I know I am wasting my time with this story—the NFL is never going to change the Pro Bowl, especially after how many people tuned in last season. In 2011, the Pro Bowl on Fox had 13.4 million viewers.
The prime-time, network-televised All-Star game had more viewers than any Pro Bowl since 1997 and the highest rating for the game since 2000.
The NFL isn't in the habit of changing what works. If we go strictly by the television numbers, the Pro Bowl works.
But if you watch the game, it's hardly recognizable NFL-quality football. Yes, many of the top players still show up—though there have been some years where it feels like half the selected players find a way to miss the game for one reason or another—and the atmosphere in the stadium is far more lighthearted and jovial than for a real game, but it always feels like nothing more than football for football's sake.
With the propensity for injuries in any game, players are understandably more careful in the Pro Bowl. Long ago, the league legislated blitzing or any actual defensive scheming out of the exhibition. If the league could get away with adding flags or rough-touch rules instead of tackling, I think they would certainly give it a go. Surely the players' association would be okay with less hitting.
So, in an effort to throw cold water on a televised game that will crush anything else in the ratings, knowing full well the NFL will never listen to this advice anyway, allow me to suggest the NFL blow up the Pro Bowl and give fans something we really want to watch.
The NFL should host a live skills competition the week before the Super Bowl.
Look, I have no empirical data to back up the belief most NFL fans only watch the Pro Bowl because it's football, not because it's actually entertaining football. I contend if one of the networks put up a test pattern with a close-up shot of the dimples on an actual football with an NFL logo, that would get better ratings than most prime-time shows. (You're welcome for the idea, NBC!)
Clearly the NFL thought something was wrong with the Pro Bowl when it changed its schedule to have the game played the week before the Super Bowl instead of the week after.
The idea to end the season with the Super Bowl is a smart one. So was putting the Pro Bowl in the same location as the Super Bowl—a belief the Hawaii tourism board and I clearly do not share, which is why that was a one-year experiment—but despite the ratings on TV, the league should go the extra step for its fans.
The league has the chance to protect the players while giving fans an even more entertaining showcase that highlights their best players.
The NFL must host a live skills competition the week before the Super Bowl. This has to happen.
Remember the old skill competitions when the top five or six quarterbacks would get together in the offseason and see who was the most accurate or had the best arm? Why isn't that an annual prime-time event the week before the Super Bowl?
Why can't we find out, year after year, who the NFL's fastest man is? These are things football fans would love to watch, and it has to be more entertaining than watching top players go through the motions at the Pro Bowl.
If you've read this before, it's probably because I've been begging for this to happen for the last five years. I'm not alone. Lots of people want to see this happen, NFL.
I don't understand why the league can't figure out a way to capture the intrigue they've established with the NFL Combine and use that in a format to showcase their All-Star talent.
The NFL should still give a free trip to Hawaii to the elected Pro Bowl players and their families. But the week before the Super Bowl, those players and anyone else who qualifies at team-organized tests during training camp should show up at the site of the Super Bowl for a giant test of skills.
They shouldn't have too many events, either. Keeping in mind this would be a made-for-TV show with a stadium full of fans, we would have to have the events fit neatly inside a two-hour window.
Having said that, it could be run a lot like a track and field competition (or the NFL Combine), where things are going on at the same time and TV is able to pick and choose what events to highlight, while interspersing a cavalcade of guest-star, player and celebrity interviews.
I'd like to see the following events.
• Longest throw, to see who has the best arm in the league.
• Accuracy contest, with the old moving targets and chalked-covered balls.
• Obstacle course that rewards mobility and throwing on the run. This could include several different kinds of passes within the event, including option pitch, shovel pass, short swing passes and screens, and a long bomb.
• NFL's fastest man. A 40-yard dash between the league's fastest players? How is this not it's own annual special on network TV? Everyone would watch this. Everyone DID watch this when it was on.
• Obstacle course that rewards agility and fleetness of foot, like they used to have where the players would slalom around tackling dummies then do that silly rope thing with their feet that looks like a combination of hopscotch and double-dutch. If this obstacle course included real football maneuvers, like at the NFL Combine, this would be amazing.
• A Great Hands contest, like at the combine, where players have to catch a certain number of balls from all angles. For this contest, the balls should get harder to catch in each round until a winner is crowned. Or the receivers could have a catching HORSE game, where each player has to try to make the craziest catch the others have to then try to make. I would try off the helmet, one-handed, behind the back. Top that, Calvin Johnson.
• Bench Press. Another event they used to have in the old skills shows was the bench press. Sure, it's boring TV, but everyone wants to know who the strongest man in the NFL is.
• NFL Strong Man. Forget about the bench press, let's see who can pull a car the farthest or push a blocking sled with the most weight. These are things we want to see on TV more than guys playing in a game where they just don’t want anyone getting hurt.
• Offense vs. Defense "Battle of the Trenches." You could do this one of two ways. First, you could have a defensive lineman go up against an offensive lineman to sack the "quarterback." The conference with the quickest times on defense (conversely the longest on offense) wins.
Second, get all the linemen to have a giant tug of war. Again, who wouldn't want to watch this?
The Prototype Player
This would take some work to figure out, but it's too good an idea to ignore. Who is, pound-for-pound, the most complete player in the NFL?
We could combine all the aforementioned events into a decathlon-style competition to determine the winner, or we could come up with totally unique events just for this contest (or we could give the trophy to Cam Newton and save everyone some time).
Wouldn't it be interesting to see who the prototypical NFL player is on offense and defense?
These are all things most of us would rather see year after year than an exhibition game that doesn't mean a thing. If the NFL didn't want to rock the boat and completely get rid of the Pro Bowl, they could do what every other major sport has done and put their skills competition on TV the night before the Pro Bowl.
Eventually, when those ratings start to overtake the actual game, then we can just eliminate the game altogether. I bet it would take less than five years.
Did I say bet? I didn't even get into how much Vegas would love this idea!
As I said at the beginning, I don't expect anything to change unless we can persuade everyone to skip watching the Pro Bowl this year. Is that even possible? It's football. It's national TV. I'm sure another viewing record is about to be broken on Sunday.