Fixing The Pro Bowl: Can It Be Done?

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Fixing The Pro Bowl: Can It Be Done?

The NFL Pro Bowl never stood a chance against its glitzier cousins, the NBA and MLB All-Star Games. Maybe back in its infancy, the novelty of the event made it entertaining, but as it grew up into maturity, it became a malformed, unappealing mess to sports fans, and that's where it stands today. Can it be transformed into a winner for fans and broadcast companies? Could it be given an extreme makeover and come out on the other end a new, shining example of all-star goodness?

That's the question we wanted to answer.

The NFL gets out-shined by the NBA and MLB when it comes to all-star games. That's almost never the case with the NFL, an organization with an offseason draft that is so popular on TV they had to move part of it to prime-time. But the Pro Bowl? You get a curious case of yawns from most NFL fans. They're generally happy when players from their team make it, but they'd be just as happy if it was just the announcement, and not actually playing the game.

The NFL took a shot at revamping the Pro Bowl this season by changing the date and location. Previously, the NFL pro-bowlers schlepped their family, friends or even teammates out to Hawaii post-Super Bowl, for a week in the tropic sun and cool oceans.  It was considered a reward for participants, a place of refuge for the lucky few who made the cut. But even that wasn't enough. Year after year, players would bail on the event for real or phantom injuries, or just for personal reasons. Over the years, with increasing pace, players have decided that one more game after the Super Bowl just wasn't enough incentive to attend, even if it was Hawaii.

Now, we have a Pro Bowl in the city of the Super Bowl, played a week before the Super Bowl. Still, the no-shows continue unabated, the amount of alternative players suiting up for the game seems to have grown this year, the players who were actually voted into the process choosing time at home, or time in the training room, over a visit to Miami. It's doubtful that any location would be a bigger draw than Hawaii.

The idea of playing the game before the Super Bowl isn't a bad one, NFL fans, especially those of the teams not playing in the big game are still somewhat engaged with football. They watch the playoffs; they jump on the bandwagon of one of the remaining teams, so capturing their interest before it all goes away seems like a smart move.

When we asked some of our SB Nation NFL bloggers about revamping the game, there were plenty of suggestions about place and time.

Buffalo Rumblings suggested: I'd put it in August, to replace the lame-ass Hall of Fame Game that's played every pre-season. Who wants to watch scrubs play at the literal doorstep of the Hall of Fame?

Mile High Report offered this: If they want to play a game, have it be a rookie game.  There is already this dumb, unwritten rule that rookies have a hard time getting in the Pro Bowl (yes, there are some exceptions but you get the drift).  Have the best rookies from the AFC play the best rookies in the NFC.

Baltimore Beatdown adds: Keep it in Hawaii, as that is a better draw for those "injured" players that Miami just doesn't have the appeal for. Play it two weeks after the Super Bowl and do like MLB and make the winning team the home team in next year's Super Bowl, and give the home team some incentives at the game.

All interesting ideas that attack the problem of the Pro Bowl from different angles. But, they don't address the underlying problem.

The Pro Bowl has a fundamental flaw that is unlikely to be overcome. It's a problem the NBA and MLB don't really face when putting on their mid-season classics. Football is by nature a very violent sport. When that intensity-level is missing, the very soul of the game is missing. Because of injury concerns, the Pro Bowl is a shell of a football game that even has certain rules inserted to further erode the "real game" feel, all because of injury concerns. You can play a basketball or baseball game at 85% intensity and the final product still holds together and can create the kind of excitement we crave in our sports. The Pro Bowl simply can't match that.

So while location and timing of the game could be altered, there is nothing the NFL can do about the injury problem. And therein lays the single fundamental issue that continues to drag the game down to a mere afterthought.

What's a league to do in this case? We propose a radical transformation of the game itself, to the point where they don't even play a game.

This point was raised by Bolts From The BlueFor maybe the first time ever, I agree with Mike & Mike that the rosters should be set but no game played. Focus on making the individual drills more entertaining, ala the NBA and the Slam Dunk/Three-Point Contests, and let that be the extent of the players' work. Trying to bring together two football teams, then having them play football while doing nothing but avoiding injury, can never be improved to a watchable level.

We agree.

The NFL should borrow from its professional sports cousins and institute a Pro Bowl skills competition, and make that the centerpiece of the Pro Bowl experience. In the NBA and MLB, the skills competitions - the homerun derby and the slam dunk contest - have become as popular, or more popular, than the game itself.

The skills competitions are not without problems in themselves, so the NFL would have to take care not to fall into the same trap. The NBA slam dunk contest is losing its crown as the king of All-Star competitions. No longer are the best of the best willing to participate in the competition, and it has become such a bloated contest with all the misses and the length of the format, that it is now on its cultural downswing. Watching LeBron James or Dwayne Wade dunk is one thing; watching Gerald Wallace and Shannon Brown is another. Rule one for an NFL skills competition - make that the event that players need to participate in to collect their money. Perhaps more importantly, contract riders that reward players for Pro Bowl appearances should be written so that actual participation trips the clause, not just making the roster. If you're injured and can't play, you at least need to attend the competition to rake in the cash.

Second rule, make winning the skills competitions financially worth it for players to participate, and participate with gusto. The NFL should pony up big bucks to reward winners, making the competition fierce and leaving the winners with a feeling of pride and accomplishment. Sports fans are attuned to how players are performing and can smell a lack-luster effort a mile away. Prize money that means something would insure good competition.

The final rule and perhaps the key one: get the fans involved. Through some mechanism, a small number of fans should be chosen to actually participate with the players in the competitions. Imagine the thrill for a fan to be on the field, trying to beat Darrelle Revis in coverage while catching a pass from Kurt Warner. Or teaming up with a defensive player to cover Andre Johnson while Peyton Manning attempts to hit him with a pass. The fans could be like the moneyball in the NBA three-point contest. If the fan on one team during the skills competition makes a pass break-up, or catches a pass, or kicks a FG, that team gets double the points. Seriously, good times for all under this scenario.

You could have any number of competitions and you'd probably want to do them without pads and use two-hand touch rules. In addition to scenarios where you try to complete passes on the opposition, you could have running backs trying to avoid getting tackled, regular players competing against the real kickers in a handicapped kicking match. The skills competition menu would only be limited by the creativity of the Pro Bowl organizers.

Then, if they wanted, they could hold a two-hand touch football game between the NFL players. They could at least say they still play a game at the Pro Bowl. But most people wouldn't care, watching an intense skills competition segment would be the real gem.

But for those who still crave a regular football game, maybe one rule change could save the day. Courtesy of Hogs Haven: The NFL should lift all rules for TD celebrations at the game.

Now, if anything would make the players happy, maybe that's the answer.

For an alternative view of fixing the Pro Bowl, visit SB Nation blog Buc ‘Em, they focus on the subject, here

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