On Tuesday night, Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice—arguably the two greatest to ever play their respective positions—faced off against one another once more, albeit in a far different setting.
In a televised special on NFL Network, Sanders and Rice put on their general manager caps, which I can only assume means losing 50 percent of their competency, and selected the first day of the 2014 Pro Bowl picks. First came the captaincy, which saw Sanders select Drew Brees and Robert Quinn while Jamaal Charles J.J. Watt went Sanders' way and so on.
Overall, it was a neat little experiment. Sanders, as he's wont to do, carried most of the proceedings with banter more typical of TNT's Inside the NBA (in a good way) than you'll see on The Shield's money-printer. Rice was more subdued (because duh), but everyone had a good time and the whole thing was at least slightly more entertaining than what it was: dudes drafting fantasy teams.
The league will hope those good feelings carry over to the second day, when the skill-position guys will come off the board. Odds are, seeing as we as a culture have an obsession with the dudes who catch the ball, things will go swimmingly there as well. Jokes will be had, players will feel slightly alienated, and I'm sure ratings will soar relative to what they are on a typical Tuesday and Wednesday for NFL Network.
This is all part of a grand plan from the commissioner's office to reinvigorate interest in the Pro Bowl, the league's oft-derided All-Star game. Because of fan distaste and criticism from ex-players, Roger Goodell has openly talked about canceling the event altogether—receiving shrugs from pretty much everyone. Fans complain that players don't care. Players complain that they shouldn't care at all. And everyone walks away feeling they need a long shower.
Mixing it up, a novel on the surface, is to make the staid event more lighthearted. Send everyone to Hawaii, get a little buzz on and play some football. Institute a whole heaping pile of new rules and hope that the AFC-NFC staleness was really what was hurting the event.
And, of course, keep the cash cow booming. Fans, by and large, dislike the Pro Bowl. They just don't hate it enough to hurt the bottom line. Ratings have dropped each of the past two years, but NBC still drew 12.1 million viewers and a 7.1 rating in the 18-49 demographic last year. Those are Big Bang Theory numbers for a game that everyone would supposedly be happier without.
If you're looking for any logical reason the Pro Bowl is still around, that's it. If you're looking for any logical reason Rice and Sanders are involved in the selections process, that's it. The cash cow must keep on mooing until the blowback—which should be louder, by the way—makes the public relations cost outweigh the financial windfall.
Considering the fact we're discussing the Pro Bowl at the moment rather than mocking it entirely likely means the NFL has won this round. Odds are, more eyeballs will tune in on Sunday.
The problem is that they'll be watching a product that will still, inevitably, be terrible. For all of the backyard football bluster, this is still a Hawaiian vacation most players would sooner not take. Seven of the eight San Francisco 49ers selected to the Pro Bowl have said "thanks but no thanks," per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Tom Brady is out as well. Fourteen players who don't get their checks from the Seattle Seahawks or Denver Broncos have declined their invites due to injuries, faux injuries or oh what the hell.
Good on the pockets of the alternates selected—plenty of players have Pro Bowl bonuses in their contracts—but it's obvious any player with the slightest ailment will hightail it as fast as possible. As they should. This is a game made for advertisers, television networks and owners of professional football teams—not the players.
Earning the Pro Bowl bid is the honor. Actually playing in the game is not. Because that involves adding an extra car crash to the 16 or more prior. Admittedly, there are some players who love the Pro Bowl. Peyton Manning is one of many players who have spoken out in years past to encourage players to give it their all.
But the results aren't there. Players are petrified of being hurt, and rightfully so. Think of the feeling you have in the pit of your stomach every time you see a big hit or someone comes up limping. It's one of fear and self-loathing until everything checks out A-OK. When a player doesn't get up or when a severe injury happens, as it did to 2014 Pro Bowl captain Drew Brees in 2007, it's like getting whacked in the stomach with a baseball bat.
If NFL teams are allowed to continue their practice of ruthlessly cutting players when they dry up their effectiveness, what incentive do the players have to offer a good product? And that's especially the case for anyone entering free agency. Being a Pro Bowler is like winning Employee of the Month and being rewarded with nighttime weekend hours.
So the players who do attend will be there only to do their due diligence. The game will end with some ridiculous score, and if recent trends continue, a ridiculous MVP (Matt Schaub, DeAngelo Hall and Kyle Rudolph represent three of the last four). And all involved, from the fans to the players to the coaches to Mr. Sanders and Mr. Rice, will mentally count the 4,216 ways they could have better spent their Sundays.
Same crappy house, different coat of paint. Welcome to the new and improved NFL Pro Bowl.
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