drew-brees-story

Pro Bowl Changes Much Ado About Nothing

The league is desperate to fix its all-star exhibition, but it's better to just let it die instead

They say never fix what ain’t broken, but of course it’s just as nonsensical to keep trying to fix what can’t be fixed. Which brings us once again to the NFL’s Pro Bowl, the all-star game that nobody seems to like, but seemingly can’t live without.

On the suggestion of the NFL Players Association, which clearly wants to protect its members’ God-given, inalienable right to vacation in Hawaii every January, the league last week announced another series of steps to breathe some relevancy into the NFL’s only postseason game that suffers from a credibility problem.

In some cases, the format and rule changes that were put in place for 2014’s game will be downright radical and unprecedented: No more kickoffs. No more conference-based teams voted on by players and fans. No more being limited to a single two-minute warning per half. And even more bizarrely, Deion Sanders is somehow involved.

We’re talking B-I-G changes.

But ultimately, meaningless moves. At least in terms of making the pillow fight that tries to pass as a game matter again. That genie simply won’t be put back in the bottle, no matter how hard the NFL tries. And in some ways, I don’t even get what the latest changes are designed to accomplish.

Only the NFL could acknowledge that the problem with the Pro Bowl for years now has been that it looks less and less like a real football game all the time, and then institute proposals that effectively make it look less like a real football game, like going without kickoffs for safety reasons, having a change of possession after each quarter, and modifying several rules that deal with the game clock.

I’m trying to follow the logic in all of that, but it’s possible I was just the victim of the old misdirection play. I was looking this way and the league went that way.

I especially have zero enthusiasm for the format where team captains will be named based on the two leading vote-getters and then “draft’’ their respective 43-man rosters, with help from Sanders and fellow Hall of Famer, Jerry Rice and some NFL.com fantasy football contest winners.

Only the NFL could acknowledge that the problem with the Pro Bowl for years now has been that it looks less and less like a real football game all the time, and then institute proposals that effectively make it look less like a real football game.

I can see where this is headed, and I don’t think I like it one bit. Letting captains pick the Pro Bowl teams is just a bad idea. What happens when there are only the fat kids left? Meaning the offensive linemen? That’ll probably really hurt, and just sends the wrong message in today’s inclusive-minded society. Offensive linemen are athletes, too. At least some of them.

Even crazier, the NFL is stealing this “draft the teams” idea whole from the NHL, which has been using a captains-pick-the-players format for a while now. When was the last time the NFL, always the lead dog in any situation, said, “You know what? That spunky little NHL’s got a pretty good idea, there. Why don’t we shop-lift it?”

I understand that some people might like the Pro Bowl changes and believe they will actually help raise the level of competitiveness in a game that has been more of a players-only party than anything else in recent years. But that’s only because we’re at the point with the Pro Bowl where the standard of play has slipped so far that trying anything to improve it looks like a laudatory and admirable effort.

That’s otherwise known as desperation, and desperation can give birth to some pretty ridiculous ideas. (See replacement refs.)

The truth of the matter is the Pro Bowl as a legitimate sporting event with something at stake went away when the money got big in terms of players’ salaries, and it isn’t coming back. If nothing else, the NFL’s move to change the game’s rules and format is a tacit admission that legitimacy as a straight-up football game is no longer in the range of possibilities. So what the heck, let’s try adding a little razzle-dazzle and distract them.

(And, yes, I know the Pro Bowl does killer TV ratings. Proving that many Americans will sit on the couch and watch almost anything that shows scenes of Hawaii in the dead of winter, cheerleaders, and something vaguely resembling an athletic contest).

When salaries in the NFL got sizable enough, avoiding the risk of injury in the Pro Bowl became the name of the game. When injury is the front-burner issue, intensity and competitiveness are sacrificed. It’s understandable, and unavoidable. Even if NFL players do have pride in their name and their game.

The Pro Bowl is more about the spectacle than the sport. (Michael Sullivan/Landov)
The Pro Bowl is more about the spectacle than the sport. (Michael Sullivan/Landov)

I actually heard Mark Schlereth of ESPN and ex-Denver Broncos fame—who I like and respect—on the radio the other night guaranteeing he had a fool-proof way to make players go all-out in the Pro Bowl again. Fool-proof, he promised, with just one little tweak.

His idea was to jack up the winner’s share to some undisclosed figure (it’s roughly $50,000 per man now) and make the game a winner-take-all format. Yep. The losers would go home empty-handed, with nothing more than a handshake, a lei or two, and maybe a toaster at most.

That, Schlereth said repeatedly, would ensure the second half of the game being played at a fast and furious pace, with players on the trailing team starting to really worry about the cost of all that room service they and their entire traveling party tucked into at the hotel. Not to mention the plane tickets they bought for 18 of their closest friends, family members and entourage. The extra money would make all the difference, and fix the Pro Bowl problem, Schlereth said.

To that I say two things: Pretty sure the NFL doesn’t have it in the budget to start paying the Pro Bowl winning squad the roughly $200,000 or so per man it might take to ensure full-scale competitiveness and effort in the game under Schlereth’s plan; and secondly, the old offensive lineman must have had one too many surgeries over the years and mistakenly had his common sense removed. Because if he thinks today’s players are ever risking injury in the Pro Bowl, with a 50-50 chance they’re receiving nothing—NOTHING—in return for their efforts, he’s stone-cold delusional. Not happening.

Even Rice, who is getting involved in the Pro Bowl to help pick the teams in the new format, sounds skeptical of today’s NFL player ever treating the game as anything more than a free trip to Hawaii.

“I don’t know if this will help the Pro Bowl survive,” Rice said of the changes. “If they want a vacation, go to the Bahamas. Back in the day, it was an honor to play in the Pro Bowl.’ “

An honor, and competitive event. Heck, as a teenager I even attended a Pro Bowl in the late ‘70s, watching the 1978 contest in Tampa Stadium, before the Pro Bowl went and bought a timeshare in Hawaii, and started taking off for the Pacific the same week every January. There was some honest to goodness bad blood late in the NFC’s 14-13 win that year, because AFC players maintained that 49ers linebacker Cleveland Elam illegally blitzed on second down in order to sack Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler and knock the AFC out of reasonable field goal range with the game hanging in the balance. The AFC had to settle for the $2,500 loser’s share rather than the $5,000 winner’s share, and that was a significant chunk of change lost.

Controversy and some ill will in the Pro Bowl. Imagine? Now most of the players do everything but gather at midfield, hold hands and sing Kumbaya together. And that’s often before the game.

I trust the NFL, its players and its fans will all someday be forced to face facts and realize that pro football’s all-star game is no one’s idea of a showcase. Better to let it die than keep it on life-support indefinitely. But who knows? If the ratings remain high, this season’s “innovations” might be the mere tip of the iceberg. We already saw Jeff Saturday switch sides and snap the ball for the opposing team a year ago. Maybe in-game trades is an idea whose time has come.

Besides, now that the Pro Bowl has been “fixed,” maybe the NFL can turn its full attention to Detroit. Not the Lions. The city. If the league sets its mind to it, I’m fairly sure it can figure out how to make Motown solvent and relevant once more.

TAGS:
23 comments
Mike26
Mike26

For all those that make it skills competitions / Battle of the Network Stars competitions over a glorified scrimmage = YES!

For those making any more changes to the game to "make it better" = NOOOO!!!!!!

CetswayoDawson
CetswayoDawson

The NFL team with the worst record should face colleges top team in an exhibition game. That might be interesting.

Mike26
Mike26

@CetswayoDawson Not at all.  The pro team would destroy the college team playing at half or full-speed.

grogseal
grogseal

@Mike26 @CetswayoDawson From 1934 to 1973 in the old format of college all-stars versus an NFL team the college team actually won 9 times.

RayHuggyBearYoung
RayHuggyBearYoung

I like all the readers love the NFL.  Regular season and playoffs I follow with passion.  Work most Sundays so dont get to watch.  But the Pro Bowl.  I have not watched  a second of it in over 20 years.  Just not fun watching those players go half force.  No fun at all.

Whatever
Whatever

Ratings, ratings, ratings.

That's why the Pro Bowl will continue for years to come. Until the ratings dry up, the game will be played.

usameos6
usameos6

@Whatever Agreed - I find it interesting that so many people say that they never watch the Pro Bowl but it does great ratings.  I heard on the radio today that the Pro Bowl got better numbers than any of the Conference Finals games in the NBA playoffs, any of the Stanley Cup Finals games, several large non-BCS Bowl Games (Cotton, Orange, etc etc).  As long as it makes a ton of money, the NFL will continue with it.  

Mike26
Mike26

@usameos6 @Whatever Yup.  BTW, you forgot they easily outdrew the World Series games too.

Doesn't say much for the other pro leagues when a horrible exhibition game (even some preseason games too) can double/triple your championship games' viewership!

marino.eccher
marino.eccher like.author.displayName 1 Like

"Pretty sure the NFL doesn’t have it in the budget to..."

Pretty much any ending to that sentence short of "make A-Rod likable" is ridiculous, and while the $10m or so Banks is talking about is a lot of money, it's about 1/10th of 1 percent of total NFL revenues. And the league would make some of it back if it made the game more popular.

But that still won't fix the Pro Bowl -- Banks gives good reasons why, and besides, watching millionaires compete for more money isn't all that compelling. Fortunately, there's another solution here:

"...many Americans will sit on the couch and watch almost anything that shows scenes of Hawaii in the dead of winter, cheerleaders, and something vaguely resembling an athletic contest)."

So get rid of the sham football game that nobody wants to play in and replace it with some athletic contests that are actually fun to watch. Which Pro Bowl QB can throw the ball the farthest? Which one can hit the most targets in 30 seconds? Which WR (or which O-Lineman) can turn in the fastest 40? Which non-kicker can make the most field goals? In other words, replace the game itself with all the silly but kinda fun little minicamp games from "Madden." You can keep the selection process, keep it in Hawaii, keep the prize money and turn it into something players might actually want to do for fun and fans might actually want to watch.

Thrombocytopenia
Thrombocytopenia like.author.displayName 1 Like

@marino.eccher heck you could even keep the captains picking teams and make it an AFC vs NFC skills competition. You get points depending on how well you finish in your event. 10 for first 6 for second 3 for third or something similar

mystafugee
mystafugee

Funniest part about the Pro Bowl (and one that pretty much sums up the NFL) is that the state of Hawaii pays the NFL $4 million a year to host this.  

AndrewJHamm
AndrewJHamm

I think the premise that the Pro Bowl is worthless because it's not a "real" football game is false from the start. The backyard-football aspect of the game is what I like so much about it, the smiling and laughing and "you go long!" playcalling. The fact that the ratings are still high indicated that the public agrees; the game is just damn fun to watch, purists be damned.

The NFL has taken a significant step toward acknowledging that the Pro Bowl simply can't ever be a smash-mouth game any more, and it won't ever be that again. The first time a player loses the first four games of the next regular season due to a Pro Bowl injury is one more time than that should ever happen.

My solution: Flags. Change the rules completely so the linemen have something to do that affects the game but doesn't risk serious injury. Remove the tackling and give the players flags; make it a speed and agility game, and let the points soar. It's an exhibition played by NFLers who have just finished the most grueling, damaging season in all of sports. They don't want to put their careers on the line for one-tenth of a game check. Play up the exhibition component and just let the game be fun.

The purists can go pound sand. Stop harshing the buzz of the fun, lighthearted Pro Bowl and just let it become something enjoyable.

Mike26
Mike26

@AndrewJHamm Sorry, those are some of the most lame, softest and Democratic ideas I've ever seen.  The Pro Bowl should just die - vote on it so guys get their bonuses and all but the "game" isn't a real football game at all.  Football is a collision sport and playing it any other way just isn't NFL football, so don't pretend that it is.

westcoastbias
westcoastbias

there are two parts to the long term solution:

1. Don't watch it.

2. Don't talk or write about it.

Mike26
Mike26

@westcoastbias Though "nobody" watches it - at least not in comparison to a regular NFL game - it still outdraws World Series games and most NBA championship series games.  Sadly, it's going to keep going for no real reason regardless.

DWJ08
DWJ08

I have an idea for the Pro Bowl: Lets reduce the downs to three, add 10 yards to each end-zone, and widen the field by 12 yards. The winner gets to play the CFL Grey Cup Champion. (sarcasm)

cdawg
cdawg like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

I would like to see more skill competitions, especially strength competitions between lineman. Those are more fun to watch than the actual game if they are playing for real, which, let's be honest here, will never happen again.

vanonymous
vanonymous

At least the last paragraph was worth the time :)

Newsletter