MOBILE, Ala. – From the beginning of the college football season, the Carolina Panthers' scouting staff fanned out across the country, logging more frequent flyer miles and hotel points over the last few months than some people collect in a lifetime.
This week, however, they've all gathered at the Senior Bowl, where many of the players they've been tracking are gathered as well.
The annual all-star game serves as a valuable opportunity for the staff to compare notes and tweak their notes.
"We are our own little culture, just like the coaching fraternity," Panthers' national scout Ryan Cowden said. "We've got a good group, guys that care about it, that don't just do it because it's a job.
"Our guys do a great job. They care and they work hard."
The hard work is continuing in Mobile - from early in the morning to late at night.
"Here in Mobile, it's a little bit like 'Groundhog Day'," said Cowden, who will attend two practices for three consecutive days. "You get a chance to see the players live, which gives you a chance to affirm or question what you've seen on tape.
"In the evening, it becomes just a flurry of interviews, with our area guys tracking down their players in the lobby and getting to know them as people. Then the last few years, we present some of the guys to our coaches and let them familiarize themselves with the players. That runs up until 10 or 11 at night, and then you wake up and do it again."
Those personal interactions, according to national scout Jeff Morrow, may be the most important part of the process in Mobile because by this point, the scouts already know a lot about what the prospects can do on the field.
"The physical part is pretty easy to figure out," Morrow said. "Here you get to get more involved and talk to them a little more, one-on-one, person-to-person. You get a feel for their character and their heart, for their willingness to do what it takes to make it on this level."
Morrow and Cowden are the Panthers' two national scouts, with Cowden covering the eastern half of the country and Morrow handling the western half. Throughout the football season, the Panthers' six college scouts - or "area scouts" – drive around their quadrant of the country checking out prospects, then Cowden and Morrow follow up with all of the top targets.
"An area scout will get to a school at seven in the morning and start watching tape, and then they'll go to practice in the afternoon," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney explained. "Then they might have to drive maybe two to three hours to their next city, and when they get to their hotel at 10 o'clock at night, they've got to write up reports on the players they just saw. Then they get up and do it all over again.
"The national scout has to have great communication with the area scouts, and he's got to make sure he doesn't miss one of the top players. Their job is to look at the top 150 to 200 players. They look at other players too, but we want to make sure we have at least two or three looks at the top 150 to 200 players. They're covering a vast area.
"You've got to have people with very good work ethic and a lot of discipline because you're out there on your own. You have to be able to handle a grinding schedule."
Morrow estimated that he spends 170 nights a year on the road, but it's a labor of love. He just completed his 14th season of scouting for the Panthers and his 17th season overall, on the heels of 14 seasons as a college coach.
Cowden has worked for the team for 12 seasons, getting his start shortly after he wrapped up his playing career at Wofford. The Panthers' area scouts sport similar experience, with all but one of the six having scouted for at least nine years.
From Hurney's perspective, that experience means that he has a group that fully understands what characteristics the Panthers most value in draft prospects.
To Morrow, the long track record helps Hurney have a good gauge of how each scout grades prospects, allowing him to better piece them together on the draft board.
And to Cowden, the longevity simply signals that everyone is completely committed to achieving the ultimate goal on behalf of the franchise.
"We're passionate about it, and we want to get results for the Panthers," Cowden said. "It's a little bit behind the scenes, but our job is to deliver the prospects that can make us a winning football team."