It's time for the NFL to make a decision on the Pro Bowl—fix it or forget it.
Look, maybe once upon a time, long ago, when men were men and football was played with leather helmets, the Pro Bowl meant something. Nowadays? Nada, zilch, zip, zero. The game means nothing.
The selection process is a joke. Most of the players don't want to play (or even pretend to participate if they show up). The game's viability has been openly questioned by Roger Goodell himself.
So why do they play it?
Well, in short, because we keep watching it.
In 2012, the Pro Bowl drew an average audience of 12.5 million viewers—all of whom probably spent 90 percent of their time complaining about the game on their favorite social network. That marked an 8.1 percent decline in ratings from the year before, and it still beat MLB's All-Star festivities.
The NFL may be embarrassed by the Pro Bowl, but it hasn't become America's premier multi-billion-dollar business by turning down free money.
Yet MLB has relevance around its All-Star Game. The game's participants are playing for home-field advantage in the World Series for their respective leagues, which may be one of the most idiotic inventions this side of the "As Seen on TV" store, but at least it's something.
That's right—Bud Selig may be inept, but at least he's trying. That's more than we can say about Goodell and the Pro Bowl.
NBA? Its All-Star Game couldn't possibly mean less. Yao Ming could be sawed off at the midsection but would still be voted into the starting lineup if the NBA put him on the ballot.
Hooray fan voting!
Yet the NBA All-Star Weekend is still considered must-see TV by lots of hardcore NBA fans, if only for the slam dunk contest (which, if you forget, will consistently remind you who its sponsor is). Sure, lots of fans complain about that event as well, but they're still talking about it and sharing those YouTube videos with all of their BFFs.
Hockey and NASCAR have All-Star events as well. MLS has its All-Stars go up against teams like Manchester United and Chelsea, which should tell you everything you need to know if you were thinking about picking up MLS as a hobby.
Want to compare apples to oranges and say those all-star games are less important than the Pro Bowl? I suppose that makes sense if you completely ignore the massive popularity of the NFL when you point to the bare viewership numbers.
The NFL could host a one-hour special replaying the Jets' butt fumble, and we'd toss on our official team "snuggies," kick back in our licensed team recliners and eat a metric ton of hot wings while asking each other if we remember what the outside smells like.
The Pro Bowl is worthless; fix it or just get rid of it.
Fix the Selection Process or Just Get Rid of the Game
Why do we let fans vote for things we then want to pretend are important?
Fan (n): an enthusiastic devotee...probably short for fanatic, according to Merriam-Webster. Nothing against anyone here, but fans aren't supposed to be rational—they're supposed to do crazy things like convince themselves that the third-best receiver on their team deserves an All-Pro vote. It's not weird. It's the expected behavior.
You know who else isn't rational? Players and coaches—the people who make up the other two-thirds of the selection process. Players and coaches watch advanced scouting and play against their opponents. They don't have time to legitimately watch (or really even care about) any of the players that they don't face. So they vote for the people they know or the people they assume are good.
Don't even come at me with any suggestions the media should be a part of the selection process. The AP All-Pro team came out with the same old nonsense. Is it better than the Pro Bowl selections? Yes, but I was once the fastest kid at fat camp. When Maurkice Pouncey is continually given accolades over his (much) more talented brother, the media loses its chance to come in as Pro Bowl savior.
Guess who would watch every player, every game—someone the NFL pays to do it.
How many retired personnel guys, coaches and players are just kicking around the NFL's main office looking for stuff to do? The NFL could bring in Gil Brandt, Ernie Accorsi, Bill Parcells and Bill Polian and pay them a Brinks truck full of money to watch All-22 of every single game before announcing the Pro Bowl rosters at halftime of the Super Bowl. Then play the game a few weeks later.
That would solve the problem with the people picking the rosters. It would solve the problem with picking "the best" of something before the season is close to over. It would give the game a big stage for its selection show. Also, we wouldn't need alternates for the Super Bowl players since we would already know who not to name to the team.
Oh, and most of all, we wouldn't have to worry about which geriatric singer the league wants to roll out for a Super Bowl halftime show.
Make Players Play or Get Rid of the Game
There are already financial incentives to get players to play in the game. Apparently, the carrot is not working. So let's make the carrot bigger and break out the stick.
Increase the money, of course, to make sure even the league's multimillionaires start checking out what they could use that slush-fund money on. (Sharks for Tom Brady's moat?) Add in financial incentives for teams that have the most participants in the Pro Bowl so that coaches aren't able to convince their players to fake injuries so they don't have to play.
Want to throw in a nominal bone to agents who have Pro Bowl clients? Go ahead, I don't care—anything to get as many people around talking to these players and getting them to actually attend this event.
About that stick...don't want to play in the Pro Bowl? That's cool—just never expect to be voted to a Pro Bowl ever again. No financial incentives ever again. "Zero-time Pro Bowler" on your Hall of Fame resume. Congrats for shipwrecking your career before it started! Who are you, Manti Te'o?
Only real reasons to skip: Super Bowl participation and injury. We took care of that first obstacle with the selection process. The second obstacle will be taken care of by refusing to take teams and players at their word. The NFL's independent doctor can inspect the medical records or players themselves before clearing them to skip the game.
Would the elite elder statesmen of the NFL still elect to stay home? Sure, they have made all the money they need and carved out their busts in Canton.
This new rule would make sure most of the young studs in the league stay in the game.
Make the Game Worth Watching or Get Rid of the Game
Watching the Pro Bowl and pretending the game is worth watching are two different things. Sure, the NFL can continue to play a mock game and serve it up to us as the next Ice Bowl. We'll bite. (Note: This phenomenon also keeps a certain yellow-clad clown in business.) How about a better way?
Take off the pads.
Just do it.
They're already pretending to care about defense. Just take off the pads, put them in shorts and let the linemen spend the day sunning themselves rather than get all sweaty leaning against each other and pretending they care about winning their matchup.
Wait. No. Three words...Fat. Guy. Touchdowns.
Let the linemen play and make darn sure they're used. Use 7-on-7 rules (OC, QB, two RB, three WR/TE), but make it mandatory to have one offensive or defensive lineman lined up as a skill position player at all times.
Who doesn't want to see Vince Wilfork lined up in the slot and actually catch a touchdown pass? If you don't, prepare for a congressional committee to label you un-American.
Adopt the rest of the weekend and co-opt the NBA's style of doing things. Move a college All-Star game to prime time the day before the game (may I suggest the NFLPA Game to get it away from the Shrine Game?). Then host a skills competition of combine-style feats mixed with NHL-style tests of aptitude at your position.
If the NFL finds its version of the dunk competition, all of this is worth it.
Trick-shot throws, anyone?
The NFL has tried stuff like this in the past but paired it with all the production value of a rerun of Antiques Roadshow. Put it in prime time. Give it a great host (also Prime Time). At least pretend the event isn't less important than the third Manning brother.
I'd watch it.
Heck, I'm going to watch the Pro Bowl anyway. So are you. Don't lie. We'll complain about it, sure, but we're going to watch. It's up to the NFL to start putting on a watchable product to maximize its profits rather than eliminating a potential revenue stream.
Otherwise, if the NFL isn't going to try (which, again, is idiotic), then just forget about the game. Figure out the very obvious flaws in the game and come up with something better.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.