Once again, the NFL Pro Bowl has come, and gone, with little fanfare or applause.
The game, as always, was a high-scoring affair and ended with a 59-41 win for the AFC, but, as usual, left fans apathetic and, ultimately, disappointed.
The reason? The Pro Bowl, like most All-Star games, sounds like a great idea, until the players actually take the field.
The idea of watching the best players in the game sounds like a recipe for the spectacular.
Yet in reality, players who never usually play together running plays out of some other team's playbooks, playing in a game which has no real meaning and lining up opposite defenses who are effectively handcuffed results in a game which is predictably uninteresting.
Every sport's All-Star games suffer from many of these problems, but, with the exception of the NFL, most have still found a way to make their All-Star weekends something of interest.
I refuse to believe that the Pro Bowl is past saving, so join me as we take a look at five ways the NFL can fix its Pro Bowl formula.
Some of the suggestions stand alone; others can, and should be combined, but implementing even one of these things would go a long way to improve the fans' Pro Bowl experience.
This is a controversial one, with no easy answer.
Traditionally, the Pro Bowl took place after the Super Bowl, the season's final hoorah and final send-off for the best players in the league.
But, faced with declining viewer numbers and increased apathy, the NFL, in its infinite wisdom, decided to move the Pro Bowl to the "bye" week before the Super Bowl. Their argument was simple.
Fan interest raises throughout the final weeks of the season and the playoffs, wanes during that bye week, peaks for the Super Bowl and then dies off entirely. By moving the Pro Bowl to the week before the Championship game, momentum is kept right through to the Super Bowl, and the Pro Bowl gets a boost too.
It makes sense, but simply hasn't worked.
In 2010, the first season this was tried, the Pro Bowl was very nearly blacked out in Hawaii, unable, it would seem, to even sell out a 50,000-seater stadium. And while all tickets were eventually sold, it nonetheless looked nothing like the "sellout crowds" we are used to.
The reason it didn't work seems pretty straightforward to even the casual observer. An All-Star game missing the stars of the two best teams is no All-Star game at all.
This year, 10 players from the Super Bowl-bound New York Giants and New England Patriots were prevented from traveling to Honolulu, including QBs for both teams, Eli Manning and Tom Brady, Wes Welker—one of the best WRs in the game—and Rob Gronkowski, who set multiple league records for a tight end this season.
If ten of the best players in the game, including numerous "marquee" players, are kept out of the game, is it any wonder that people have a hard time getting excited about the game?
Yes, viewer figures were still falling before the move and the Pro Bowl's issues run deeper, but moving the timing of the game is the answer.
Although moving the game back to post-Super Bowl isn't the answer in and of itself, it at least removes one of the major objections to the Pro Bowl, its lack of elite talent.
We all refer to the "Pro Bowl Weekend;" we always have, probably always will, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself why?
I mean, aside from some NFL Network reporters interviewing players by the side of their hotel pools, and competitions and gameday events for fans, what else really happens during the weekend? The Pro Bowl is just a single game, with limited fan interest.
Other sports' All-Star games have addressed this by adding a full table of activities and events throughout the All-Star weekend, and the NFL should follow suit.
Preseason workouts are often hotly attended events, and I'm sure numerous fans would love to watch these top players working out, running open "Skills Drills." Fans would, I'm sure, love to watch a QB, RB or WR at the top of his game, showcasing why he gets paid the big bucks.
The NFL Combine is exactly that, for rookies, and is widely covered and watched, so why would people not be interested in watching 40 of the best showing the world just what they can do.
However, it doesn't have to stop with that; there are literally hundreds of fun events which could also be worked into the schedule. The NFL is clearly aware of the need to do something to make the Pro Bowl more fun, they are just going about it in completely the wrong way.
Allowing players to tweet from the sideline is clearly an acknowledgement that fans want, and deserve, more out of the Pro Bowl experience.
Who wouldn't tune in to watch two elite QBs outgunning each other in a Clay Pigeon "Shooting" event, or defensive linemen taking part in a Punt, Pass and Kick contest?
Who wouldn't be thrilled to watch professionals, veterans and celebrities taking part together in a 5-on-5 pickup tournament, to decide who will be captain for the coin toss in the Pro Bowl proper? Even the fantasy draft for such an event would, I'm sure, be a great spectacle worthy of watching.
To add to that, fan charity auctions for one-on-one interactions with your favorite stars, like the chance to train with Tom Brady, take photography lessons with Larry Fitzgerald or pace the sidelines with your favorite coach would quickly allow the Pro Bowl to become the must-attend event of the NFL season.
Right now, the NFL doesn't give experienced players very much incentive to actually play in the game.
The payout is $50,000 for the winners and $25,000 for the losers; while you and I would probably get all doe-eyed about a trip to Hawaii and a $25K+ paycheck for one day's work, the sad fact of the matter is, this is chump change for many of these players.
The reality is, that sort of money doesn't motivate players who have contracts guaranteeing them tens of millions of dollars per season.
Now, don't get me wrong, there are many, many players in the NFL—the majority in fact—for whom a $50,000 payday is a real, significant deal. The problem is, those players are not the ones getting a place in the Pro Bowl, and they are not the players who the fans want to see.
The current system, in fact, encourages the top-tier players to pull out of the game. For an NFL player, the honor is in being named for the Pro Bowl, not playing in it. Take Troy Polamalu, who was named as a starter for the 2012 game, only to pull out, reportedly to make way for teammate Ryan Clark.
While Clark certainly earned his spot as an alternate, few fans would disagree, that given the choice, they would prefer to watch Polamalu.
If the Pro Bowl is to be taken seriously, the NFL needs to find a way to give the best players, those who draw the crowds, a reason to actually take part.
It needs to start with a change in how Pro Bowler's are classified—namely, ensuring that you only carry the title if you actually suit up for the game.
First team, second and alternates should not be named as early. Instead, the various ballots should serve to form a list of "eligible" players. Players would have until Super Bowl week to declare themselves ineligible (due to legitimate injury, etc).
During Super Bowl week, the NFC and AFC captains and coaches should then hold a draft from amongst all eligible players. Once drafted, a player is considered a Pro Bowler, and would be fined for backing out.
This means players legitimately injured would be able to decline playing in the game, but no one would have the ability to call themselves a Pro Bowler and then back out.
The next change should be what to offer the players. I have heard suggestions like paying the winning team more, not paying the losers at all or paying everyone the same, win or lose. But as we've already established, the money offered to play in the Pro Bowl is insignificant to many of the NFL's top stars.
Short of offering huge bonuses to the players competing—something a league, who spent all summer arguing, didn't have the money to do—money isn't the answer. Instead, the NFL needs to find something more tangible to offer players, something that money cannot buy.
My suggestion is simple. In addition to paying the players—which they should still do—the league should also offer Pro Bowl rings and patches.
It's a token gesture, no one is denying this. So is a Super Bowl ring or Captains patch, but players still respond well to it.
Each player who competes in the Pro Bowl is then allowed to wear a Pro-Bowl patch for the following season. The more appearances, the better the patch. The winners take home a Pro Bowl ring too. A Super Bowl runs the league about $5,000—officially at least—which is hardly a huge figure, yet for the players who own them, the value is much greater.
There are, of course, other incentives which could be offered.
Perhaps Pro Bowlers could be offered additional freedoms or protections.
They could be given privileges like the ability to continue to be able to tweet from the sidelines for the following season, or extra invites to big league events, like the Super Bowl. Players with three or more Pro Bowl appearances could be granted reductions of the amount of time necessary to enter the Hall of Fame—a three-time Pro Bowler can enter after four years, a seven-time Pro Bowler upon retirement.
Whatever the NFL does, it needs to acknowledge that these players are motivated by more than just money.
By far the biggest drawback of the current format is that the Pro Bowl doesn't mean anything.
There are few better ways to de-motivate a player than by asking him to put his body on the line in a game which has no consequences. As a result, plays are boring and predictable, blocking and tackling are tired and stale and big plays lose so much of their meaning because opposing players give up the chase long before they normally would.
Fans have oft criticised preseason games for not having any significance, but at least in the preseason, though winning or losing has no real consequence, players are competing for starting positions, getting to know their own play books and establishing what will follow for the remainder of the season.
The Pro Bowl, as a one-off exhibition match, doesn't even have that going for it.
Win or lose, you get a free trip to Hawaii and a bit of spending money while you're there. The winners hold a trophy for a few moments, and then go home.
It's an old sports adage that no one remembers the losers, but when it comes to the Pro Bowl, no-one remembers the winners either.
Quick audience insta-pole... Did the AFC or NFC win in in 2008... No Idea? I thought so.
If the league wants the fans and players to care about the game, and I mean really care about it, then they need to add value to it. MLB gave the winner of their All-Star Game home-field advantage in the World Series, and people responded to it.
In the NFL, home-field advantage in the Super Bowl probably has less meaning, but the NFL can certainly find something of value to offer the winning division.
In addition to home-field advantage in the Super Bowl, the team from the winning division may also be ruled to have won the coin toss the following year, for example.
Perhaps they could guarantee teams from the winning division more Monday Night Football games, amend the salary cap formula to remove a certain percentage of the salaries of the winning players from cap calculations for the following season, or give a team from the winning conference a chance at an extra playoff spot, via a Wild Card crossover rule, similar to the CFL.
Each of these things would give the players a real, tangible motivation to play better and make a real effort in the Pro Bowl, and as a result, improve the overall experience for the fans.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Pro Bowl is that it is a glorified touch football game.
Defensive lines and linebackers are actively discouraged from rushing the passer, secondaries are shackled and are encouraged to go for the pick, rather than chase and tackle their opponents.
I get that no one wants to be the guy who broke Arian Foster's knee in a game which has no real meaning, but when the ball is snapped and the offensive and defensive lines just stand up and the quarterback sits in the pocket for five or more seconds with no pressure at all, it's hard for real football fans to get excited about the game.
The NFL wants to protect its players in these exhibition games and that is absolutely the right thing to do, but doing so at the expense of the defensive side of the game is just plain wrong.
By adding some flag football rules to the Pro Bowl, the NFL could protect those players most greatly at risk—QBs, RBs and WRs—without completely removing contact and defensive pressure from the game.
The game would still allow for contact between linemen and linebackers, and would allow the QB, WR or RB to be pressured and chased while removing the risk of serious injury.
The rules would not need to completely remove contact and would not need to replace all kinds of tackling all together, but instead would be in place in certain circumstances to replace certain types of hits.
A quarterback in the pocket would only be able to be tackled using his flags; a wide receiver or running jumping to get the ball, diving for the end zone or being chased from behind would not be allowed to be hit, and could only be tackled using flags too.
While on the face of it, it sounds like a death blow to any game of professional football, the reality is that in the current Pro Bowl format, these types of hits don't happen anyway. It would instead seek to give the offensive players a little more pressure without significantly increasing the risk of injury.
As interesting as it sounds on paper, 100-point games just aren't that much fun. Real football fans are as interested in defense as they are offense. And while a 40-plus yard bomb is always fun the first time, by the sixth of the night—forgetting the other eight passing touchdowns for shorter distances—everyone is bored of it.
Adding defense—even in the form of flag football—back into the Pro Bowl is a good thing all around, and while it may result in the end of the 12-touchdown, 100-point games, I suspect few fans would really complain about this.
Personally, I think adding a few of these things would make the game much better; adding all of them would probably finally make the Pro Bowl a must-watch game... But what do you think?
What would you like to see them change about the game, or do you like it the way it is?
After all, if the Pro Bowl doesn't exist for the benefit of the players, and it doesn't really result in anything for the winning conference, then the only reason for its continued existence is if it benefits us, the fans.
The very nature of these All-Star exhibition games is to give the fans what should be the night of their lives, and the Pro Bowl appears not to be doing that.
So, how would you turn the Pro Bowl into the game of your dreams?
As always, feel free to share your opinion in the comments below.