How to Fix the Pro Bowl

Let's face it: nobody cares about the NFL's Pro Bowl. Last night at dinner, I questioned the six boys at my table about what they'd done over the long winter weekend, asking if any had watched the Pro Bowl. Not a hand went up. I asked if they'd seen the video of Blake Griffin dunking over Kendrick Perkins. Four hands shot up.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem. Even though it's been rescheduled from its previous position of irrelevancy--the weekend after the Super Bowl, when the grand football narrative of the season is over and done and nobody cares any longer--the Pro Bowl still offers the viewer nothing of value. As it's currently scheduled, the players on the two best teams can't even play, as they're busy with Super Bowl preparations. If you can't even guarantee a look at superstars like Tom Brady or up-and-coming studs like Rob Gronkowski or Hakeem Nicks, why should the viewer settle for lesser players?

It's an outmoded idea, a slavish attempt to recreate the pizzazz once created by baseball's All-Star Game. In the old days, before interleague play was cheapened, you'd want to catch the ASG because it might well be your only chance to see a great American League hitter--Dimaggio, Mantle, Carew, Ripken--facing off against a great National League pitcher--Dean, Koufax, Jenkins, Maddux. Heck, the odds of the Cubs making the World Series pretty much guaranteed their fans would never see their heroes against any AL players outside an All-Star Game. Best of all, if you heard some blowhard arguing that Tony Gwynn couldn't handle a Roger Clemens fastball, you could actually wait until the All-Star break and see what would happen. THAT would be worth watching.

But football? Every team plays every other team at some point; interconference play is the norm. And there's no mano-a-mano confrontation--it's all about groups of guys combining for team success. Even a star running back won't go anywhere if the star offensive linemen aren't knocking the star defensive linemen on their asses. And the problem there--the one identified by Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers last weekend--is that the guys on the O-line have very little incentive to knock anybody on anything.

For a lineman, making the Pro Bowl brings a good deal of honor (and cash bonuses), plus a trip to Honolulu, but the game itself means nothing. And I promise, there's not a single lineman in the NFL who wants to put his career on the line by needlessly hurling himself violently into the crush of 300-pound bodies that is an NFL line of scrimmage. All it takes is one bad fall to destroy a knee or cause a concussion, after all. That's true for all players, but a quarterback is protected from most collisions--after he's thrown the ball, it's actually against the rules to hit him.

By contrast, collision is the raison d'etre for a lineman, and when millions of dollars are at stake, he wants to make sure he's getting something worthwhile for colliding. As a result, the Pro Bowl linemen don't try very hard, and the QBs and receivers are largely free to play catch, which is how the 2011 Pro Bowlers rang up 100 points between them, 90 of them from passing plays (12 TD passes and one interception return, plus extra points). There were over 900 passing yards in this game, but the teams combined for under 200 yards rushing. Why? Because rushing requires blockers to hit people, and that's just not likely to happen in a meaningless exhibition.

But if the Pro Bowl is a meaningless exhibition, and it is, I say don't try to hide the fact: CELEBRATE it.

Instead of a game nobody wants to watch, create an exhibition that's worth watching: the NFL Awards!

Let the players, like the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, select five nominees at each position. (You can require three per conference if you insist on recognizing the AFC/NFC split.) Those nominees earn trips to Honolulu, and on the Saturday night after the Super Bowl they arrive on the red carpet resplendent in formal wear of the most outlandish sort, sporting arm candy worthy of even jaded Hollywood reporters' awe, and gather inside to bask in their peers' respect and await the announcement of the winners.

Because once we've got the five best wide receivers or the five best cornerbacks gathered, we can go ahead and announce the All-Pro Team live. Imagine the tension! Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Smith, Wes Welker, and Andre Johnson sit in their tuxes, eyes riveted on the podium, where former All-Pro wideouts Jerry Rice and Steve Largent read aloud the nominees' names, hoping to brandish a golden figurine of former commissioner Pete Rozelle before a cheering national audience. Rice opens the envelope, flashes a grin, and leans into the microphone: "And the Rozzie goes to..."

Box office gold, folks! Huge ratings, plenty of attention on the faces of guys usually seen wearing helmets, and no risk of injury! This is win-win! Add in the obligatory analysis of the fashions sported on the big night, and you've got an event that even those with no interest in football can enjoy! Why the NFL Network hasn't already figured this out I can't imagine, but I'm perfectly willing to share it in exchange for a modest royalty. Have your people call my people.

But if you even suggest a musical number where Tom Brady dances with Snow White, I'm out.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on February 2, 2012 10:37 AM.

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