This year’s class of draft prospects hasn’t had the easiest time making an impression on NFL decision-makers.
Their 2020 college football seasons were truncated, or in the case of UConn and the Ivy League, canceled altogether. And most of the pre-draft events — the NFL Combine, the East-West Shrine Game, and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl — have also been canceled.
Which makes this coming week’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., basically the Super Bowl for draft prospects.
The Senior Bowl is always the top college all-star game with the most talent, but this year’s event, with three days of practices starting Tuesday and a game on Saturday, takes on greater importance. It will be the only time before April’s draft that NFL talent evaluators get to watch some of the top college players compete against each other in drills and game situations.
Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy and his staff have been working on the logistics for the past 10 months.
“We weren’t going to have the game if we didn’t know we could pull it off safely for the players and the NFL personnel,” said Nagy, a former 20-year NFL scout who spent 2002-08 with the Patriots. “We had a lot of meetings with infectious disease people, a lot of conversations with people at the college level, NFL level. Once we got to a point where we did feel like we could do it safely, it was full speed ahead.”
Of course, Senior Bowl week will look a lot different than usual. The week is usually filled with hoopla — open practices, autograph sessions, media day, a Mardi Gras parade, a downtown concert, sponsor dinners, and more. None of it will happen this year.
“It’s not going to be the three-ring circus it usually is,” Nagy said. “That’s the unfortunate part for us. This city takes a lot of pride in the game.”
The Senior Bowl is not affiliated with the NFL, but, for players and coaches, the week will look similar to how the NFL conducted its 2020 season. Everyone involved — the players and all NFL scouts and coaches — has to test negative for COVID-19 prior to arriving in Mobile. Once in town, everyone will get tested daily.
The Senior Bowl usually is a wide-open event with great access. Coaches and scouts linger around the hotel and grab players in the hallways for quick interviews. Fans loiter in the hotel lobby for autographs. After practice, media and agents descend on the practice field to talk with players and coaches.
But it won’t be open this year. Each player will get his own hotel room instead of doubling up, and players will be shuttled back and forth on 16 buses instead of the usual four. All team meals have been eliminated, and instead will be grab-and-go. Masks will be mandatory during all non-football activities. And the player hotel is off limits to everyone — fans, media, and NFL personnel — except the two coaching staffs working the game, those of the Dolphins and Panthers.
On game day, the stands will be filled to 25 percent capacity, or about 6,200 fans. During the mid-week practices, about 60 percent of the stadium will be cordoned off just for NFL personnel. Media, who often roam around the stadium in search of scouts and coaches, will be confined in a separate section. The practices will be closed to the public and no one will be allowed on the field after practice.
“Colleges weren’t letting NFL people on field level this year, so we stayed consistent with that,” Nagy said.
The interview process also has been formalized. Players will speak with teams over four hours each night in a big convention center with high ceilings and plenty of space. Each team will have its own socially distanced setup with plexiglass separating the players from the teams. There even will be a snake-like pattern from team to team so that there is a one-way flow of players.
“There’s going to be no handshakes or bro hugs,” Nagy said. “Guys are going to sit down in the chair and get rolling in the interview.”
Despite the restrictions, Senior Bowl week still will be helpful for everyone. The weigh-in allows teams to get accurate measurements. And the practices are crucial. The only other time the draft prospects will get on the field this spring will be at their school’s Pro Day.
Nagy invited more prospects than usual this year because COVID-19 could knock some out. The Senior Bowl website has 139 players committed to the game, compared with 108 last year. Among them are Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, and Heisman Trophy-winning receiver DeVonta Smith; Florida quarterback Kyle Trask; and Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
It also means more players than usual will get a chance to showcase their talent for NFL evaluators.
“There have been scouts going to the games this fall and eyeballing these guys, but none of the guys making decisions in April have seen these players,” Nagy said. “The league’s response and willingness to help and support the game this year has been great. They appreciate what we’re doing for them. We’re all used to Zooms by now, but there’s something to be said by face-to-face interaction.”
Matchups rematch of Week 6, and other nuggets
A few nuggets about this weekend’s conference championship games:
▪ Both games on Sunday are rematches from Week 6. The Buccaneers crushed the Packers, 38-10, at Raymond James Stadium, while the Chiefs went to Buffalo and earned a hard-fought 26-17 win. The Bills have gone 11-1 since, their lone loss coming to the Cardinals on the “Hail Murray.”
Sunday’s conference championship games will be in the opposite locations, Lambeau Field and Arrowhead Stadium. I like the losers in Week 6 — the Packers and Bills — to emerge victorious this time.
▪ What do the final four teams have in common? Great offenses and great quarterbacks. Defense is more of a luxury than a necessity.
Here is where each team ranked in key categories:
Points: Packers 1, Bills 2, Buccaneers 3, Chiefs 6.
Total offense: Chiefs 1, Bills 4, Packers 5, Buccaneers 11.
Passer rating: Aaron Rodgers 1 (121.5), Patrick Mahomes 3 (108.2), Josh Allen 4 (107.2), Tom Brady 9 (102.2).
Meanwhile, the four defenses are decent but not elite.
Points allowed: Buccaneers 8, Chiefs 10, Packers 13, Bills 16.
Total defense: Packers 8, Buccaneers 9, Bills 13, Chiefs 15.
Pass defense: Packers 8, Bills 13, Chiefs 15, Buccaneers 23.
▪ If the Packers and Bills prevail, it will be just the fifth Super Bowl matchup of the No. 1 and 2 offenses and first since Broncos-Packers in 1998.
▪ The Buccaneers are the first wild-card team to reach the conference championship game since the 49ers in 2013. With a win against the Packers, Brady can join Peyton Manning, Craig Morton, and Kurt Warner as the only quarterbacks to take two franchises to the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers also had the NFL’s No. 1-ranked run defense for the second year in a row.
▪ Sunday’s game marks Rodgers’s fifth appearance in the conference championship round, tying him for seventh-most all time with Manning, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb, and Jim Kelly, among others (such as Johnny Unitas). Brady’s appearance will be his 14th, double the number of the person in second place (Joe Montana).
▪ Surprisingly, this will be Rodgers’s first championship game at Lambeau Field, which perhaps explains why his performance has been far below his standards. In the regular season, Rodgers has the highest career passer rating in NFL history for players with at least five years of experience (103.9), and an incredible 412-89 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
But in the conference championship game, Rodgers is just 1-3 with three straight losses — 2014 season (Seahawks), 2016 (Falcons), and 2019 (49ers). Rodgers has thrown six touchdowns against seven interceptions in the four games, and has a passer rating of 78.0. His lone win came in the 2010 season against the Bears.
▪ Bills coach Sean McDermott had a Dwight Schrute-like start to his career. His first NFL job in 1999 with the Eagles: assistant to the head coach. The head coach: Andy Reid, his opponent Sunday with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
“No job was too small,” McDermott recalled Friday. “Changing tires on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia, to being an Uber driver before Uber was around, and being in some real tangible salary-cap-style meetings with Andy and leadership at the time.”
After serving as Reid’s right-hand man, McDermott graduated to a defensive coach in 2002 and defensive coordinator in 2009.
“That was a great opportunity for me to learn,” he said. “That’s really the way Andy pitched it. He mentioned that’s how [Jon] Gruden got his start. I’m very thankful for that opportunity back then.”
▪ For Reid, Sunday will be his eighth conference championship game, third-most in NFL history. Bill Belichick has 13 and Tom Landry had 10.
▪ The Packers also could tie the Patriots for most postseason wins in NFL history. The Patriots have 37, Packers and Steelers 36, Cowboys 35, and 49ers 32.
Rivers should make Hall of Fame
The NFL is going to miss Philip Rivers, who retired this past week after 17 seasons. He never reached a Super Bowl and played in the shadow of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but Rivers was one of the game’s fiercest competitors and most genuine personalities.
“I’ll never forget lining up for a play and Phil pointing to one of our linebackers and telling him he was lined up wrong based off the blitz we were about to run and being 100 percent correct about it haha,” Texans defensive end J.J. Watt tweeted. “One of the smartest I’ve ever played against and a hell of a competitor.”
Rivers never missed a start after winning the starting job in 2006, playing in 252 consecutive games for the Chargers and Colts (including playoffs). He played the 2008 AFC Championship game against the Patriots on a torn ACL. He was one of the league’s best trash-talkers, yet refused to curse (find Rivers’s NFL Films Mic’d Up greatest hits on YouTube and thank me later).
He was loyal to San Diego, remaining in the city with his family even after the Chargers left for Los Angeles. The fact that Rivers broke the news of his retirement to the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, and used “dadgummit” in his statement to ESPN, was just perfect.
The big question: Will Rivers get into the Hall of Fame? He never was an All-Pro, made the playoffs in only seven of his 15 seasons as a starter, and only reached one conference championship game (and no Super Bowls). But there are several quarterbacks in the Hall without a ring, and Rivers matches up well with Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, and Warren Moon. Rivers is fifth all time in passing yards (63,440) and touchdown passes (421), and was an eight-time Pro Bowler.
In fact, Rivers has the best regular-season numbers of the three quarterbacks taken in the 2004 first round. Rivers’s 95.2 passer rating is higher than Ben Roethlisberger’s (94.5) and Eli Manning’s (84.1). Rivers has more yards and touchdowns, too. Of course, Roethlisberger and Manning each won multiple championships.
But when you combine the stats with the ironman streak, the torn ACL, the respect from his opponents, and that he played for a fairly cheap Chargers organization (Eli Manning refused to go there), Rivers should end up in Canton one day, too.
Rest in peace Ted Thompson, who died at 68 because of health reasons that forced him to step away from football in early 2019. Thompson’s first draft pick as Packers GM in 2005 was a quarterback who dropped to the 24th pick named Aaron Rodgers. Over the next 13 seasons, the Packers’ .603 win percentage was fourth best in the NFL, they went to the playoffs nine times, reached four conference championship games, and won a Super Bowl. Most impressive was that Thompson built a dynasty almost exclusively through the draft and rarely signed impact free agents … Referee Carl Cheffers, selected to work the Super Bowl in two weeks, has been a Forrest Gump-like presence around some of the Patriots’ biggest moments. He was a side judge in 2001 when Drew Bledsoe got hurt against the Jets, making way for Tom Brady. Cheffers’s first game as a referee was the 2008 season opener in which Brady tore his ACL against the Chiefs. And Cheffers, 60, was the referee for the Patriots’ 28-3 comeback against the Falcons in the Super Bowl … Nick Saban’s program at Alabama has become a refuge for NFL coaches. This past week, he hired Bill O’Brien as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator and Doug Marrone as offensive line coach. In 2019, he hired Steve Sarkisian, who had been recently fired as Falcons’ offensive coordinator, to the same role at ‘Bama. And in 2017, Brian Daboll spent a year as the Tide’s offensive coordinator before getting the same job with the Bills … Seems that the Washington Football Team, which for years stubbornly refused to change its racist team name, has heard the message coming from the league office about the need for more diversity. Washington now has the NFL’s only Black team president (Jason Wright), a Hispanic head coach (Ron Rivera), and a Black general manager (Martin Mayhew). Per the Washington Post, WFT is also expected to have the first full-time, Black female assistant coach in Jennifer King, who was an intern this season and worked with running backs. It’s a rare bit of positive news for the franchise, which is currently embroiled in a nasty legal battle between owner Dan Snyder and his minority partners, who want out … Usually the Pro Football Hall of Fame vote takes place on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, and the results are announced that night at the NFL Honors award show. But the 2021 vote took place virtually this past week, and the Hall changed the voting rules to keep the results a secret until this year’s NFL Honors Feb. 6. Usually, the 48 voters will whittle the list of finalists from 15 to 10, then to five, and will have one last vote to certify the five Hall of Famers. This year, according to multiple people on the Zoom session, the voters cut the list from 15 to 10, voted for their final five, but were not told who made the final cut. A second vote took place involving all 10 finalists, and voters had to mark down “Yes” or “No” whether they would certify that person as a Hall of Famer should he gain election. The Hall of Fame now has 2½ weeks to keep the results a secret. Former Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour is one of the 15 finalists for the third straight year.