From a relevance and fan-interest standpoint, the Pro Bowl ranks somewhere between reruns of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo and watching paint dry.
The NFL had pledged to take steps to remedy that fact, and on Wednesday, the league announced a series of changes to the game that have at the very least made things more intriguing in the short term.
Among the changes being made to the game, per the league's press release:
Game within the Game – A two-minute warning will be added to the first and third quarters and the ball will change hands after each quarter. This will increase the opportunities for quarterbacks to direct “two-minute drills,” which are especially exciting for fans.
No Kickoffs – The coin toss will determine which team is awarded possession first. The ball will be placed on the 25-yard line at the start of each quarter and after scoring plays.
Rosters – The rosters will continue to consist of 43 players per squad. The kick return specialist will be replaced by an additional defensive back.
Cover Two and Press Coverage – The defense will be permitted to play “cover two” and “press” coverage. In previous years, only “man” coverage was permitted, except for goal line situations.
Stopping of the Game Clock – Beginning at the two-minute mark of every quarter, if the offense does not gain at least one yard, the clock will stop as if the play were an incomplete pass. This rule will make the team with the ball attempt to gain yardage toward the end of each quarter.
Game Timing – The game clock will start after an incomplete pass on the signal of the referee, except inside the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half.
Play Clock – A 35-second/25-second play clock will be adopted instead of the typical 40-second/25-second clock.
Sacks – The game clock will not stop on quarterback sacks outside of the final two minutes of the game. Currently, the game clock stops in these situations outside of two minutes of the second and fourth quarters.
Some of those changes are certainly interesting, especially the added "two-minute drills," change of possession at the end of each quarter and the addition of zone and press coverages.
Not that it will help the defenses, mind you. These changes were made with more offense in mind, and a game that already looked more like two buddies playing Madden than an NFL game will likely feature even more scoring moving forward.
In some respects, the Pro Bowl will actually be two buddies playing Madden, and that's due to this year's biggest change:
Gone are the AFC and NFC teams. Players will be named to the Pro Bowl via voting from fans, players and coaches, with no regard for conference. If the top six vote-getters at quarterback all play in the NFC, then that's just the way the cookie crumbles.
Teams will then be "drafted" fantasy-style by the top two vote-getters, joined by a pair of fans who win contests on NFL.com and two "alumni" coaches in the personage of wide receiver Jerry Rice and cornerback Deion Sandcastle.
(OK, Sanders. Trying to milk this bit for one last chuckle.)
The teams will be coached in-game by the staffs from the losing teams in the AFC and NFC Divisional Round that had the best regular-season records.
Commissioner Roger Goodell lauded the changes in the press release:
We were very receptive to the ideas that Domonique [Foxworth] and the players put forth. From there, our office worked closely with him in developing the concept. The players made it clear that they wanted to continue the Pro Bowl and were committed to making it better than ever. We think these changes will enhance the game for both fans and players.
God help me for saying this, but it's hard to disagree with Goodell on this one.
The decision to adopt a "fantasy draft" for determining the Pro Bowl rosters is a phenomenal one. Given the exploding popularity of fantasy football, it's something that's going to resonate with thousands of fans.
After all, going to Hawaii to help pick a team for the Pro Bowl doesn't exactly sound like a terrible way to spend a few days.
The Pro Bowl "draft" will be televised on Jan. 22 in what should be a compelling bit of TV for football fanatics. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me even a little bit if that show garnered ratings comparable to the game itself.
Picks will be dissected. Hopefully, there will be some good-natured smack talk (putting Sanders and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman on opposing teams would guarantee it).
There could literally be "Pro Bowl mock drafts" in the days leading up to the selection show. In short, there's going to be significantly more interest preceding the game than there has been in quite some time.
This isn't to say that the new format doesn't have potential pitfalls. If one conference is disproportionately represented over the other, some fans will grumble. More will do so if a poorly chosen team turns the game into a rout.
There's also the potential for teammates in the NFL to become opponents at the Pro Bowl. Will Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen really give 100 percent effort in trying to bring down (and possibly injure) running back Adrian Peterson?
Also, there's the matter of the elimination of kick returns and, by extension, kick returners. At least one former NFL player points out a problem that many may not have considered:
Then there's the game itself. In recent years, the level of enthusiasm from the players during the Pro Bowl was somewhere between bored and catatonic. After a terrible game in 2012 prompted calls for the Pro Bowl's abolishment, the players stepped up their effort level last year, but the game is only going to be as exciting as the players make it.
That means that not only do the players that do show up need to at least act like the game matters, but it would also be a huge shot in the arm if players would stop begging off from playing in droves due to an assortment of "injuries."
Sprained eyebrows and hurt feelings do not count as injuries.
Some critics have already slammed the new format, labeling it a pointless revamp of an even more pointless game:
These changes aren't going to magically cure all that ails the Pro Bowl, but it's hard to view them as anything but a plus. Anything that helps to generate a bit more interest in and excitement about the game is good for the NFL.
That extra TV special doesn't hurt, either.
It may take a couple of years to see how the changes actually affect the gameplay on the field, and in any event, the Pro Bowl is probably never going to be as relevant as some folks believe it should be.
However, it's also not going anywhere. Not when over 12 million people tune in to watch the game (a number that other sports, including baseball, can only dream of drawing for their All-Star contests).
So, anything that can be done to make an imperfect game a little more exciting for the fans is absolutely a step in the right direction, and in that respect, the NFL appears to have gotten it right this time.