WASHINGTON — Truthfully, the NFL’s all-star game — known as the Pro Bowl — should probably just be scrapped completely. It’s notorious for the fact that players love being selected for the game, but hate actually playing in it. Why risk an injury that could end your entire career to play in a meaningless exhibition game?
The last few Pro Bowls have been awful. Between the watered-down rules and the half-hearted effort from many of the players, it wouldn’t be fair to even call it flag football. It’s just an embarrassment. And for a $10 billion industry like the NFL, embarrassments are bad for business.
So the league set out to fix the problem, and today announced some radical changes for the Pro Bowl. The game will no longer feature AFC versus NFC, and it won’t feature any kickoffs, either. Instead, the NFL and the NFL Players Association have agreed to select Pro Bowl players with no regard to conference; and the two teams will be determined through a fantasy-style “Pro Bowl Draft.” Crazy, isn’t it? Under this new format, teammates could end up on different Pro Bowl teams. I can’t wait to see how seriously Clay Matthews tackles Aaron Rodgers when given the chance!
It remains to be seen whether this new format is here to stay or whether the NFL is just experimenting. What is clear is that the Pro Bowl is on its last leg. But if we absolutely must have an NFL all-star game, here’s three ways to improve it.
Hold the game after the Super Bowl
This seems like a no-brainer. Currently, the game is played the week prior to the Super Bowl. Naturally, the two teams participating in the Super Bowl exclude their players from competing in a pointless game just a week before the biggest game of their lives. By definition, Super Bowl teams are quality squads, so they are generally loaded with quite a few all-stars. Having the Pro Bowl before Super Bowl Sunday automatically eliminates key all-stars that fans want to see. The NFL use to hold the Pro Bowl the week after the Super Bowl, and if the all-star game stands as its own event, the league should return to that spot on the calendar.
Stage a Pro Bowl-Super Bowl Doubleheader
A staple of the regular season is the Sunday afternoon “doubleheader,” meaning a regional game played early in the day followed by a national game played in the late afternoon. The NFL has gone to great lengths over the past few years to start late afternoon games even later — to ensure more fans see the marquee match-ups. Fans eat it up!
Why not a doubleheader on Super Bowl Sunday? The NFL could stage the Pro Bowl as the “early” game, and then follow it up with the Super Bowl as the “late game.” The league could use the same venue, and create this mega atmosphere of celebrating its all-stars and its two best teams. It would be a super-sized Super Bowl Sunday; the entertainment could be sandwiched between both games, thus maintaining a normal halftime period for both. The only drawback is that the Super Bowl clubs would still exclude their players from the Pro Bowl. But on the plus side, those players would still technically get to attend the all-star game.
Cut Back Preseason to Encourage Pro Bowl Participation
The players hate the preseason. Quite simply, it’s four meaningless games that serve no greater purpose than injuring players. The NFL loves the preseason because the games generate more revenue from fans and the TV contracts. The NFL and Players Association could strike a deal that benefits both sides. The NFL could agree to cut preseason in half, down to just two games. In return, the NFLPA could agree to have its members sacrifice their bodies in one meaningless Pro Bowl, given that they’d have two fewer meaningless preseason games to worry about. Under this deal, the players would be cutting their overall meaningless games by two. It’s a trade-off that favors the players. And the fans would get to see a real Pro Bowl game, where defenses are allowed to blitz and kickoffs are actually included.
As with the other two options, this one is not perfect, either. For starters, most all-stars rarely play in the preseason. The preseason is mostly filled with rookies looking to earn a spot on a team. From this perspective, there is not much incentive for veteran players to strike such a deal involving the Pro Bowl since they aren’t playing in the exhibition season anyway. Since the guys playing in the preseason are so radically different from the guys playing in the Pro Bowl, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Nonetheless, any of these options are better than what the NFL floated today. Though I must admit, even after writing this column, I think I’m more convinced the Pro Bowl should just be canned.