Wednesday, I spoke to my friend Jane Verneuille, who’s in charge of credentials for the Senior Bowl. Jane is kind of like the “mom” of the game, beloved by people like me who’ve been coming for decades. Anyway, she told me the number of credentials awarded this year was about the same as it always is. That took me by surprise, because the talking point among people here all week has been how the numbers are down. It just doesn’t feel like the same place it was maybe five years ago, before Covid.

Maybe it’s not true. Jane would never lie. The numbers are the numbers. Still, everyone I spoke to this week said the same thing: where is everybody?

I think the main factor, as pointed out by one friend this week, is that teams don’t send coaching staffs to Mobile anymore. It’s more than just the two teams that used to staff the game; you don’t see any head coaches, coordinators or position coaches here, and at one time, you saw them all. My old joke used to be that on your first day at the Senior Bowl, you wanted to take a selfie if you saw Sean Payton or Mike Tomlin in the bathroom, but by Day 3, you just wanted to go to the bathroom. These days, coaches just aren’t here.

Here are a few more reasons Mobile felt a little more empty this week.

  • The closure of the second floor commons area at the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel is the biggest post-Covid change in Senior Bowl policies. The old joke used to be if someone set off a bomb on the second floor of the team hotel on Tuesday or Wednesday, they’d have to cancel the draft. These days, however, if you aren’t directly involved with the game or the league, you can’t go up the escalator. Everyone who has been coming here since before 2019 feels the difference and laments it.
  • That’s not the only barrier segregating NFL personnel from everyone else. Since the game moved from Ladd-Peebles to Hancock Whitney Stadium, scouts and executives sit on one side of the stadium and everyone else stays on the other side. The view is the same; you just don’t get a chance to exchange pleasantries with the friends you’ve made the way you used to. That’s probably a good thing. They should be allowed to do their jobs without being bothered. Still, it’s different.
  • The Shrine Bowl schedule has had an undeniable impact. “Arrival day” used to be Monday; now that practices in Las Vegas overlap Senior Bowl week, no one gets here that early anymore. What’s more, because the Pro Bowl is also in Vegas, people leave earlier.
  • Similarly, weigh-ins used to be Tuesday’s must-see event. These days, like all but one all-star game, the Senior Bowl doesn’t even have public weigh-ins anymore. That’s one less opportunity for everyone on the coaching and evaluation side to be in one room together.
  • I think that the absence of NFL coaches here has taken away some of the “job fair” aspect of the game. Fired college and pro staffs used to descend on Mobile with resumes in hand. I think these days, the bigger names in coaching are relying on their agents to do their networking.
  • The AFCA Convention has probably replaced the Senior Bowl, to some degree, as an offseason rendezvous point. It’s held much earlier in the month, but it serves the same purpose.
  • The Senior Bowl used to be the third or fourth week in January, but now that the game bumps up against Signing Day, I think that has had a big impact on the number of college personnel evaluators who used to make it here.
  • XFL camps are under way. That’s a lot of coaches and scouts who might otherwise be in Mobile, either looking for jobs or simply renewing acquaintances.
  • One thing I heard all week is how Mobile has been “built out” much more than in the past. It’s true; there are more restaurants and hotels, and some of them are outside of the downtown area. This has had an undeniable impact on the bars and eateries that used to be packed this week. It shocked me to find out that Wintzell’s Oyster House, which used to be a Senior Bowl institution, wasn’t even open on Monday. Later in the week, there were multiple empty tables during the evening rush. The restaurant is clearly facing staffing and service problems, much as the rest of the country is, but this doesn’t explain the obvious dip in demand.
  • Financial professionals, especially those trying to break into the industry, used to be ubiquitous here, but they don’t get credentialed anymore. Granted, they don’t need to if they just want to watch practices or gather downtown, but I think many of them feel intimidated without the stamp of approval that comes with holding a badge.
  • The number of people covering the game, sharing their opinions and interviewing players has grown immensely. Maybe people feel they don’t need to be here as much anymore.

I think some of the void has been filled by aspiring NFL scouts from all walks of life. Some of them are from college personnel departments, but a lot of the people I’ve met have never worked for a college or pro team. Their fascination with player evaluation brings them to Mobile with hopes that they can make a connection that could be life-changing.

Mobile used to be the one place where everyone in the scouting and player representation industries gathered for one low-pressure week. That sense of community isn’t gone, but it’s certainly lessened. Not seeing people carrying around the faux-leather Senior Bowl notebooks that used to be handed out kinda makes someone like me sad. It’s nobody’s fault, I guess, but it’s a bit of a downer, and I’m not sure it will ever be the way it once was.