MIAMI — When the NFL announced the Pro Bowl would be moved from its traditional spot on the schedule on the Sunday after the Super Bowl in Honolulu to the site of the Super Bowl on the Sunday before the game, the premise we were told was that it was done to make the game more relevant.
With the experiment now in the books, it's time to move to Plan B.
The first indication this wasn't going to be such a great idea was when players started lining up not to come. I'm not sure if anyone actually keeps track of such things but the 32 players originally selected to the team who chose not to play (including Bryant McKinnie who got booted off the NFC squad after missing two practices) has to be a record. And, of course, a huge part of what made that dubious high-water mark possible were the six Colts and five Saints who couldn't play in the game because they have a slightly more important engagement the following Sunday.
After 30-plus years on the NFL beat, it's still not completely clear to me how strongly most NFL players feel about playing in the Pro Bowl. Clearly, it's an honor to be selected to the team but for years now some of the honorees have chosen not to play, one of the reasons Roger Goodell and company started tinkering with it. But that the league has now taken the choice away from the Super Bowl participants didn't sit well with all of them.
Asked prior to the game for his feelings on not being able to play in spite of his first Pro Bowl selection, Colts TE Dallas Clark said, "It is tough you know; it is one of those things you play so hard, you know this is a personal goal for everyone in the league, then you know they throw this little wrinkle in. It is just one of those things that I think in this profession you get used to different things and you don't really expect anything."
Clark added, "You are kind of getting not rewarded for being elected, but it is just one of those things, you just kind of take it for what it's worth."
Further irritating the issue of the Super Bowl participants elected to the Pro Bowl not being able to play was the league's stance the players did all have to be in attendance. Colts G.M. Bill Polian was particularly annoyed and outspoken early in the week leading up to the game after being informed his Pro Bowlers would be forced to travel to Miami separately from their teammates a day early, calling it disruptive and ridiculous. While the Super Bowl players were cheered in pregame introductions, their presence really added nothing to the poorly played game.
League officials announced prior to the game that it was a sellout and the crowd of 70,697 was said to be the second largest in the history of the Pro Bowl. But was it really? No-shows were not announced, and at kickoff thousands of empty seats dotted Sun Life Stadium.
By the middle of the third quarter, the stadium appeared to be half-empty, in part I'm sure because of the light rain that fell on and off all night and in part due to it being one of the most boring games I've ever seen. Some will argue the 987 yards of total offense in the game — 517 for the AFC and 470 for the NFC — made it exciting. I would counter that it was a result of the fact that most of the Pro Bowlers couldn't seem to decide whether they were playing flag football or touch, because blocking and tackling were for the most part nonexistent.
And there is also the reality that for many Pro Bowlers, perhaps most of them, the greatest reward of being selected to the Pro Bowl is the all-expenses-paid vacation for family and friends to Hawaii after a long and difficult season. This is no knock on South Florida, which I happen to love. It's just a fact that there is something far more exotic and exciting about a Hawaiian vacation in February, possibly because it is far less accessible and attainable than Florida.
The folks making these decisions just might agree with me on that one since they've already committed to going back to Hawaii in 2011 and '12, rather than risking finding out how many players would attend Pro Bowls in Dallas and Indianapolis. Or perhaps they're just concerned with the number of players who agreed with first-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith, the Giants' star wide receiver. He responded to how he felt about the Pro Bowl being in Miami with, "It's beautiful, it's paradise. Too bad it's not in Hawaii but we're having a great time."
What the NFL has not announced yet is whether the next two Pro Bowls in Hawaii will be played the Sunday before the Super Bowl or the Sunday after the big game.
I think we all know the answer to that one, don't we? The league can't possibly want to guarantee that none of the NFL media shows up to publicize its all-star game by asking us to travel to Hawaii and then back to Dallas and Indianapolis; or even worse that none of its all-stars show up at the Super Bowl by sending them to Hawaii and expecting them to come right back for the big game. And the league clearly couldn't have the Pro Bowlers who are playing in the Super Bowl travel to Hawaii the Sunday before the game and then right back to get ready for the big one, could they?
The bottom line here is quite simple. NFL football doesn't really lend itself to an all-star game the week before the Super Bowl or the week after, or for that matter at any time of the year … regardless of the location. The risk of injury is too real and the lack of preparation to play the ultimate team game is too damning. Pro Bowls will continue to be meaningless and boring regardless of when or where they are played, and the real answer is to get rid of the game altogether — unless there is a format change that could eliminate some of the problems.
Fear not, fans, as I have the antidote. Are any of you old enough to remember the annual College All-Star game, a preseason game played between the best players coming out of college and the defending NFL champs? I think a spin on that relic can solve the problem, and allow the game to be played at the site of the Super Bowl the Sunday before with players who might actually show up and play hard.
Instead of picking AFC and NFC all-star squads I'd pick one All-Pro team, AFC and NFC combined, 26 starters and 24 backups — 50 players total from the 30 squads not playing in the Super Bowl — and have them play the top 50 players entering the coming April's NFL draft. The rookies-to-be certainly would have a strong incentive to do their best to improve their draft status. And the 50 All-Pros would be a lot less likely to embarrass themselves playing the new kids on the block than they do going half-speed against each other.
I think it would be a game people would be most anxious to see at the site of the Super Bowl on the Sunday before. And that would be a Pro Bowl that works.
What do you think? Would that Pro Bowl have legs?