MOBILE, Ala. -- The Senior Bowl week is all about prospects getting time with NFL teams -- interviewing, answering questions on and off the field, and trying to prove that they have what it takes to make it in the pros.
However, that's about more than just the former college players who are looking to get a leg up on the competition in the pre-draft process. The week before the Super Bowl in Mobile is also a landing spot for assistant coaches who are looking to find new spots in the league, and are still trying to find a seat in this professional game of musical chairs.
Matt Bowen of the Chicago Tribune and the National Football Post put it very well when he wrote about this particular phenomenon.
Good coaches — some I played for — come to Mobile for the week looking to shake hands with a general manager or a head coach or a coordinator. Maybe it is some small talk in the end zone stands or at the entrance to the west side of the stadium while the players are warming up on the field ... And it doesn't stop after the morning or afternoon practice sessions end. Out-of-work coaches will hang out in hotel lobbies where the teams are staying or you will find them at Wintzell's downtown dining on grilled Gulf Coast oysters at night.
Some current head coaches don't even make the trip to Mobile or they spend the week holed up in a hotel suite to avoid the constant requests for five minutes of their time from a position coach who needs to land a job.
It's late in the game for them. Everyone knows it down in Mobile. Staffs are filling up as teams prepare for the scouting combine next month in Indianapolis and the start of free agency in March.
And that's why it is crucial to get some time in front of a team's decision-maker before you are left out in the cold.
I saw one of those former coaches outside Ladd-Peebles Stadium, home of the Senior Bowl, after Wednesday's practice -- though he wasn't hitting up every coach he saw for a new gig. He was working very hard, despite the fact that his NFL job literally disappeared.
Paul Spicer played defensive end for the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars from 1999 through 2008, and was a part of the New Orleans Saints' roster in their Super Bowl season of 2009. Spicer spent 2012 as Jacksonville's assistant defensive line coach and the season before that helping out, but following a 2-14 disaster and a new head coach in former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, Spicer didn't just find himself fired -- his position was actually eliminated. After that blow, Spicer coached the defensive line for the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., and then came to Mobile on his own time and his own time -- trying to impress the NFL with his football acumen.
"It is what it is, and that's part of the business you've got to understand," Spicer told me. "You learn. I got an opportunity to play 11 years, and I was able to learn some things, and now coaching the last two years, I've learned a lot more. If I knew half of what I know now as a coach, I would have been a better player. We had a lot of guys who worked really hard -- Tyson Alualu, Jeremy Mincey, and C.J. Mosley, who came on big for us. They're good guys, and I'm going to miss them."
One advantage Spicer has now in his current capacity as a coach is that the final cut is never just that -- players have far crueler expiration dates, while coaches can go for decades.
"Even when I was a player and I got released, it never seemed final to me. When you get a Super Bowl ring, that makes everything alright. That was my last year, and my body was talking to me. I knew I wanted to coach, I got an opportunity to coach high-school ball for a year, and that really gave me a passion for it. It's not just something to do. People tried to give me horror stories about coaching -- 'Oh, you've got to be crazy to get into that!' -- but I'm not crazy. It's a passion for football. When I was playing, watching it on tape and drawing up Xs-and-Os, that encompassed what football was all about."
Spicer was a leader and mentor throughout his Jaguars career, and into his brief tenure with the Saints. it's a role he took very seriously then, and it clearly gave him a leg up when the coaching bug bit.
"A lot of retired players are coaching now, and want to get into coaching. One of the things that helps you a little bit -- it's not the be-all and end-all, but it does help that you did get an opportunity to get out there and play. You have an understanding of what it is to be in the helmet, in those cleats, to be on that field. You know what goes through your mind in certain situations, and what you need to do to be successful. So, it comes down to fundamentals and technique. It's always going to be that, and it will never change. I know they're big on the hits and all that stuff [in the NFL], but if you have fundamentals and technique, you'll be able to play a long time."
Spicer has been adding to his own coaching fundamentals since the Jags let him go -- he's under contract through 2013 and will be paid as such, but he's not resting on that. Just as much as any draft prospect, he came to the Senior Bowl to hopefully get noticed and impress the NFL.
"You never stop working, man. You never stop working. Last week, I got the opportunity to coach in the East-West Game, coaching the defensive line for the West team, and I had a great time. The talent's a bit different than it is in the Senior Bowl, but all in all, those guys were great. They came out and worked hard every day, all week. A couple of guys I coached -- Travis Johnson of San Jose State, and Josh Boyd from Mississippi State, were invited to the Senior Bowl."
Boyd certainly impressed through the week in Mobile, which may help Spicer's stock as well.
"He's been looking better and better here, and I think the previous week helped him," Spicer said. "He's got a head start on everybody else here. A lot of these guys have been sitting on the couch, and here it is -- the Senior Bowl. You'd better go and get that helmet back on! It's hard when you've been off for several weeks, and then, Bam! You've got to get back in the game."
Regarding Boyd, I told Spicer that the two things that stood out to me were his violent and efficient hand moves, and the speed with which he was able to get moving in any direction.
"He's a big man, and he's athletic," Spicer said. "Last week, we worked with his hands, and I told him. If you're a defensive lineman, you've got to be violent with your hands, and that's just the position. Some people don't understand how violent this game is, and what you have to be to be successful. A good lineman has good flexibility, has that knee-bend, good hip torque, and the power to stay in there and fight double-teams and pop back out with the blocks. If you can do that, you've got a chance. Boys is a guy who can do those things -- he's got that short-area quickness. He can get left and right in a hurry, and we worked on that."
In talking to many coaches over the years, and hearing Spicer's passion for the players he's worked with, it occurs to me that he has one of the primary credentials needed for the position -- at a certain point as a ex-athlete, you have to stop being excited about what you did and start getting really ramped up about that your players can accomplish. That enthusiasm was clear in his case.
Spicer was like a lot of the hidden prospects at the Senior Bowl. They're not wearing uniforms, and nobody's writing them up on any draft websites, but coaches looking for work this time of year are just as hopeful -- and possibly clinging on to Senior Bowl week with even more on the line. As Bowen put it, "For many coaches who need jobs, the Senior Bowl is all about networking and rubbing shoulders. And too many good, quality coaches leave town disappointed when the jobs dry up.
"It's a tough business they work in."
Indeed it is.