This week presented my first opportunity to cover the Reese's Senior Bowl after covering the past two NFL Scouting Combines. Following are a few observations from my first trip to Mobile, Ala.
Opportunity is near: Players repeatedly expressed how excited they were to participate in the game. They'll be in uniforms that reflect Reese's colors, but they'll wear helmets bearing their college colors and logos for the final time. Some will even take the field with a college teammate for one last ride together, and others who went to smaller, less heralded programs will have their shot on the same playing field as players who have appeared in headlines. The NFL Draft (April 30-May 2), which can provide life-altering moments, is less than 100 days out.
Valuable views: The Senior Bowl provides the final opportunity to critique players' performances in pads and live game action with teammates. In some cases, like for coaching staffs, it's the first and only opportunity to review a player in pads in person. While there are multiple factors that are evaluated before the draft, including personality and character, the primary part of the job is to perform well in pads.
Even traditions can improve by implementing changes: Saturday's game (3 p.m. CT on NFL Network) will be the 66th Senior Bowl and feature multiple changes. The two biggest are the implementation of a two-minute drill at the end of each quarter to allow more opportunities for players to show what they can do under pressure and the option of playing a cornerback in the slot with five defensive backs and two linebackers. Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said the latter change reflects how often offenses try to attack the middle of the field in the passing game (click here for more on Zimmer's Wednesday).
A right way and a wrong way: An ad campaign for the sponsoring candy proclaimed, 'There's no wrong way to eat a Reese's,' but there is a right or wrong way to decline participating in the all-star game. The right way to do so is with advanced notice. The wrong way would be to no-show. Players that gave proper notice, regardless of reason, were credited for doing so. Reasons could include playing in a game as recently the week before, the desire to focus on training for the combine, recovering from an injury or even perhaps the fear of suffering an injury, but professionalism by prospects carries weight.
Preparation helps: Coaches said their experience has shown them that players who participate in the Senior Bowl consistently handle the NFL Scouting Combine well, and often better than players who entered the draft early or did not participate in the game. The Senior Bowl and the Combine are parts of an extensive job interview process when teams decide players' values in terms of the currency that comes around just once a year (draft picks).
Football is a fraternity: Years of covering the sport had already led me to form this belief, but the Senior Bowl reinforced it. Coaches, scouts and players that later became one or the other reunite with past teammates and co-workers during national NFL events. The inquisitive storyteller side of me would love to sit in on some of those conversations and explore the backstories, but since so much of their work is consumed publicly, I understand their right to have private moments with friends and colleagues. Personally, the week offered me a chance to briefly catch up with members of the Titans organization I worked for and with for four seasons before being selected for this opportunity with the Vikings last fall.