By Jason B. Hirschhorn contributor to TonySoftli.Com
For college football players heading to the NFL draft, the first measuring stick against other potential draft picks comes during all-star game season. High-profile prospects play in one of several games (sometimes more) in hopes of catching the eye of scouts, coaches and media members in attendance. Choices regarding which game to attend or whether to participate at all can dramatically impact a player’s future, either sending him tumbling down draft boards — as was the case for AJ McCarron — or, like withAaron Donald, erasing doubts and sending his draft stock soaring.
The complexion of all-star season has changed over the past few years. Games like the Raycom, Casino Del Sol and others have disappeared completely, shrinking the field of available forums for aspiring NFL players to choose from. In their wake stands the monolithic Senior Bowl, the long-running East-West Shrine Game, the fledgling Medal of Honor Bowl and a game that with the most unorthodox support and background, the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
As the name suggests, the NFLPA Bowl is a venture backed by the NFL Players Association. Its genesis is rooted in the demise of the Texas vs. the Nation Bowl, which it effectively replaced in the all-star game lineup.
Originally open to all draft-eligible players, the game now only serves seniors. However, where the NFLPA Bowl separates itself from the competition is its A-list coaching staff headlined by Mike Holmgren, Dick Vermeil and Tom Flores; its idyllic location in Southern California; and an idealistic and sometimes competing set of goals set forth by the game’s top executives.
“It’s always a great game,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said following the 2015 edition of the NFLPA Bowl on Saturday. “To watch the game grow so that on a Saturday fans get to watch a great game, players get to complete against the highest level of talent, all those things are wonderful things.”
As one might expect, Smith is more concerned with the off-the-field components of the game, especially the time the players are exposed to Hall of Fame players and the union’s central message.
“We can not only teach them the Xs and Ox,” Smith said, “but when we can surround them with Hall of Famers like Darrell Green and Andre Reed, when they can hear from some of the best player reps of all time like Steve Hutchinson, a guy who one day will probably be in the Hall of Fame himself, coached by great coaches, and surrounded by a union that has dedicated itself to the betterment of the players, that’s a week of a great message that we know these players will walk away with, and that’s why the game grows.
“We pride ourselves on spending a tremendous amount of time with these young men talking about things other than football. Everybody loves talking about football, the ratings, how many people are watching and who came and who did this. All of that stuff’s great, but we didn’t really have the idea of the game getting a certain rating or wanting to be better than other all-star games. We did it because we wanted to be able to carry on the mission of the union.”
Those opinions are echoed by George Atallah, the union’s assistant executive director of external affairs.
“Four years in we’re really proud of the gains that we’ve made,” Atallah said. “We think that there’s a lot of things that distinguish us from any other game frankly ever been developed.”
Still, like Smith, Atallah prefers to focus on the learning opportunities provided to players rather than how the NFLPA Bowl stacks up against other all-star games.
“I think we have a tremendous broadcast partner, we have Hall of Fame former player coaches, our coaching staffs are first rate, our facilities are fantastic, and we don’t really look at it as a competition with respect to other games,” Attalah said. “We just try to put on the best possible event for these young men.”
Don’t try telling that to Tony Softli, the NFLPA Bowl’s Director of College Scouting. Softli has big ambitions for the future of his all-star game that extend beyond bringing players into the fold of the union.
“We’re going to compete with the Senior Bowl and beat the rest,” Softli said. “That’s our mission. That was my goal coming in. That’s the mission for the recruiting department. It’s all about the roster. You start putting good players on that roster and [NFL scouts and coaches] will come.”
Softli made his name in the NFL serving as a top front office executive for the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams. He innately understands the role all-star games play in a team’s evaluation process, and he wants the NFLPA Bowl to provide the most attractive venue for NFL decision makers.
“We had Andy Reid last year, we had Chip Kelly this year. We’re up to four or five GMs: Tom Telesco was here, John Schneider, John Dorsey and a few others,” Softli said. “It’s starting to crank up a little bit, and I really believe that it has to do with the product, the players that are on a roster.”
Putting players on NFL rosters has indeed been a strength of the NFLPA Bowl of late. Last year alone, the game saw an increase of 112.5 percent in drafted players, 102.5 percent in preferred free agents (those targeted immediately after the draft after going unselected through seven rounds) and 104 percent overall for those receiving a contract to join a 90-man roster. The game also produced its first Day 2 draft pick when the Green Bay Packers selected Southern Miss defensive lineman Khyri Thornton 85th overall.
Though those involved with the NFLPA Bowl may harbor different goals, there can be no arguing with the results. In less than five years, the union-produced event has positioned itself as a major player in the all-star game circuit. It beats the FCS Bowl for the top small-school players like Azusa Pacific’s Terrell Watson, a tailback who won MVP honors at the 2015 NFLPA Bowl. It has also significantly bridged the gap between itself and the East-West Shrine Game. Whether the NFLPA Bowl can indeed pull ahead and take on the Senior Bowl remains to be seen, but it’s far closer now than anyone could have predicted when it began in 2012.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth and covers the NFL for SB Nation and the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Company. Follow him on Twitter at @by_JBH.