Can This Pro Bowl Be Saved?
Years ago my mother subscribed to the Ladies Home Journal. In it was a column my teenage self adored called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” The premise was simple. A warring couple both presented their side of the case to a team of marriage counselors.
I noticed how often it seemed one partner in the marriage, while aware the other one was unhappy, really didn’t see that it was any big deal, and had to be persuaded to make more than cosmetic changes to their behavior. But the counselors usually didn’t see it that way, and recommended a course of action requiring significant concessions on each side. Six months later the couples were brought back, having supposedly implemented the plan.
Curiously, none of the couples said they were giving up on their marriage. I don’t know whether the failures were weeded out—all three stages of the process were detailed in the same column—or whether the counseling team was just that successful. I’m guessing the former.
The relationship between the viewing public and the NFL’s Pro Bowl has certain similarities to some of those long-ago troubled marriages. The NFL appears to hold all of the power and is only willing to make just enough changes to quiet the moaning to a level they can tolerate. The viewing public tells everyone who will listen how unhappy they are, but aren’t willing to actually not watch in sufficient numbers and thus create the impetus for wholesale change.
As a result the NFL keeps tinkering with the format. Hence we have “Team Irwin” and “Team Rice” instead of AFC and NFC teams, and different sorts of uniforms. But these sorts of changes are little more than window dressing.
Because of its placement in the week before the Super Bowl, a goodly number of the players originally elected to it are exempted because, naturally, they can’t interrupt their preparation for the Championship game to take place in organized silliness.
And for those players not in the Super Bowl there is little incentive, other than the paid vacation, to, you know, actually play. The bonus they receive from their teams is earned by virtue of their election to the Pro Bowl, not by whether they participate. (And quite honestly it wouldn’t surprise me if the teams would in many cases rather they not participate. After all, they aren’t any more eager than the players themselves to see one of them injured and out for the following season in a meaningless game.)
And that, my friends, is the root of the problem, and why the Pro Bowl isn’t really fixable. Until the NFL figures out a way to make the Pro Bowl look more like real football and keep it at least close to completely safe for the players, we are merely going to have imitation football. The public is going to moan and complain, but they are going to keep watching. And as long as they do, the NFL has no real incentive to change in any meaningful way.
But since one of the amusements to be derived from the Pro Bowl is speculating on ways to make it more interesting, we might as well go for it. What follows is a sort of survey of some of the various suggestions which have been made during the past several years. Feel free to add your own in the comments. There will be a poll at the end in which you may vote for your favorites.
from a Grantland article in 2012:
Combine the Pro Bowl Rosters with a Pool of Impending Draftees
Take the same 100 NFL players or so who make it to the Pro Bowl and, in this scenario, add the top 100 college football prospects who are healthy enough to play. Randomly mix and match them into four teams, and play a four-team tournament (under Pro Bowl rules, of course). Do two games on Wednesday night and have the winners play in the standard Pro Bowl on Sunday.
Everyone wins a little bit here. NFL personnel guys get to see how college prospects react to practicing and playing with guys who are much better than them. College players get to show off their abilities while playing alongside some of the NFL’s best players. Fans get the first glimpse of the league’s next crop of stars weeks before the draft. You don’t really care about Ben Roethlisberger throwing to Antonio Gates, right? What about Andrew Luck throwing to Mike Wallace? That isn’t more interesting? [written, obviously, before Luck was drafted…]
from a 2013 article on Bleacher Report:
Run a Combine-like Event on Saturday
The NFL combine has gained popularity over the last few years. No longer is it an event that only draftniks like me watch. Instead, the NFL Network has started to air it, and it has developed something of a cult following among fans.
You can’t tell me you wouldn’t want to see Peyton Manning go up against Aaron Rodgers in a route-tree drill? What about Adrian Peterson taking on Doug Martin in a 40-yard dash?
I would also love to see Jimmy Graham go up against another elite tight end in the gauntlet drill. As you can envision, there are so many possibilities here.
from a 2014 article on Grantland:
Positional Musical Chairs
How have we not thought of this before? Here’s my pitch: these guys probably don’t want to be playing in this game. The NFL season is a precarious enough gauntlet to run and player contracts are flimsy enough that the risk of injury prevents any real effort. You have to incentivize this somehow. And short of Floyd Mayweather Jr. shooting millions in cash at the winning team with a T-shirt gun, I think there’s only one way to do that: have everyone switch positions.
What’s the golden rule of any team sport? Nobody is happy doing what they’re doing…
I don’t possess the intimate knowledge of offensive and defensive linemen to suggest who among them could be let out of the trenches and into the skill player playground, but here are a couple of Pro Bowl position switches that would make the exhibition must-see TV:
How hype would you get if Alshon Jeffery lined up at defensive end? Cam at tight end? Graham at outside linebacker? LeSean McCoy can probably play quarterback, right? Joe Haden and Patrick Peterson at wide receiver? Mike Tolbert at nose tackle? Andrew Luck at free safety?
Would these guys get hurt playing at an unfamiliar position, using their bodies in ways they are not trained to? I’m not a doctor, man. I don’t make those calls. But are you telling me that Andrew the Giant blowing up Eric Berry, as the Chiefs defensive back gets to live out the secret life of slot receivers, wouldn’t be the coolest thing in Pro Bowl history? No, you are not telling me that. Motion passed.
There is actually a precedent for this. A few years ago Antonio Brown lobbied his coach to put him in as a defensive back. Larry Fitzgerald immediately burned him for a touchdown. So this would only work if no one was allowed to play their actual position.
I particularly loved this one:
Pro Bowl: Auteur Edition
Simple: Keep the game exactly as is. Replace the NBC and NFL Films crew with four different filmmakers, one to cover each quarter. Then put it on 24-hour tape delay to give our new directors a chance to craft their masterwork. The pool of appropriate filmmakers is so vast, so let’s just cull from this year’s Best Director nominees. Welcome to the new Hollywood Bowl.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Cuarón and Lubezki made Gravity the most breathtaking movie of the year. Football is often about suspended bodies moving in impossible contortions. Who better to make us understand how Calvin Johnson crashes through the sky to make catches than the man who made space seem like an infinite, floating dock of terror?
Director: David O. Russell
Director of Photography: Linus Sandgren
Ever since The Fighter, critics have been telling Russell he needs to make a musical. He’s covered dancing and boxing and war and screwball comedy in his movies — even when the story doesn’t cohere, the way he wends around and through his actors to create tension is remarkable. In American Hustle he turns Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper into believable and elegant coke-infused disco royalty. Somebody let this guy get a hold of Josh Gordon.
Director: Steve McQueen
Director of Photography: Sean Bobbitt
The crunching of bones. The tearing of flesh. The collision of bodies. Few can match the visceral power that McQueen has delivered in all three of his movies, but most especially 2009’s Hunger and this year’s wrenching masterwork, 12 Years a Slave. Imagine McQueen training his eye on J.J. Watt.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Director of Photography: Rodrigo Prieta
Easy: Try to envision Ndamukong Suh doing this to Alex Smith.
The link was a picture I didn’t get. But it’s very easy to imagine Suh doing all sorts of unmentionable things to Alex Smith, or anyone he could catch, for that matter. Or perhaps we should substitute the name of our Villain of the Month, Vontaze Burfict. In fact, I would recommend they use actual game footage rather than something drawn from an exhibition game.
from a 2014 article in the Weekly Standard:
Make the Pro Bowl Look More Like Real Football
…While it’s impossible to ask the players to try harder (although borrowing a page from the Aztecs could do the trick) we could make the game look and feel more like a real NFL game without too much effort. [In case you don’t have time to click the link and find the reference, many pages into the paper, the trick was, the captain of the losing team was sacrificed to the gods. Now that’s some skin in the game. It would, naturally, mean requiring players to participate or else forfeit their bonuses, and for the captaincy to be by casting lots or some other randomized method.]
The first thing to do is change the uniforms. The blue and red jerseys of the past look nothing like a real NFL uniform and should be scrapped for throwback uniforms for two real NFL teams. We could rotate the teams (and the decades) each year to add a little variety. The Nike monstrosities about to be foisted upon us are a step in precisely the wrong direction, by the way.
The second change we need is to move the game to a real NFL stadium. The problem with playing the game at the Hula Bowl is that the stadium looks nothing like any of the stadiums we are currently accustomed to seeing. …Nothing looks right at a pro bowl game, from the leis announcers wear when doing interviews to the Hawaiian shirts on the sidelines to the half-empty stadium where no one’s paying much attention to the game.
And while I’m slagging the reporters, let’s keep the sideline interviews to a minimum this Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl broadcast always does a disproportionate amount of these interviews, presumably as a way to inject some interest into the game. It doesn’t work.
from an article a few days ago in Sportsblog:
Eliminate the fan voting
the fan voting process is a flawed one. It may not sound that important, considering how many players end up bowing out of the Pro Bowl due to injuries or playing in the Super Bowl, but I’m just not one for fan voting; guys who don’t deserve it get the big vote totals because they play in a big market, and the guys who do deserve it are often left on the outside looking in since they play in a small market.
Create Games Within the Game
Let’s throw in some tricks and tests here. One team scores on a pass to a wide receiver? Check. You’re done. No more passes to WRs, they don’t count. You get to score with passes to RBs or TEs now. Once you’re fullback runs it in, that’s it, you’ve complete[d] that score. Let’s make it just like bingo. In some way or another let’s make some caps and limits and keep it varied. Sure, Antonio Brown can’t break out for three TDs, but it’s the All-Star game and it doesn’t mean anything.
And another thought from the same article:
This is a no-brainer. Sorry punters, you will be named to the team and you can embrace the honor, but while we value you with field possession in the game and the playoffs (definitely Cardinals fans now), you’re kind of boring here. So we’re getting rid of you. There will be no punting in the Pro Bowl, so you better be ready to go for it all the time. This will change the way the game is played and called for the better, and definitely make it high scoring. We’re not wasting any downs here. The only time I want to see a punter on the field is if he is throwing an awkward pass.
Perhaps the most intriguing and practical idea comes from Phil Daniels, in a January 2014 Fansided article:
Use it as a Safety Lab
There is just no denying the NFL’s concussion problem. Given our continued understanding of football causing various traumatic brain injuries, the NFL will eventually be forced to make tough changes to how the game is played. Rather than simply worrying about that day when it comes and continuing to bask in multi-billion dollar revenues, the NFL should use the Pro Bowl as its testing ground for newer, safer rules. Whether it be requiring safeties to lime up within seven yards of the line of scrimmage, giving the offense an additional designated blocker, or some other rule variant with safety in mind, it should be tested during the Pro Bowl.
I won’t be watching Team Deion take on Team Jerry this weekend. But if this weekend’s Pro Bowl featured rules designed to make football a safer game forever as opposed to a safer game just for one weekend in Hawaii right before the Super Bowl—then Roger Goodell would have my attention.
And now for the poll. You may vote for three. Have at it!