Roundtable: What should the NFL do about the Pro Bowl’s awful product?
At risk of offending the Pro Bowl enthusiasts out there, let’s cut to the chase: The NFL’s annual all-star game is completely irrelevant. This year, due to a litany of no-thank-yous, a record 133 players received Pro Bowl honors. The players who take the field on Sunday will not represent the NFL’s best, and the league needs to do better. How do we fix it, if it can even be fixed at all? SI’s writers and editors pitch their ideas:
The how-do-we-fix-the-Pro-Bowl debate has become a tiresome annual rite of late January in the NFL, but here we are again. Ultimately we end up back at the same point every time: There’s no way to make the pillow fight that tries to pass as a game matter again. The rule changes instituted two years ago that did away with kickoffs, added a two-minute warning to each quarter, and eschewed the AFC-NFC team format in favor of a draft-based system where Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin do the choosing only added to the game’s irrelevancy.
Leave it to the NFL to realize the Pro Bowl’s problem for years now has been that it no longer resembles a real football game, and then institute gimmicky rules that make it look less like a real football game. First the dilemma was the league couldn’t get the players to take the game semi-seriously and give a decent effort. Now the problem is the league can’t even get players to show up, with this year’s Pro Bowl more aptly called the Replacement Bowl, so dotted are the rosters by alternates and stand-in all-stars. It’s a sham event, trying to pass as a glam event.
The solution is simple, and it’s the best thing for all involved, except those within the NFL addicted to the dollars that flow from TV ratings: It’s time to name the Pro Bowl teams, but get rid of the Pro Bowl game. There are all-stars deserving of recognition in the NFL, but there’s no viable way to make players care about the actual game, or incur the risks of all-out effort. Midseason all-star games work. Postseason all-star games in full-contact sports do not. That reality will never change for the NFL.
Let’s take the tackling out of the Pro Bowl and turn it into a 7-on-7 tournament with multiple teams. At the high school level, 7-on-7 football is growing in popularity and is a staple of the summer prospect showcases. Nike is launching 7-on-7 leagues in multiple cities. It’s very exciting because the whole team goes out on pass patterns every play. And it does contain real elements of football, like route concepts and quarterbacks reading the field. The twist of some mandatory deployment of NFL linemen would just add to it—can you imagine watching Aaron Donald or Nick Mangold trying to get open deep? Granted, it’s weird, but it’s a lot closer to real football than a skills contest.
Do you remember which team won last year? How about in 2014?
Let’s borrow from the Senior Bowl and line it up with the rosters split by college. In other words, have all the SEC products play on Team Pro Bowl South and all the Big Ten players on Team Pro Bowl North. We’d have to pick through how to split up some other conferences, like the Big XII (probably South), Pac-12 (North?) and AAC (flip a coin). But assigning the teams like this would reunite a lot of former teammates, right as college football fans are fully drifting into off-season malaise. At least then the players would be competing for pride.
Get rid of it. No one cares and it stinks. Look, football isn’t baseball, basketball or hockey, where you can have an all-star break in the middle of the season and the game might loosely resemble the real product. The injury risk is too high. Combine that with the fact that the true stars of the game never actually go, and exactly what are we trying to accomplish here? The lone possible alternative would be some sort of combination of Battle of the Network Stars, MTV’s The Challenge and a skills competition. All-star games are cool for one reason: All the best players are in the same place at the same time. I don’t care if it’s for a dinner party at midfield at Aloha Stadium—find something that can do that for NFL players.
Most players that drop out cite some kind of injury, even if it’s a fake. To mitigate the risk of damage —imagined or real—let’s turn this into a skills competition. Sprints with incline. One-handed catches with increasing difficulty of ball placement. Accuracy tosses with moving targets. 70-yard field goals. Singing competitions. The list goes on and on. Don’t worry, we’ll find something fun for J.J. Watt to do.
It’s like the Scouting Combine, except way more fun and with players the public already knows. Speaking of the Combine, let’s combine it with this new NFL all-star format for yet another mega event just two weeks after the Super Bowl, which is when the football withdrawal really starts to kick in. For the NFL’s superstars, this will be yet another wave of marketing opportunities, parties and general adoration. Why say no to that?
Even if everyone who was selected to the Pro Bowl accepted the invitation, the game would still have that sterile, unsophisticated feel given off by the dregs of NFL preseason action. We’re already down to guys like Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston seeing the field in Hawaii, so why not select a full Young Stars team (borrowing from the upcoming World Cup of Hockey format) consisting only of players no more than three years into their careers, and then have that team play the previous season’s CFL All-Star Team?
The game would be played by NFL rules, but I imagine the CFL would be scrambling for a pen to sign this deal the second it hit the table. A chance to showcase its top players—many of whom grew up playing by the American rules anyway—and sneak its brand onto primetime U.S. television in the middle of the winter? The extra month available for the CFL to prepare its team as the NFL season winds down might help close the perceived talent gap, and NFL scouts would show up to get their best look ever into exactly how big that gap actually is.
This will never happen for a dozen reasons, but I want to believe I’m not the only one who wants to see whether Ottawa REDBLACKS quarterback and reigning CFL Most Outstanding Player Henry Burris, at the age of 40, can pick apart a defense full of players just over half his age.