The Pro Bowl is just days away, and for the first time since I was a starry-eyed kid, I am actually into it.
Let’s face it: while the NFL stands alone among the major American professional sports organizations in matters of marketing, branding, and quality control, it lags far behind the others when it comes to packaging and selling its annual all-star game.
Major League Baseball’s All-Star game is rich with history and tradition. It has the fan-friendly Home Run Derby. These days the game even has meaning, as the winning side secures home field advantage for their league’s representative in the World Series.
The NBA has the dunk contest and the three-point shootout, each of which has produced high drama and quality entertainment over the years. Who can forget when the 5’7″ Spud Webb— a guy who would be short if he were seen in a super market and is practically an ankle-biter on an NBA court—won the slam dunk contest, or Larry Bird’s back to back to back wins in the three point shootout? The game itself is usually about half-speed these days. There is no defense. But everybody loves a roundhouse rim-rocker. So, it’s all good.
Even the NHL manages to have an entertaining all-star game. I would tell you more about it, but I have never watched it. I hear Canucks and people in Detroit tune in, though. Of course, the quality of professional football in Canada and Detroit might have something to do with that
Then there is the NFL Pro Bowl, the game every player wants to be named to, but hardly anybody wants to play in.
“It’s my party, and I will ditch it if I want to.”
What do Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Phillip Rivers, Tom Brady, Steven Jackson, Wes Welker, Larry Fitzgerald, Jake Long, Andre Gurode, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Brian Cushing, Jairus Byrd, Lance Briggs, Jonathon Vilma, Charles Woodson, Darren Sharper, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, Jonathan Stinchcomb, Jahri Evans, and Jonathan Goodwin have in common?
They were each named to their conference’s Pro Bowl team, but will not be playing.
Some players will not be there because of injury or impending surgery. Others will miss because of the always-difficult-to-diagnose-and-impossible-to-cure phantom injury. The guys with the best excuse, though, will not be there because, a week later, they are participating in the only game left that really matters: the Super Bowl.
It’s a Brave New World.
The NFL has taken a bold step this year. For the first time since 1980 (that’s 30 years—or, if you are a dog or a Brown’s fan, 210 years), the Pro Bowl will not be played in Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii. It will also not be played the week following the Super Bowl.
The league that introduced the slow-motion replay, the booth review, and the Icky Shuffle has done it again. They have jumped out of the box and kicked it into the Pacific. They have decided to stop flogging their dead horse and get the defibrillator.
Welcome to the pre-Super Bowl Pro Bowl., an idea whose time has come.
The Nay-Sayers are nay-saying.
Many are frustrated with the change and insist it will never fly. Players do not like it because it means no trip to Hawaii, which was the only real positive for every participant who is not named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Fans in Indianapolis and New Orleans do not like it because it means their favorite players will not be participating.
Traditionalists don’t like it because, well, it is breaking tradition. Bleeding hearts dislike it because they feel sorry for Hawaii, the only state stuck way out in the Pacific Ocean with no team within a day’s drive to go see on a random Sunday in the Fall.
Here is what I have to say about that…
To the players: Poor, pitiful you. All you youthful millionaires don’t get to go away on a holiday to the islands, with the expenses paid by us little guys buying $100 team jerseys with your names on them and $300 tickets to freeze our butts off in the dead of winter, watching you play the game we love for a living. Here is an idea: don’t get the 3-D big screen Sony in your next Escalade and take your family on a nice vacation to Hawaii instead.
To the fans in Indianapolis and New Orleans: I will trade places with you. My team gets to play in the Super Bowl and your guys are free to frolic on the field this Sunday. Deal?
To the traditionalists: The Pro Bowl in Hawaii is only a tradition if you were born after 1980, in which case you are much too young to be an authority on traditions or to be tied to them in the first place.
To the bleeding hearts: How does someone who lives in New Jersey or Wisconsin manage to feel sorry for people living in Hawaii? So they don’t get to go to a nearby stadium and watch their favorite NFL team play ball. Guess they will have to somehow manage with their dazzling sunsets, endless beaches, and girls in grass skirts.
Three reasons to embrace this change.
I like the new format, and here’s why:
- The game won’t be an after-thought that no one has the energy to think about in the first place. Once the Super Bowl is done, every fan of the NFL has that hollow, empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. He knows he will have to try to fill it with basketball, baseball, and, worse, quality time with his family. Most of us will have watched the ultimate championship celebration take place without our team participating once again. We will watch another team’s fans go crazy and burn their city to the ground, while we sit home, all safe and warm and worn out from hope slowly dying. The last thing we want is some consolation prize of a meaningless game featuring a couple of players from our team that we are not happy with at the moment anyhow.
- The game won’t feel so elitist. Sure, Hawaii is great for the players. But the plumber who had to settle for a 36″ flat screen to watch his favorite team on because his daughter needed braces and the doctors cannot seem to cure his son’s acne issue experiences a major disconnect watching guys who run around and play grab-ass for a living stroll about a tropical island.
- The Pro Bowl will become part of the Super Bowl hoopla. If your team is not playing in the big game, those two weeks of endless interviews, media days, and secret practices in undisclosed places are pretty much a whipping. Now, the Pro Bowl will come just in time to break up the party. Fans of all 32 teams will have someone to cheer for and a reason to feel proud, if only because they are watching the game their favorite player ditched.
Do not forget about the game itself.
The 2010 Pro Bowl will feature intriguing match ups. Nowhere will that be more evident than when the NFC wide receivers try to shed the AFC’s starting cornerbacks. With the Jets’ Darrelle Revis and the Raiders’ Nnamdi Asomugha pestering and shadowing DeSean Jackson, Miles Austin, and Sidney Rice, the NFC may find it difficult to get any sort of big play in the passing game. Throw in Ed Reed at free safety and Brian Dawkins at strong safety, and the NFC’s offensive coordinator Jason Garrett may want to consider calling Barry Switzer to get some quick pointers on the wishbone.
Conversely, you have to like the NFC stable of quarterbacks over what the AFC is running out there. Matt Schaub will start for the AFC and will be backed up (and at some point, replaced) by Vince Young and David Garrard. Meanwhile, the NFC is running Aaron Rodgers onto the field first, and then Donovan McNabb, and eventually Tony Romo. The NFC quarterbacks should be able to carry the day, providing they have any open receivers.
The running back dual will be the other place of greatest intrigue. The AFC’s Chris Johnson—the guy who makes greased lightening look like a lumbering lineman—was the first back in the NFL to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season since Terrell Davis in 1998. Let a linebacker take a play off to see if he can tell whether his wife and girlfriend are sitting too close together in the stands, and we may be watching a new Pro Bowl record for longest run from scrimmage.
The NFC quarterbacks will be sticking the ball into the gut of the man who was the greatest running back in the league until Johnson came along, the one they call All-Day. Adrian Peterson may be running angry, which will be nothing new, but would be an anomaly for a Pro Bowl. He will still be sore about losing to the Saints. He will still be a little embarrassed about putting the ball on the ground three times in the NFC championship game. And he will be in no mood to be outshone by some kid from Tennessee.
And the Most Valuable Player is…
With the substandard quarterback situation on the AFC side and the NFC having trouble finding open receivers against those shut-down AFC corners, look for the MVP to emerge from the unlikeliest of places: the kicking game. In a year when kickers were misfiring on key kicks like Scud missles in the Middle East, the Pro Bowl hero will arise from the AFC bench, tighten his shoelaces and drill the game-winning field goal.
Yes, my friend, Nate Kaeding, the San Diego goat, will be the hero in Miami. And Chargers’ fans will be madder than ever at him.
Look for gnashing of teeth in San Diego, high drama in Miami, and the birth of a new tradition in the 2010 edition of the NFC-AFC Pro Bowl.