At Senior Bowl, all eyes looking for hints of brilliance

Posted Jan. 27, 2012 @ 8:13 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

MOBILE, Ala. — He threw funny. The N.C. State quarterback threw funny. Could that throwing motion work in the pros?

That was one of the major story lines of the 2004 Senior Bowl, the first I covered for Pro Football Weekly. And yes, Philip Rivers has turned out fine, thank you.  He impressed in practices for the South team, and then starred in the game.

You know who wasn't worried about Rivers' delivery? Marty Schottenheimer, the South's coach.

"I think if you go look at a pretty good NFL quarterback — Drew Bledsoe — very similar delivery," Schottenheimer said. "When a guy's 6-foot-5, I don't think it's an issue."

The Giants would draft Rivers with the No. 4 overall pick that April and trade him to Schottenheimer's Chargers on Draft Day.  


Perhaps the North would have had a better shot if an Iowa safety named Bob Sanders would have played in the game instead of being an early departure because of injury. Sanders made enough of an impression on me in his brief time in Mobile for me to suggest in print that he was worthy of a late first-round pick.

A second-round pick of Indianapolis, Sanders played an integral role in the Colts' run to the Super Bowl XLI title, and he earned defensive MVP honors the next season. Injuries are an unavoidable part of his story, but so was his brilliance in his prime.

Brilliance. Everyone comes to Mobile looking for flashes of it. In the '07 Senior Bowl, it rained heavily. Quarterbacks fumbled seven times alone. It would have been an utterly miserable game to attend … save for the fact that you got to see then-Ole Miss LB Patrick Willis record 11 tackles as he earned Defensive MVP honors for the South.

Willis, like Rivers before him, was drafted by the team that coached him throughout the week. And with the 49ers, he has become one of the NFL's top defensive players, delivering on the vast promise he showed here five years ago.

They are all not as easy as Willis to scout, however. I thought West Virginia QB Pat White showed some potential in the '09 Senior Bowl. Alas, he lasted only one year with the Dolphins. Moreover, I don't recall being blown away from what I saw from TCU QB Andy Dalton in the 2011 Senior Bowl.

Dalton led the Bengals to the playoffs as a rookie and will play in Sunday's Pro Bowl in Honolulu.


I have come to the Senior Bowl enough to learn a few things. You cannot overreact to practice play, especially early in the week, but you cannot ignore it. You trust your eyes and hope the snapshot evaluations you make are the correct ones. You bolster your opinions by talking to as many evaluators and coaches as you can.

You talk to as many players as you can, too. When the gate opens at Ladd-Peebles Stadium after practice, you walk swiftly, but you don't run, lest anyone laugh at your reporter gait. You don't leave the field until the last player has left, for there is always somebody's story to learn. Sometimes it's plainly obvious who the stars of tomorrow will be, but you better cast a wide net.

You spend a lot of time waiting at the Senior Bowl. Keep your ears open. Some NFL types like to talk, and loudly, no matter who is around. The things you hear can help guide your reporting, or simply be the unsubstantiated gossip that you file away and chuckle to yourself about — one of the little shiny perks of our business.


Our business — the business of covering professional football — is charged with meeting an ever-greater demand for NFL coverage quickly delivered and uniquely presented.

Consider the coverage of the Senior Bowl. There were more reporters here in Mobile than in 2011, and I would love to bet on the 2013 media census exceeding the '12 count. Pro Football Weekly sent four staffers in 2012, just like we did a season ago.

There's a reason there's less and less space to watch practice along the fence at Ladd-Peebles. The Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday practices are a who's who of NFL front-office types and head coaches.

By Thursday, most of them are gone, the heavy-duty practices in the books. They can watch the game on television, review the practices on film.

To me, the game itself is a celebration of college football in the South as much as anything else. The RVs start to show up at Ladd-Peebles days before, and the air smells of barbeque on game day. At game's end, fans stream onto the field for autographs, with the Alabama and Auburn players quickly surrounded.


To hear it from the coaches will be leading both teams Saturday, the Senior Bowl has changed, both for better and for worse, though the latter is a matter of circumstance as anything else. Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, who's coaching the South, said the game is much more organized than when he began coaching here in 1986. Meanwhile, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, who's coaching the North, noted that fewer elite senior prospects come here than he did in the past, and he wouldn't mind if juniors were able to participate. 

But no one would say the game still isn't relevant. The focus on the game — part and parcel with the mushrooming interest in the NFL draft — continues to grow. The NFL Network televises the game and the practices. 

You can probably get a pretty good handle on the general strengths and weaknesses of the prospects watching the proceedings on TV. But there's something about being here on a practice day when the sun is shining and a defensive lineman goes about the business of trying to embarrass the guy across from him. 

The payoff for being here on game day is Rivers-to-Devery Henderson in '04, or any other moment when you're seeing a prospect on the top of his game, here for only but a week but now always a part of Senior Bowl lore. 

Mike Wilkening will cover his fifth Senior Bowl on Saturday.