Remember when you used to care about the Pro Bowl?
I distinctly remember sitting on our living room floor as a young boy, looking to catch a glimpse of James Lofton's Packers helmet in the sea of 49ers and Cowboys helmets, among others. The games themselves, at least in the late '70s and early '80s, were hotly contested and enjoyable exhibitions where the contestants had a real vested interest in the outcome—unlike the parade of disinterested vacationers on display the last few years.
Even as recently as 2006 and 2007, the annual NFL All-Star competitions were at least watchable. But the last few years have been deplorable, and it's hard to see how the trend will ever be reversed. Players are simply too well-compensated now for the extra cash awarded to the winners to mean much of anything.
The game used to get a good deal of juice from the AFL-NFL merger back in the day, when players from rival leagues which ended up as different conferences truly disliked each other and met at the end of the year. These days, most of the players are friendly with each other off-field and tend to exert more energy chatting between snaps than they do playing between the whistles.
Look, I get it, the Pro Bowl is a reward for guys who have played a long season and that are happy to get a free trip to Hawaii. Many of them have bonuses triggered in their selection. But the lack of effort the last few years has been damning.
Just compare quotes from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers after last year's travesty, and those of Ahmad Rashad to reporters in 1979.
Via ESPN, Rodgers:
I'll be honest with you. I was a little bit disappointed. I felt like some of the guys on the NFC side embarrassed themselves. I was just surprised that some of the guys either didn't want to play or when they were in there didn't put any effort into it.
"Egos get involved, your pride kind of takes over. The best kind of comes out....Once the game starts, you want to play your best football and win."
Needless to say, its a striking contrast.
Of course, the players are not alone when it comes to the decline of the NFL's All-Star Game. The league has treated it as little more than an excuse to put on an aerial display, making the play on the field look closer to a 7-on-7 drill than an actual game of football.
The defense is not allowed to blitz. They are not allowed to press the receivers at the line of scrimmage (save for inside the five yard line...). They are required to play a base 4-3 defense.
I mean, let's just have Rodgers and Tom Brady play a game of Madden with the difficulty set on "Rookie"; it would be a hell of a lot more entertaining.
Of course, looming over everything is the fear of injury, which no doubt slows guys down. The injury suffered by Drew Brees back in 2007, when he dislocated his non-throwing elbow, was a turning point. Even though Brees did not miss any significant time from the injury, the players playing in the Pro Bowl seemed to slow down even more after that.
It's not hard to understand why, as there is a lot of money riding on their ability to play football the following fall. Jeopardizing that ability for a meaningless exhibition game is foolish at best. This has always loomed over the competition, but Brees' injury seemed to wake a lot of guys up to that fact.
Here's the worst part of all about the train-wreck that is the modern Pro Bowl: It is as popular as ever on television. 2012's contest was the second-most watched Pro Bowl of the past 12 years.
America loves its football—even when it's played by disinterested tourists who are playing something that looks like a distant relative to football.