By the only standard the NFL uses to measure whether things are successful, television ratings, the 2011 Pro Bowl was one for the ages. Pulling an 8.6 rating, the equivalent 13.4 million pairs of eyeballs, means the NFL’s Pro Bowl game has never been more successful, thrilling entertainment.
. . . except, of course, that the game was a disaster. The NFC took a 42-0 lead in the second quarter, and two teams already mailing it in mailed it even further. You couldn’t get far on Twitter last night—or into the sports blogosphere this morning—without encountering gripes and groans over the appalling lack of intensity. The NFL’s website actually declared the Pro Bowl’s reputation “in tatters,” thanks to syndicated AP content.
Though folks at the NFL’s office are likely high-fiving over the, as PFT put it, boffo numbers, the game as it stands is a farce. It’s become football kabuki theatre, an elaborate-but-false reproduction. The demand for NFL football is insatiable anyway; the week between the incredible championship games and the Super Bowl that demand rises exponentially. If we didn’t know before, we know now: in the middle of thirteen days of Super Bowl hype, putting NFL stars on the gridiron on TV will draw huge numbers, no how execrable the “football” being played.
So, how do we fix this?
Given that the question “How Do We Fix The All-Star Game?” gets asked ad nauseum by the media for every major professional team sport, it’s not just the Pro Bowl. Athletes are paid incredible sums these days; even the bonuses paid for the Pro Bowl doesn’t provide much incentive to play hard. Further, those salaries mean each player’s team has an investment to protect. The last thing any of these guys wants to do is get injured . . . unfortunately, of the major professional team sports, football is most reliant on physical play. Baseball All-Star squads can play at nine tenths, and not really risk any injury. Basketball and hockey players can go fast but not play defense, and the result is at least superficially similar to the real sport. But football without blocking or tackling? It isn’t football. You can’t have NFL players playing half-speed football. It doesn’t work.
This brings us to The Ghost of Robert Edwards. Edwards, for you younger folks out there, was the Patriots’ first-round pick in 1998. After rushing for 1,115 yards and 9 touchdowns, Edwards participated in one of the NFL’s better spice-up-the-Pro-Bowl ideas, the year’s best rookies playing 4-on-4 beach football. I can’t find the YouTube clip, but Edwards landed awkwardly after jumping for a pass—and tore his ACL, MCL, PCL, strained his LCL, severed a major nerve, and popped an artery. The leg was nearly amputated, and the doctors told him he’d likely walk with a cane for the rest of his life.
Edwards, incredibly, made it back on to the NFL field four years later, if only for one season (both of his non-rookie touchdowns were scored, you guessed it, against the Lions in Week 1). However, one season of part-time duty was the totality of his post-injury NFL career. The specter of a standout rookie starter suffering a career-ending injury haunts the “Fix the Pro Bowl” process.
So, not-quite-football is out. If the football players are going to play football, it will have to be on a real field with real protective equipment and real referees and real rules.
There will have to be something at stake. I really, really, really hated the MLB’s modification to their All-Star game. However, they successfully “made it count,” and that can’t be ignored. Something about this game has to mean something—and unless you crank up the individual “victory bonus” from the low-to-meh five figures up to like a million, it can’t just be money.
I have seen it suggested elsewhere that the Pro Bowl simply become a vacation, media event, photo op and promo opportunity for everyone involved. That makes some amount of sense, except that everyone would go to Hawaii for a weekend of meaningless interviews and hype, then all the same NFL people and all the same media people would immediately fly to wherever the Super Bowl is and do it all over again. So, not playing at all only makes sense if you eliminate Super Bowl Hype Week.
If you eliminate the Pro Bowl football game completely, the Super Bowl’s Radio Row, ridiculous promotions, crazy story pitches, etc., could all be relocated to Hawaii--and the Super Bowl would be less of a carnival and more of a game. This sounds like a win-win; you get the same crazy week of interviews and hype, no preposterous Kabuki game, and the Super Bowl itself would taste great, and be less filling. Except . . .
. . . well, except the NFL would be eliminating the ticket sales and ad revenue from the Pro Bowl, and simultaneously diminishing the Super Bowl. I don’t think they’d be too keen. So, there has to be a Pro Bowl game, or at least something to televise.
One more qualification: THE PRO BOWL VOTING CANNOT START HALFWAY THROUGH THE SEASON AND END BEFORE THE SEASON IS OVER. THAT IS COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS. So, going forward, there are two options:
Option 1: Make It More Real. Rework the voting system to take into account the entire season. Add a media vote and reduce the weighting (or remove) of the player and fan votes. Put it two weeks after the Super Bowl, so all the best players can go. As for something to motivate the players? In order to work, it should benefit them directly, and should relate to the game. Ideally, it would materially impact the season, if just a little. I’m thinking something to do with strength of schedule. Here’s an idea: flip home-field advantage for one interconference game a year (for every team). If the NFC wins, the next year each NFC team gets nine home games and each AFC team gets seven. You can split the gate for that game 50/50 so there's no financial inequity for the owners, but it’d be a decent incentive.
Option 2: Make It All Fake. No NFL players play any football. Make the Pro Bowl, instead a sort of non-football Olympics! I want a bowling tournament (the “Pro Bowl!”), a swim meet, a golf outing, darts, billiards, bocce, dice, whatever. Break teach conference into sub-groups of four or five and have them compete in a variety of non-football disciplines—all of which would make for good TV. Tally up the points from each event, declare a winner. It’d be fun, and the players—naturally competitive—would likely get into it. I know that for a while, the Lions had locker room championship “belts” for little games like that. . . . but if you have to have football, I have an idea: let each player nominate a fan to play in their stead. Teams could hold contests, charity auctions, even mock combines! Send them and a loved one to Hawaii for a week, let ‘em play in a game with their favorite player’s jersey on, have the players on the sidelines as coaches/moral support . . . it could be interesting.
For what it’s worth, I support option #1. Moving the Pro Bowl the week before the Super Bowl has pulled in eyeballs, but it’s pulled in eyeballs to an awful mock product that ruins the NFL brand. How can you market these players as superhuman conduits of awesomeness when they’re out on the field in uniform, plainly mailing it in? No, the league would be much better off to make this game a little less-watched, but a lot more enjoyed. Improve the voting process, so the honor means more. Include all the teams, so you know it’s the best of the best. Make the game mean something—just a little something—more than collecting a bonus check to these players, and maybe . . . just maybe . . . the Pro Bowl will become a delicious Hawaiian dessert to the postseason—rather than giving us a rotten taste in our mouth right before the Super Bowl.