In an effort to make the most anticlimactic game of the season the slightest bit more relevant, the NFL this year took the unprecedented steps of delaying the unveiling of the Pro Bowl rosters until tonight (7 p.m. ET, NFL Network) -- a full week later than usual -- bumping the all-star game up two weeks to Jan. 31, and moving the contest from Honolulu to Miami, where it will be played in the same stadium as Super Bowl XLIV.
Will those moves create the excitement and anticipation the league has long coveted for what theoretically should be one of its showcase games? Probably not. The Pro Bowl has some inherent flaws that likely can't be fixed, and no matter when or where you play it, it'll take on the look, feel and pace of an exhibition game, even if those are big stars dotting both rosters.
But I know one sure-fire way to make me more eager to watch the NFL's all-star game, and that's if the voters this season did the job of rewarding the most deserving players in the game. Not just the superstars who have more name than game in any particular year, but the less-celebrated types who have earned their trip with the kind of play that befits the all-star designation.
If I were NFL commissioner for a day, I know who would get the nod from me: Cincinnati middle linebacker Dhani Jones, one of pivotal cogs in the success of the playoff-bound Bengals.
Jones, now in his 10th NFL season, has never been what you would call star material. He was drafted by the Giants in the sixth round in 2000, 177th overall (22 spots ahead of his Michigan teammate, Tom Brady), is playing with his third NFL team, and likely hasn't come within three time zones of a trip to Honolulu.
But he's one of the most indispensable Bengals this season, and his rock-solid play in the middle of a Cincinnati defense that ranks second against the rush (87.7), fourth in total yards (300.1), and fifth in points allowed (16.9) has not been overlooked by those within the league who know defensive football. Though he leads the Bengals in tackles for a second year with 106 through 15 games, Jones doesn't have the type of gaudy personal stats that attract Pro Bowl votes. But know this: His 3½ sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and five passes defensed tell only a fraction of the story.
Ask Mike Zimmer, who may just be the defensive coordinator of the year this season, what Jones means to his defense. Zimmer's unit has been the backbone of Cincinnati's 10-5, division title-winning season, and no one has earned more of his respect and praise this year than Jones, who was voted the team's defensive captain for the first time in 2009.
"When you watch him play, no one's going to get wowed by his big sack totals, or his big hits, but in my mind, he's a Pro Bowl player,'' Zimmer told me recently. "He's a guy who makes the plays when he's presented with the opportunity to make them. It's tough to make the Pro Bowl in this league if you don't have the sacks and interceptions, but he does so many things for us. He's a big part of the reason we've been playing fairly well this season. The things he does, they don't show up in the stats. But they show up in the wins.''
Jones was an outside linebacker for the first eight seasons of his NFL career, but Zimmer asked him to slide to the middle and assume the key leadership role in his defense when the veteran coordinator took over in Cincinnati in 2008. Jones has thrived ever since, but where are the Pro Bowl votes going to come from with the likes of inside linebackers like Ray Lewis, DeMeco Ryans, Gary Brackett and David Harris also in the AFC?
"I just had a feeling he could play the middle,'' said Zimmer, who thinks highly enough of Jones that he asked him to serve as a pallbearer for his wife, Vikki, in October. "I had a guy in Dallas, Dat Nguyen, who was very similar to Dhani. Very smart, instinctive, a tough guy who could communicate with everyone and just get it done. And it ended up working out pretty good. He's never been a mike [middle linebacker] before, but he's a pretty darn good mike.
"He's as smart a guy as I've ever had playing in the middle for me. He asks tremendous questions, understands everyone's role, and he wants to be leaned on by everyone on the field. The kid really loves football. And I respect guys like that. I like those kind of guys.''
I like those kind of guys, too, even though Jones's brand of team-oriented play is destined to leave him snubbed by Pro Bowl voters. I spoke with Jones the other day, and it's almost impossible to get him to pub his own Pro Bowl candidacy, even though he's not the shrinking, wall-flower type. He's comfortable enough around the media and the TV cameras to host his own show on the Travel Channel: "Dhani Tackles the Globe,'' and he's done plenty of work for both ESPN and the NFL Network in the offseason.
"It would mean a lot to me, and I'd be remiss if I said I wouldn't be appreciative of it,'' said Jones, 31, of a potential Pro Bowl invite. "It'd be humbling to know people respect me like that. But it's not something I talk about. My whole approach toward football is sort of a blue-collar mentality. I try to work harder than the next person, and the things that come from that happen because they're meant to happen.''
Alas, a trip to Miami, at least for the NFL's all-star game, is probably not meant to happen for Jones this year. It's too bad. To the winners are supposed to go the spoils, and the Bengals and their defense have been one of the feel-good stories of this NFL season. Jones has been in the middle of all that success, and he's the type of veteran who would truly savor and appreciate the honor of pulling on a Pro Bowl jersey for the first time, rather than finding a convenient injury to beg out of playing in the game.
I know I'd be more inclined to watch if Jones makes it to Miami, and isn't that the kind of relevance the Pro Bowl is trying so hard to create?
• What a remarkable performance Minnesota and Brett Favre put on in their 30-point second half against the Bears on Monday night, but when you boil it all down, the Vikings' 36-30 overtime loss at Solider Field could very well force them to hit the road in the playoffs far earlier than they would have liked. And that means trouble for Minnesota (11-4), which could find itself entering the postseason as the NFC's third or even fourth seed.
The Vikings finished the regular season 4-4 on the road, including prime time defeats at Arizona, Carolina and Chicago in the past four weeks. Minnesota is 7-0 at home, but it hasn't won away from the Metrodome since Week 8, when Favre made his celebrated return to Green Bay and made the Packers pay, 38-26. That was half a season ago. (Did a Curse of Lambeau Field result from that mortal sin?)
Look a little closer and you realize the Vikings' only quality road win of the year was that game at Green Bay. They beat the woeful Browns and Lions on the road in the first two weeks of the season, and won at St. Louis in Week 5. Those three teams were winless at the time and have combined for just seven victories all season. Pittsburgh gave Minnesota its other road loss, in Week 7.
• If I'm the Redskins, I'm thinking twice before I decide to ever close down FedEx Field in a big display of self-congratulation and nostalgia. It hasn't really worked out too well for their three NFC East rivals when they went that route.
The Giants were just the latest NFC East team to lay in an egg in their stadium farewell, losing 41-9 on Sunday to Carolina and the Matt Moore-led Panthers. New York needed the game, Carolina didn't, but no matter. The Panthers drilled the moribund Giants, who strutted out franchise greats like Lawrence Taylor to say goodbye to the 34-year-old Giants Stadium.
Last year, it was roughly the same story for the Cowboys in their over-the-top goodbye to Texas Stadium. Dallas played Baltimore in that game, and pulled out all the stops, scheduling an elaborate closing ceremony with tons of former Cowboys stars participating. Too bad those old heroes couldn't play, because in the game, the Ravens drilled Dallas 33-24, rushing for 265 yards as another December swoon deepened for Wade Phillips' struggling team.
And who can forget the 2002 NFC title game, which doubled as the last game in the somewhat star-crossed history of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium? The heavily favored Eagles lost 27-10 to visiting Tampa Bay, a team they had beaten four consecutive times, including twice in the previous two years at the Vet in the wild-card round of the playoffs. The Bucs had never won a road playoff game before their upset, and had never triumphed in a game in which the temperature was 32 degrees or colder.
The Vet opened in 1971, the same year as Texas Stadium. Giants Stadium's first season was 1976. It's a good thing FedEx Field is only 13 years old, because Washington has enough trouble to contend with these days.
• Speaking of the Giants' collapse at home, they went 7-1 there last season, and started this year with a 2-0 mark at the Meadowlands through five weeks. But then things got ugly. Real ugly. Not only did New York give up a combined 86 points in its last two games at Giants Stadium -- losing 45-38 to Philadelphia and 41-9 to Carolina -- but also Tom Coughlin's club dropped four of its final six games at home, surrendering an average of 30.8 points per outing.
New York got out-classed by Arizona at home in Week 7, let a fourth-quarter lead slip away against San Diego in Week 9, and its only wins at home in the last two months of the season came against Atlanta (34-31) and Dallas (31-24).
• Year in and year out, the NFL playoff field invariably features about five or six new teams in January. This year will not be the exception. We're right on track, with New Orleans, Green Bay and Dallas having already qualified in the NFC, and Cincinnati and New England going to the dance in the AFC. With a Jets win at home against the Bengals on Sunday, there'd be six new teams in the playoffs, three in each conference.
That number could rise if Baltimore fails to make the postseason and is replaced by either Denver, Houston or Jacksonville in the AFC wild-card chase, or fall, if the Jets fail and either Pittsburgh or Miami advances.
• After setting the pace for the entire season in the NFC, the Vikings and Saints both lost in overtime in Week 16. If you're keeping track, New Orleans and Minnesota went a combined 21-1 in their first 22 games, but are just 3-5 since. The Vikings are 1-3 in their past four, with the Saints' 2-2 record in that span consisting of narrow wins at Washington and home against Atlanta.
Doesn't it always seem to unfold like that late in the NFL season these days? After riding high all year, Tennessee and the Giants both limped home last season, with the Titans finishing 3-3 after their 10-0 start, and New York dropping three of its final four games after beginning 11-1. The trajectory of top-seeded Dallas's 2007 season went the same way, as it did for the 2005 Colts, who started 13-0. Can't anybody finish the job any more?
Oh, and one other fact seems pertinent: None of those aforementioned teams won a single playoff game after compiling such lofty regular season records.
• With the Giants' having their four-year streak of making the playoffs snapped, the NFC's longest such streak is now shared by three teams, at a modest two consecutive postseason trips. Philadelphia, Arizona and Minnesota will all be back in the playoffs, but their runs pale compared to the Colts' AFC-best eight-year streak of playing in January.
Though the playoff field isn't quite set in the AFC, Dallas will enter the NFC's postseason tournament with the longest active playoff-win drought. The Cowboys last won in the playoffs in 1996's first round. In the AFC, unless the expansion Texans qualify, the leader in that particular clubhouse will be Cincinnati, which hasn't won in the postseason since beating Houston's Oilers in the first round in 1990.
• I'm starting to come around to the idea that an 18-game regular-season schedule might not be such a great idea after all. Why? Look around. In Week 16 this season, teams started the likes of Drew Stanton, Keith Null, Charlie Frye, Brian Brohm, Derek Anderson and Matt Moore at quarterback. And don't even get me going on the whole Curtis Painter gets quality playing time in Indianapolis topic.
What would fans be in store for on that front if the regular season lasted another two weeks? It's pretty hard to argue that more football would equate to better football.
• What a December it has been for upsets in the NFL. Tampa Bay winning at New Orleans was the first time in league history that a 12-loss team beat a 13-win team. And Week 16 also included the 5-9 Bears taking down the 11-3 Vikings, and the Panthers eliminating the Giants.
Last week had Oakland knocking off Denver and Carolina embarrassing Minnesota, with Cleveland over Pittsburgh, San Francisco over Arizona, and Oakland over Pittsburgh unfolding earlier in the month.
Good luck gambling on this league.