The New (and Improved) Pro Bowl

I admit it. I always watch the NFL Pro Bowl. Mostly because football is ending and I’ll get my fix wherever I can.

But, I was skeptical when I heard the new format for the game this year: no conferences, a player draft, and teams managed by Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders.

A Pro Bowl where guys on the same team play against each other? Why would they hit their own teammate? In the Pro Bowl? And what are they playing for anyway?

Come on, man…

It all started with a draft earlier in the week. With some reluctance, I turned on the Pro Bowl draft on Tuesday night. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But, I was pleasantly surprised. And judging by twitter, I was not alone.

Most everyone said they enjoyed the fun, laid back approach, as well as the opportunity to see some of our favorite players in a different setting.

Team Rice and Team Sanders, along with their chosen captains, drafted their teams playground style. The setting was tropical and relaxed, but with trash talking, hurt feelings, and a behind the scenes green room complete with a confessional cam.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees gave a thumbs up to the new format, saying it gave players an opportunity to play with guys they would otherwise never get the chance to.

And guess what? As it turns out, Pro Bowlers are competitive. So much so, that proving themselves is enough motivation for them. There was also a prize of $56,000 riding on it for the winners and $23,000 for the losers. A nice bonus to some. Pocket change to others.

On the field, it played out as the best Pro Bowl we’ve seen in years. Many years. Maybe as many years as I’ve been watching.

There were more quarterback sacks in the first half of the Pro Bowl than I remember in the first half of any Sunday Night Football game all season.

I pictured many a coach (Sean Payton in particular), pouring a stiff drink and looking away as the face of their franchise was hit and grounded repeatedly.

There was friendly fire…on a few different occasions. And it wasn’t exactly friendly. Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson thought nothing of taking out running back Jamaal Charles, who was recovering from a recent concussion. I’m sure coach Andy Reid had something to say about that. After he could talk.

It was a close game…won by Team Rice on a gutsy two point conversion, and then a missed last-ditch, 67-yard field goal by Justin Tucker for Team Sanders.

All in all, the new and improved Pro Bowl gets a thumbs up. From the players, from the fans, from everyone, except…maybe, some coaches.

Also, can we keep the confessional cam? I think that would be a nice addition to the regular season sideline. After all, sports is the original reality TV.

It was worth asking, anyway.


Save the Pro Bowl

The 2013 Pro Bowl in Honolulu, HI (Photo: Getty)

The 2013 Pro Bowl in Honolulu, HI
(Photo: Getty)

We have a love/hate relationship with the NFL Pro Bowl. The players love it. The fans hate it. And the NFL doesn’t know what to think. So, I’m going to tell them. We need to save the Pro Bowl. And this is why…

No, it’s not a “real” football game, but neither is a preseason game…and for that matter some “real” games played by “real” teams this year…

But unlike the preseason games, the fans (and specifically the season ticket holders) are not forced to buy tickets to the Pro Bowl. You don’t even have to watch it. No one admits to watching it. But the ratings are somehow big, which tells me more people watch than admit to it. I admit it. I watched. (And while I’m at it…I also watch The Bachelor.)

The game has been heavily criticized in recent years for its lack of football. So much so, that the NFL contemplated getting rid of the Pro Bowl after last year’s pathetic performance. This year, the players stepped it up…and it showed. While it wasn’t exactly competitive, it was entertaining. There was even blood shed, possibly for the first time in Pro Bowl history. Texans defensive tackle JJ Watt cut his finger and splattered blood all over himself. When Michelle Tafoya asked him about it on the sideline, he sent a message directly to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The players were playing. Hard.

Yes, it’s cool to hate the Pro Bowl. But how about we focus instead, on what’s cool about it…

  1. Watching players on the field, making plays with players from opposing teams, which they would never have an opportunity to make otherwise. As a Colts fan, I could have watched Andrew Luck throwing to AJ Green all day long (no offense to Reggie Wayne or TY Hilton). And no one was happier to be catching passes from Pro Bowl quarterbacks than Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. When he caught his first pass from Drew Brees, it was the first time he had a real quarterback throw to him all year…let alone a future Hall of Famer. And as Brian McIntyre reported, the touchdown pass Fitzgerald caught from Russell Wilson was his first NFL touchdown since November 4th.
  2. The memorable moments. Like Peyton Manning’s first throw…to former teammate Reggie Wayne. And possibly the most memorable Pro Bowl moment in history involved Peyton’s other former teammate, Green Bay Packer and NFC Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday. Saturday announced his retirement prior to the Pro Bowl, but stepped in on the AFC team to make one last ceremonious snap to Manning before hugging him and walking off the field with the ball. I get teary just thinking about it.
  3. Trick plays. We saw defenders come in as receivers, laterals, a backwards onside kick, and very little punting. There is a reason you don’t see many fancy plays during the regular season. And watching the Pro Bowl, you see why. But they’re fun to watch…even when they don’t work.
  4. Not everything about the Pro Bowl is about the fans. And not everything special about it takes place on the field. It’s a chance for players to engage with each other, with their families, and with each other’s families, to reflect on the season, and to rub elbows with some of the greatest players in the game. Both Pro Bowl rookie quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, remarked on the experience of socializing, practicing, game planning, and playing with some of their childhood idols. And who will ever forget the image of Peyton Manning on the sideline with his son Marshall in his lap?
Peyton Manning and his son, Marshall

Peyton & Marshall Manning

Truly special moments. Some on the field. Some off. That is what the Pro Bowl is about.

Love it or hate it…we should keep it.