I remember the first time I tuned in for an NFL Pro Bowl. It was after the 1982 Super Bowl, and a young CD was entranced by the Packers’ high-flying offense that season. John Jefferson, Paul Coffman, and James Lofton made the Pro Bowl that year (along with Larry McCarren), and for the first time in my Packer fanhood, I really thought we were going to see some Green and Gold fireworks.
After all, in those days, the Packers were an afterthought on a national level. We were little more than a AAA farm club for the big teams sporting the “real” NFL players: Joe Theissman, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Dan Fouts, Dony Dorsett, etc. Even though we couldn’t come close to a playoff spot, this was the chance for the Packers to make their presence felt.
It was exciting to see the familiar mustard-yellow helmets bobbing back and forth on the field amidst all the familiar grey, blue, and crimson helmets the dominated the game for years. But, the dreams of heroic plays by Packers on a national stage never really came to fruition. In the end, it was a low-scoring affair, 16-13 won in final seconds by the NFC with the usual suspects getting the headlines.
I don’t know if I’ve ever sat through an entire Pro Bowl since. It’s just not something that excites me, and I think I’m not the only one who feels that way. The Pro Bowl has, of course, degraded even further from those days, becoming something even the players avoid if the can, and play with 25% effort if they participate.
In fact, with so much on the line for players’ health and contract negotiations, one could even make the point that it is counterintuitive to even have a Pro Bowl. Just look at the case of Javon Walker and the tumult that arose after he went to his first Pro Bowl in 2004 and had his head inflated by players who were shilling for Drew Rosenhaus.
But the very idea that people even want to watch a Pro Bowl is where the trouble lies. Most don’t. It’s an exhibition of individual talent in a team game, and it just doesn’t translate like the NBA or Major League Baseball. The All-Star Game in baseball has always been an attraction, simply because of the kind of game it is. While it is a team sport, players are easily interchangeable and each pitch is a one-on-one matchup of pitcher vs. batter. The NBA All-Star game, of course, is a little more dependent on the team, but we all know the NBA has no problem becoming an individual’s game (thank you, Michael Jordan).
So, the excitement of seeing your starting guard playing in his first Pro Bowl is, in the end, rather anticlimactic. Positions are so specialized that there’s little time to showcase individual talents unless you’re the quarterback.
So we end up with a game that few people really want to watch, and few players even want to play. Fans use the voting process as yet another “Click for Can” popularity contest, which has resulted in the somewhat embarrassing appointment of Packers center Jeff Saturday to the Pro Bowl roster…despite the fact he’s had an average season (at best) and was just benched for the rest of the season.
Hey…I love having Packers make the Pro Bowl as much as anyone. But I can tell you how ticked I’d be if someone else’s reserve player made it ahead of a deserving guy on my team. This is what makes the whole process, from the selection to the game itself, a sham.
So, why do we have it? For the same reason we still suffer through the nightly Tebow report on ESPN: marketing and money. The NFL apparently still makes some dough on it, and they’re going to ride this game into the ground.
So, what do we do? If I’m making the big decision, I eliminate the game. Done. Goodbye.
But, we still select great players and send them to Hawaii. But instead of forcing them to play in a game they don’t want to play in, we set up some of the old “Battle of the Network Stars” games. ESPN has done things like this on occasion, inviting stars to Florida to run them through some competition drills in April or so. Why not do something official and NFL-sanctioned where the wide receivers have to complete an obstancle course, or quarterbacks do some accuracy drills, or defenders run some interception drills. Make them big, colorful, and wild. Charge admission for the luxury boxes and the TV rights, and everyone makes some money. We get to watch an entertaining NFC vs AFC matchup that could go for several hours or over several days. Heck, it could be the sports world’s answer to “Survivor”. Or, at least “Wipeout”.
Heck, just as many people tune in for the Home Run Derby and the Slam Dunk Contest as the actual All-Star Games. And this way, every player could get a moment in the spotlight.
The time has come to euthanize something that has become an afterthought in the All-Star pantheon, something you wish would be good, but just isn’t. Kind of like Packers in the 1982 Pro Bowl.