By Brett Strohsacker
MOBILE, Ala. -- "Ya'll here for the football?"
That was the first question Dave Spadaro and I were asked when we hopped into a cab outside the Mobile airport.
"What gave it away?," we said.
It could have been a number of things. There's the fact that we were both decked out head to toe in Eagles gear. Our accents didn't exactly identify us as townies, either. Plus, who knows? Maybe our cab driver was fan of Eagles Live! and recognized Dave.
"Everybody's here for the football," she responded.
Yeah, that makes sense, too. She probably ended up asking that question hundreds of times this week as players, coaches, scouts, agents, media, and fans from around the country converged on Mobile, Ala. for this year's Senior Bowl. Located at the head of Mobile Bay and the Gulf Coast, Mobile has hosted this college all star game since 1951. With the growing popularity of the NFL and fans' insatiable hunger for football information, the week leading up to the Senior Bowl has evolved into one of the key events on the NFL's calendar.
I tagged along with Spadaro's PhiladelphiaEagles.com crew to help them out during the week and along the way made a handful of observations worth mentioning:
- At Monday's South practice at Fairhope Stadium, the King arrived. If there is any doubt as to who is the biggest name in the state of Alabama, it takes only a glance at all of the gift shops and souvenir stands to understand that the University of Alabama rules and that head coach Nick Saban is King. He pulled up onto the field at practice on Monday and hopped out of his automobile and was immediately besiged by anyone within 30 yards of him. What did Saban do right away? He went looking for Eagles head coach Chip Kelly to say hello. The two became good friends during their college coaching days.
- If you look around the stands at one of the practices, you'll see an interesting mix of coaches, scouts, agents, media, and of course fans. It's a great opportunity to see the players up close and going against each other in drills.
- As much as it's about evaluating the nation's top NFL prospects, it also seems to be a giant networking convention for former coaches and scouts who are looking for employment. If you're looking to hire or if you're looking to be hired, this is the place to be.
- There is one impressive tailgating group that staked out a spot immediately in front of the gate at Ladd-Peeples Stadium. They called themselves "Sir-ious" football fans and I saw Browns fans mixed with Chiefs fans and even a Jaguars fan among the group. Looked like they were having a good time.
- Reporters from Philly (including our website) work very hard. This is a tribute to how deeply Eagles fans care when it comes to getting information about this team. There were at least six beat writers, five PhiladelphiaEagles.com staffers, and a Comcast Sportsnet crew on hand at each practice. I joked with one of the guys that if there was a "battle royale" between each team's media corps, nobody would stand a chance against our guys – based on sheer numbers alone and nothing else, of course.
- Chip Kelly is a popular guy. It must have been hard for him to even watch practice because he was constantly being chatted up by other head coaches and team executives. He was also accommodating enough to speak with the media on Monday afternoon and attracted quite a crowd of reporters during his 17-minute interview.
- Following each practice, the players are swarmed on the field by coaches, scouts and the media. They also take time to sign autographs for the fans in attendance. I thought this was a nice gesture on their part.
- The players also have meetings set up with teams during the evening from 8-11. Unfortunately I am not high enough up on the totem pole to witness this portion of the day, but from what I hear it's a lot like speed dating. There's no doubt that this week is a good time to see how the players do in practice, but it's certainly beneficial for the teams to meet with the guys face to face and get a feel for what they're like as people.
- The NFL Network covers every practice. LIVE. With cameras all over the field to get up-close shots and also with a large set for Mike Mayock, Charles Davis and others to talk about the players. This, again, speaks to the popularity of the NFL. Fans will tune in to watch practices of players who may or may not even end up in the NFL, much less on their favorite team.
- Mobile has just about every chain restaurant you can imagine. On the 2.4-mile drive from our hotel to Ladd-Peebles Stadium, I believe I spotted three Waffle Houses. I felt like it was necessary to eat there at least once. They also have some very good seafood restaurants. We liked Felix's Fish Camp so much the first night that we went back again on Tuesday. The crab soup was phenomenal.
- The scene at the hotel is another way for team personnel staffers and coaches to say hello to their friends around the league. It's a convention that lasts for a few days of practices. By the time the game arrives on Saturday, the coaches and personnel departments are pretty much gone. The practices are where the hard scouting is done.
- I saw a few fans wearing Eagles hats or shirts, but it seems like most of the fans who ask for autographs do so just to randomly collect the autographs. What they do afterward with the autographs, I do not know. But you can make your own conclusions when you see a person with a boxful of footballs.
- The weather was outstanding all week and perfect for football practice with highs in the upper 50s and low 60s.
- There are two practices each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Most of the work is "thud" practices, meaning there is no tackling. I'm not exactly sure how valid the scouting reports can be if there is no tackling.
- Finally, the atmosphere is all about football at the Senior Bowl. If you're coming down to do anything else, you might be out of luck. This is an important week for college seniors aspiring to become NFL players and for NFL teams looking to make the right decisions during draft weekend.
Brett Strohsacker is a football media services coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles.