Everybody hates the Pro Bowl.
Fans have been grousing for years that it's an uncompetitive, un-fun game. Players, honored to be nominated (and glad for the relevant escalator clauses written into many of their contracts), have been staying away in droves. All eight San Francisco 49ers nominated did (Eric Reid was added as a replacement), with injuries of varying legitimacy.
In recent years, even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's admitted that the Pro Bowl isn't an NFL-quality product.
"I really didn't think that was the kind of football that we want to be demonstrating for our fans," Goodell told ESPN.com after last year's debacle. "And you heard it from the fans. The fans were actively booing in the stands. They didn't like what they were seeing."
Goodell himself floated the idea putting everyone involved out of their misery. "We're either going to have to improve the quality of what we're doing in the Pro Bowl," Goodell told ESPN, "or consider other changes or even considering eliminating the game if that's the kind of quality game we're going to provide."
Change it they did, ditching the old NFC/AFC split, and imitating the NHL's idea of a schoolyard-style fantasy draft.
A Day at the Beach, Spoiled
Last week, NFL Network pulled out all the stops to make the draft a compelling television event—but all the tickers, graphics, interviews and analysis in the world couldn't trump up schoolyard "first captain, second captain" team-picking into three watchable hours. Nor could making two of NFL Network's in-house Hall of Famers, Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders, the two captains in question.
Mike Tanier of SportsonEarth.com put it best: "The Pro Bowl is silly. A Pro Bowl 'fantasy draft' is sillier. A three-hour live broadcast of the Pro Bowl fantasy draft is not silly at all, but a punishment for loving football too much."
An outdoor, wind-swept Oahu set had players and analysts squinting into the camera, talking into bizarre furry microphone covers, weighing down all papers with whatever heavy objects they could find and appearing to hold on for dear life lest they be blown away:
Abandoning the traditional red-versus-blue colors and All-American motif, Nike crafted team shirts, shoes, gloves and accessories for the two teams that looked suspiciously like Oregon and Oregon State's regular duds. Almost everything onscreen was draped in television-screen-burning hues of electric lime and electric orange.
With the NFL's best and brightest sitting around in a glorified tent doing nothing but waiting to get picked, it wasn't long before our favorite superstars were catching forty winks:
Chargers safety Eric Weddle can feel the excitement at the Pro Bowl draft. pic.twitter.com/Lzv5GZvh9c— Bleacher Report NFL (@BR_NFL) January 23, 2014
Worse yet, as the draft dragged on, some of the best athletes in the world finally felt the sting of watching others get picked ahead of them.
As Tanier said, "Players like Mario Williams were visibly annoyed" at having to take three hours out of their vacation—the part that makes it worthwhile, for many Pro Bowlers—only to languish, unwanted, in the green room while millions...well, thousands watched at home.
That edge of disrespect, though, just might have been enough to fix the Pro Bowl. Indianapolis Colts pass-rusher Robert Mathis was traded in the middle of the draft for Washington pass-rusher Brian Orakpo. After the draft, Mathis got on Twitter to let everyone know players were going to use the perceived slights as motivation:
Incredibly, the players delivered.
One of the biggest complaints about recent Pro Bowls had been the lack of full-speed line play. Watching beastly offensive and defensive linemen stand up and play patty-cake. None of that here: Team Rice and Team Sanders combined for nine sacks.
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, especially, was hunting quarterbacks and driving them into the ground with relish:
There were some truly great plays that mixed up the best of the NFL in compelling, intriguing ways. With the exact kind of high-risk, high-reward, high-entertainment-value play we love to see in football but rarely do, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck hit Philadelphia Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson for a 36-yard touchdown:
The extensive sideline interviews—which sometimes infringed on the on-field action—showed us more of these players' personalities with their helmets off; a rare treat for players and fans alike. Late in the game, with the score tied at 14, Sanders wondered on camera if he should bench Eagles quarterback Nick Foles and put Luck back out to break the stalemate.
On the next play, Foles hit Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown on a beautifully thrown (and run, and caught) go route past Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden.
This is exactly what the Pro Bowl is supposed to be about: Great players put together in never-before seen combinations. If rampant player and coach movement had made the old AFC/NFC format obsolete, the draft re-infused the Pro Bowl game with venom.
Better yet, for the first time, teammates played against teammates:
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson popped Chiefs tailback Jamaal Charles with gusto, and Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert goofed on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's trademark "Superman" celebration.
Tolbert's game-winning two-point conversion for Team Rice with less than a minute left cemented a loss for Newton and Team Sanders.
Yes, you read that right: The Pro Bowl was exciting and competitive down to the very last second. After the Tolbert conversion, Foles and Team Sanders drove far enough downfield to give All-Pro Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker a 67-yard field goal, which he came surprisingly close to converting.
It was more fun than a regular game, yet intense enough to not make a mockery of the sport. It was a close, hard-fought, competitive game filled with big plays by big stars.
That's all any fan, coach or player could ask of a modern professional all-star game.
More Work to Do
The format change proved there's still plenty of life in the Pro Bowl game, but it's far from perfect.
The draft was needlessly complicated, with a pre-draft draft that caught even the media by surprise and a host of bizarre, mostly unexplained rules designed to keep anything too interesting from happening. It was awful television, period, and there's a lot of work to be done before that will change.
There were a lot of big hits—especially those spectacular sacks—that had executives, coaches, teammates and fans cringing at the risk of injury.
According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, one of the players' biggest concerns in this format was the chance of teammates injuring teammates. Could you imagine if Johnson had concussed Charles—or worse, inflicted another knee injury on him?
NFLPA President Domonique Foxworth acknowledged that concern was real.
"That's the only legitimate concern, and I completely understand it," Foxworth told Pelissero. "I was faced with the possibility of canceling the game or trying to make it interesting. If some of these conflicts that we create make it so we can't go forward, then we'll throw the game out."
There's the rub: If the game can't be explosive and competitive, it's not NFL football and isn't worth watching—and therefore, not worth playing. If it's explosive and competitive, there's a risk of injury. The league, players, coaches, owners and fans have to collectively decide how much risk to players with six-, seven- and eight-figure contracts is acceptable in return for an exhibition game.
The answer, of course, depends on how fun and enjoyable the game is.
This year, for the first time in a long time, the game was good enough to make all the bad stuff worth it. Let's hope the league can smooth out some of the lumps in this promising new format for 2015.