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

By Don Banks
August 06, 2013

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.

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