd of scouts jotted down figures in notebooks or tablets.
You know that canard about imagining your audience wearing nothing but underwear? This is the reverse.
“It’s just kind of weird,” Auburn long snapper Ike Powell said. “You’re walking on stage, you’ve just got your tights on, your shirt off, and everyone’s just staring up at you, writing all these notes down. I don’t know what they’re writing down, but I hope they’re writing down some good things.”
As the parade continued Tuesday morning, Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis appeared down the convention center hallway, preparing for a meeting of minority coaches and scouts. Why wasn’t he with everyone else, watching the half-naked prospects?
“I don’t think I’m going to draft anybody for what he looks like,” Lewis said.
In truth, Lewis would find plenty of supporters in Mobile, which is a big part of this event’s appeal. The Indianapolis combine offers many of the same perks as Senior Bowl week, including interviews, weigh-ins and off-hours networking. But while it has become a popular televised spectacle, football people can’t help pointing out that the event features exactly zero moments of football.
Stop gawking at Mobile’s sidewalk celebrities for a minute, and you will discover that the Senior Bowl’s real focus is those midweek practices — run by NFL coaching staffs, featuring NFL terminology and NFL drills, and highlighted by one-on-one showdowns conducted with a please-hire-me ferocity.
“I mean, this is actual football practice; Indy is just drills and interviews,” said Denver Broncos Coach Vance Joseph, whose staff coached both Mayfield and Allen this year and could use its No. 5 overall pick on a quarterback.
“You get pads; you get live action,” said Raiders scout Raleigh McKenzie, whose twin brother, Reggie, is Oakland’s general manager. “Indy is more of a looks contest, you know? I get to talk to the guys later on tonight and say, ‘Hey, man, I saw you miss that block, what were you thinking about?’ It’s not like being in Indy — ‘Aw, man, you didn’t run as fast.’ Who really cares how fast an offensive lineman is?”
Team officials want practices to mirror the NFL routine, and they study every movement. How often are coaches correcting players? How quickly are receivers grasping new playbooks? How are Division II players adjusting to the speed of Southeastern Conference opponents?
“The combine is great, the testing, that’s all important,” San Francisco 49ers General Manager John Lynch said. “But to actually see guys in one-on-ones, that’s about as good as it gets.”
There is also a treasure-hunting allure to the week, the hope of uncovering a hidden jewel. Carson Wentz became a Senior Bowl poster boy when he used his time in Mobile to rocket from a North Dakota State curiosity to the Philadelphia Eagles’ No. 2 overall pick. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is another success story, winning the MVP award here while playing against the Dallas coaching staff. Jones told a group of fans during one practice that Mobile was “where we became aware and got our confidence to select Dak Prescott,” that the Senior Bowl “had everything to do with” that draft pick.
“You walk away knowing who the best players are,” said McShay, the draft analyst.
Which is why this event is starting to grow in the NFL fan’s consciousness. The midweek practices are shown live on both ESPN and NFL Network and dissected immediately on Twitter. Mock drafts are reshuffled. Stocks skyrocket. Secret crushes are no longer a secret. And the NFL’s 31st stop is no longer a hidden charm.
“This is kind of the restaurant that only foodies knew about, draft foodies, and now it’s become mainstream,” joked NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein.
But the Senior Bowl’s intimacy is at the event’s core. The city’s mayor, a lifelong Mobilian, once skipped a week of high school to work as a team manager; he still lights up when recounting how Terry Bradshaw asked him to catch a few passes. Phil Savage, the former NFL general manager who now runs this event, is another Mobilian who came to the game as a grade schooler and wants to preserve its spirit.
“There’s a bit of a down-home feel to it, and we’ve tried to keep that,” he said. “We’ve tried not to make it so corporate that it’s not for everybody.”
He has succeeded, too. And so take another peek at downtown Mobile one night at this year’s event. Snead, the Rams GM, chatted up friends in one hotel lobby. New Tennessee Titans Coach Mike Vrabel held court in a nearby bar. Allen, the Wyoming quarterback, strolled through the lobby of the Renaissance, where Davenport — the UTSA pass-rushing prospect — sat for yet another late-night interview. He finally left two Ravens scouts near midnight, toting an untouched plate of chicken tenders and more stories.
One scout this week had asked him how tough he was on a scale of 1-to-10; he said he was a 20. Another asked if he were an animal, what animal would he be; he said a wolf. He claimed ignorance of his skyrocketing stock — “I haven’t really looked. I try not to look,” he said — but good luck with that: Heading into the combine, he is a fixture in the top half of most first-round mock drafts.
“What time is it?” Davenport finally asked. It was 11:36 p.m., midway through an NFL week unlike any other. “I’m going to go to sleep.”