The Senior Bowl is the biggest pre-NFL draft all-star game, coached by the staffs of two NFL teams for a week leading up to the game on that Saturday. Typically, the folks who run the event extend invitations to the teams with the worst records that retained their head coach from the prior season.
That means the first invitation should have in theory gone to the Cleveland Browns for the 2018 game. They finished 0-16 and retained head coach Hue Jackson in spite of it.
But the Senior Bowl now has announced that the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos will coach the South and North Teams, respectively, that are made up of more than 100 NFL prospects the week of Jan. 21 in Mobile, Ala.
Coaching the game is often viewed as a distinct scouting advantage. The NFL staffs that are coaching the teams get to work up close with more than 50 prospects on and off the field for a week, which is a valuable resource in terms not only of knowing which players they might want but also which ones they might not want to draft or sign as free agents.
So now that we know the Texans and Broncos are the teams, what happened to the Browns? Did they pass up on coaching the game? After all, the Browns did coach the North Team last year — more on this in a bit — and might not have felt the juice was worth the squeeze. It is, after all, a time commitment and a financial consideration to ship the franchise's operations down there for a week.
But as recently as Tuesday, Jackson indicated that the Browns were very much interested in going back and coaching the event for a second straight year.
“If we have the opportunity to, then we would,” he said.
And there's no rule on teams coaching for multiple years in a row that we're aware of. After all, the Jacksonville Jaguars coached in the game three straight years, from 2014 to 2016, and went on to draft several players whom they coached there.
In addition to Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma being committed to playing in this year's game, there are some other intriguing names on the list, including Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, and Wyoming's Josh Allen is rumored to be a high priority for Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage.
The Browns, who very much need a quarterback (and other things), own a whopping four of the top 35 picks in April’s draft — including Nos. 1 and 4 overall. Jackson and new GM John Dorsey have made it abundantly clear they need to solve the team's QB problem. So wouldn't the Browns stand to benefit from seeing the lot of quarterbacks down there?
“No question,” Jackson said Tuesday. “Anytime that you can be around those guys I think is great because you get to see them in a whole different light.”
But it's worth noting that several league observers last year, from coaches to scouts to general managers, privately groused during and after the week at the chaotic and seemingly unproductive practices run by Jackson and his staff. There was little flow to the practices, an unorthodox pattern to how they were laid out and a ton of installing plays with little one-on-one battles and not enough full team (or even 9-on-7 work) during the practice sessions that talent evaluators from the other 31 teams view as prime evaluation time.
Could Savage — a former Browns GM, by the way — and the other Senior Bowl folks have bypassed Jackson and his staff this year? Were other teams that upset about how they ran things that they've been, ahem blackballed from coaching it? Savage said no, in an email to the Beacon Journal, indicating that the league (and not the Senior Bowl) are in charge of reaching out to the clubs.
“The league reaches out to the clubs in draft order and then they let us know who is coaching the game. The Senior Bowl has nothing to do with the selections of the coaching staffs,” Savage wrote.
The Browns apparently passed on the chance to coach in the game, citing the team's ongoing search for an offensive coordinator as the reason why. Given Jackson's comments, we'd have to assume this was Dorsey's call here. And other teams have declined the offer in the past, it should be noted, so it's hardly unprecedented.
Still, it just looks a little funny that a team with the worst record in the NFL and one that is bringing back its head coach is passing on the chance to coach at the Senior Bowl. It's not that they can't find ways to dig themselves out of their hole without doing it, but it also means they have more work and fewer opportunities to scout players on an up-close-and-personal basis now.