The NFL needed to do something.
The Pro Bowl was once a great honor for the league's players but it has been reduced to something of an effort-free, 60-minute sideshow that fewer and fewer people were watching. Though TV ratings for the 2013 game were down, Chad Finn of The Boston Globe offered some perspective.
The NFC’s less-than-suspenseful 62-35 victory Sunday on NBC earned 12.2 million viewers and a 7.1 rating, outdrawing its network competition that night. While those numbers were both down 3 percent from last year’s game and marked a significant dip from the massive ratings regular-season NFL games typically garner, it was still the most-watched and highest-rated All-Star game of any of the four major sports in the 2012 season, edging the MLB All-Star Game on Fox, which had a 6.8 rating and 10.9 million viewers.
So while TV viewership may have been on the decline, the numbers suggest that the Pro Bowl is still relatively popular. If more than 12 million people will watch last year's mockery of a game, just imagine what a new twist could bring.
This league is too business savvy to let such a big opportunity wash by, hence the new changes to the format in 2014. First things first, the NFL has abandoned the classic AFC versus NFC format that has been a staple of the Pro Bowl.
Now this year's two teams will be picked by alumni coaches Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders, with team captains Drew Brees, Robert Quinn, J.J. Watt and Jamaal Charles also playing roles in the Pro Bowl draft (more on that in a bit).
The draft will be unconferenced, meaning teammates could be tackling each other for the first time since training camp. That has left some perennial Pro Bowlers like Patrick Willis uneasy, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
In Rice and Sanders, the NFL picked two great adversaries to usher in this new era. Sure, they won Super Bowl XXIX together in San Francisco, but most remember Sanders for his clashes with Rice and the 49ers as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
The Hall of Fame cornerback and trash talker also added some spice to the pre-game hype by declaring he would "suit up" for the game, sparking some social media back-and-forth with Rice via Twitter. Darin Gantt of Pro Football Talk later spoke to a league official who dismissed Sanders' claim, but it was fun to think about it while it lasted—Sanders against Rice in between the lines.
In all, 44 players will be eligible to participate for each team. Here's the position-by-position breakdown of the Pro Bowl rosters.
|2014 Pro Bowl Rosters|
|Interior Defensive Linemen||3|
|Need Player (e.g., Long Snapper)||1|
Things will get interesting on Tuesday, when there will be a coin toss to determine the first move of the draft. Whoever wins will get his choice to receive the No. 1 overall pick, or he can choose between the team captain tandems of Brees and Quinn or Watt and Charles.
Later on Tuesday, a total of 22 players will be drafted or assigned to the two teams. Once Rice or Sanders hits their quota for a certain position group, the remaining players from that position will be assigned to the other team.
NFL.com offered a rundown of the first day of the draft.
This draft will be taped Tuesday, Jan. 21, from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and shown the same day on NFL Network. Picks will be a maximum of 30 seconds.
There will be 22 players -- 11 per team -- drafted or assigned in segments from the following position groups in this order:
1. Three interior linemen
2. Three guards
3. Two centers
4. One fullback, one punter and one special teamer (e.g. coverage player)
But the main event for the draft is on Wednesday, and you can watch at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Players drafted or assigned on Tuesday will be showcased at the start of Wednesday's event, before Sanders and Rice fill out their rosters on live national TV.
Not only will Wednesday provide some nice promotion for Sunday's contest, but it will surely become something of a spectacle in itself. With so many players and egos in one place, it should make for some great theater that the league is essentially pulling out of thin air.
In previous years, rosters were simply announced via talking heads in the studio, but this live draft element brings another fun aspect to the game. It appears the NFL is taking a hint from the NHL, as hockey's All-Star Game shifted to a team captain style in 2011.
While it might be overkill to have a two-day draft, I suspect the league will be successful in its effort to drum up more interest in the Pro Bowl. Now that we've gotten over the scrubs, snubs and whatnot, we can spark up new debates for a few days about the drafting prowess of Sanders and Rice.
It all adds up to a week full of fresh Pro Bowl coverage, and that's exactly what the NFL is hoping for.
Once the teams are laid out, many fans will be quick to see which teammates will be facing each other. If teammates are hesitant to hit each other on Sunday, though, will the quality of the game suffer even more? That will be a key storyline to watch for and how it shapes the future of this game.
Speaking of Sunday, there will also be a bevy of game changes made to increase the action and decrease the risks of injuries, as relayed by ESPN.com:
• A two-minute warning will be added to the first and third quarters in addition to the traditional rule in the second and fourth quarters. Possession also will change hands after each quarter.
• Defenses will be allowed to play Cover 2 and press coverage. In the past, only man coverage had been allowed, except for goal-line situations.
• Changes will be made to the game clock during the two-minute warning, with the clock stopping if the offense doesn't gain at least 1 yard, in order to encourage offenses to try to gain yardage at the end of each quarter.
• In addition, the clock will start after an incomplete pass on the signal of the game referee except during the two-minute warnings and the final five minutes of the game.
• The game will use a 35-second/25-second play clock instead of the traditional 40-second/25-second clock.
• Also, the game clock will not stop on sacks of the quarterback, outside of the game's final two minutes.
Now it's just up to the players to give the fans an entertaining game. While it's unreasonable to think the players should exert full effort, a little more blocking and contact would be appreciated by all.
Though the NFL will be keeping an eye on the TV ratings for Sunday's contest, it won't be the only metric for success. The presence of the week-long Pro Bowl media parade will also be a big factor in shaping the next All-Star game, if the league decides to keep it around another year.
All things considered, it's a wise move for the NFL to try something bold and new. If the league stayed the course with the same game and the same alignment, it would have been hard to merit keeping the contest around.
With a fresh take, new teams, and a new vehicle for promotion in the fantasy-style draft, look for the Pro Bowl to feature a boost in TV ratings in 2014 and comeback in a similar format for years to come.