Two years ago, DT Anthony McFarland made a very favorable impression on the Bucs' coaching staff at the 1999 Senior Bowl
It's the favorite January vacation spot of NFL scouts and coaches, and it comes complete with entertainment (90-minute football practices), activities (back-to-back-to-back-to-back interview sessions) and fine dining (an annual 'Seafood Jamboree').
It's Mobile, Alabama, and while it may not rank as one of the country's most popular holiday hotspots, it is a yearly gathering place for much of the NFL's leadership because it is the home of the Senior Bowl, an annual college all-star game.
The Senior Bowl attracts many of the nation's most talented senior players, places them on 'North' and 'South' rosters and pits them against each other at the end of a week of practice. Senior Bowl 2001 is scheduled to take place this Saturday (televised by ESPN at 1:00 p.m.), but by the time the coin is flipped that afternoon much of the most important work will already by done.
With over 100 collegiate standouts on hand, many of whom will be drafted this coming April, and every NFL team represented by some contingent of coaches and personnel men, the Senior Bowl week is a scouting opportunity that may be second only to the upcoming NFL combine. Each year, the two squads are directed by NFL coaching staffs, as the non-playoff team with the best record in each conference is assigned to the game. That allows players to be judged within the confines of pro systems; this year, those systems are being run by the Green Bay Packer and Pittsburgh Steeler staffs.
Two years ago, the Buccaneers coached the South team, which meant more work but a closer connection with the players on that roster. This January, the Bucs are free to come and go as they please but have still chosen to take their entire coaching and scouting staffs (with the exception of one scout who is attending the Hula Bowl).
The Bucs' representatives arrived on Monday in time for the first round of Senior Bowl practices. While this represents the first opportunity for Tampa Bay's coaches to see most of these players in person, the team's scouting department will already have a thorough dossier on each participant. The week of practices is more useful for strengthening or altering opinions that have already been formed.
"It's mainly confirmation," said Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay during the third afternoon of Senior Bowl practices. "You're trying to make sure that what you saw on tape, and what your scouts saw on tape, shows up from a speed standpoint, from a size standpoint and from a level of competition standpoint if that player comes from a small school. So it's much more of a confirmation process than it is a matter of scouting or discovering players."
Two years ago, the Bucs went into the Senior Bowl week with high marks on DT Anthony McFarland of LSU and QB Shaun King of Tulane, mostly from what they had witnessed on videotape. They left with an even stronger opinion of the pair after witnessing their leadership qualities on the field and spending a little one-on-one time with each in the interview room.
A few months later, McFarland and King were the Bucs' first and second-round draft choices, respectively.
This year's Senior Bowl is another impressive gathering of players. The South roster is rife with Florida State stars, including RB Travis Minor, WR Marvin Minnis, DL David Warren, LB Brian Allen and S Derrick Gibson, not to mention Florida QB Jesse Palmer, Mississippi RB Deuce McAllister, TCU RB LaDainian Tomlinson, Georgia Tech OL Chris Brown, Texas DL Shaun Rogers and Mississippi State DB Fred Smoot.
On the North roster, one finds such stars as Kansas State RB David Allen, Michigan RB Anthony Thomas, Nebraska RB Bobby Newcombe and DL Kyle Vanden Bosch, Minnesota OL Ben Hamilton, USC DL Ennis Davis and Oklahoma LB Torrance Marshall.
"I think it might be the best group I've seen at the Senior Bowl in the last couple of years," said McKay. "It's a pretty deep group at every position. I would say it's a pretty impressive roster."
Most of the NFL representatives on hand this week will reconvene in Indianapolis in late February for the scouting combine, where many of these same players will show off their skills. However, the combine is strictly a matter of testing and drills; there is no game action to directly gauge players against each other. That kind of evaluation is in abundance during Senior Bowl week and may be particularly useful to players from lower-profile schools, such as Texas A&M Kingsville OL Robert Garza, Western Carolina QB David Rivers and Akron DB Dwight Smith.
"If you're dealing with a player that comes from a level of competition that is in question, then this week is very important because you get to see that player compete against guys that will play in the National Football League," McKay explained. "So when you get the smaller-school variety of player, this is a big week for him.
"You get guys from a lot of small schools, and you get guys from big schools that are now going to be put in a little more standard form. Maybe they were at a big school but played out of position, or they're making a transformation from one position to another. This is a good week to see how that person is going to handle that, because in the NFL everyone is expecting that person to move positions."
Just as it is at the combine, much of the Buccaneers' emphasis is away from the field, back at the hotel where players attend individual meetings with various teams that would like to get to know them better as people.
"It has also always been a focus of ours to interview players, to get to know players, to see how players react to this type of situation. There's some football evaluation, but there's also some people evaluation that goes on during this week."
McKay and his Buccaneer entourage met individually with 22 players on Monday night and another 20 on Tuesday. They will sit down with about 20 more Senior Bowl participants Wednesday evening before heading back to Tampa on Thursday. After Wednesday, the Senior Bowl practices gear down a bit as the players take off the pads and work in shorts.
Two more days of lighter practices will put the finishing touches on the players' preparations for Saturday, when they will receive one last chance to prove their skills against a top level of competition. By then, many of the visiting NFL personnel will already be home, having gathered enough information, at least enough to hold them until February's combine.