Enough of the talk about the Pro Bowl being a marquee matchup of the league's premier players.
The concept of an All-Star contest, from Little League to the pros in any sport, is to send players to a game set aside especially for the top performers to showcase their talents against each other.
But just as a concept car rarely looks like the one that actually hits the street for consumers, this year's Pro Bowl looks less like a game for the most deserving, and more like a game for the most popular.
While there are potential questions at all positions, the most glaring issues fall in the realm of quarterback choices.
In the NFL, the vaunted Passer Rating has become, for better or worse, the standard by which quarterbacks are primarily measured. But if it is so important, why is Phillip Rivers not going? He leads the league—not the AFC, the LEAGUE—with a 101.4 rating, higher than second highest rated passer Chad Pennington, who ironically is ALSO not going to the Pro Bowl unless he happens to be vacationing in Hawaii during the game.
Okay, fine—obviously passer rating is not a lock to get in. So let's look at impact, which I think is a better barometer of a QB's value. After all, the passer rating does not consider key stats like rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, come-from-behind game-winning drives, and the like.
But even after factoring these in, the picks are lacking. Grand total of rushing touchdowns by Pro Bowl quarterbacks? Two, one each in the AFC and NFC. Of those QBs ranked in the top 10 in each league—I chose the top 10 because Eli Manning is ranked ninth in the NFC in passer rating, and he made it in—the AFC has 11 QB rushing touchdowns, and the NFC has seven, four of which have come on the legs of Aaron Rogers.
Remember him? He's the guy who replaced Brett Favre at the helm in Green Bay. When was the last time Favre ran for four TDs in a season? Oh yeah, that's right: NEVER. His best season was 1995, when he had three.
Only one explanation suffices to justify the picks: popularity. Yes, the Giants are poised to lock up a first round bye this week with a win over the Carolina Panthers, but how many QBs could be plugged into Manning's slot, and the results would be the same? Quite a few. In fact, I would venture that Jake Delhomme, the opposing passer in next week's matchup, could do as well as Manning has with the current supporting cast.
At the risk of rehashing all of the picks, let's look at each position and consider who else should be considered an "All-Star" and why.
Philip Rivers: League leader in passer rating and tied for the league high in TD passes with 28. Not his fault the defense can't keep the other team out of the end zone.
Chad Pennington: Second highest rated passer in the AFC and has the Dolphins on the brink of sneaking into the playoffs, AND he has done it without a marquee player in the lineup.
Joe Flacco: I can't believe I'm saying this, but yes, Joe Flacco. What has he done? Nothing but lead the Ravens to the edge of the AFC North title, only to be stopped by the stingy defense of the Steelers. He can't be blamed for that, though: NO ONE has had much success against that crew this year, as they haven't allowed a team to gain 300 yards on offense all season.
Ben Roethlisberger: Okay, you probably knew he was going to show up. But why not? If his last few games are any indication, he is quickly earning a reputation as Cap'n Comeback. He's the quickest player to 50 wins to start a career. And if the Steelers win out, they lock up home field for the playoffs. That's gotta count for something.
Tony Romo: Give the guy a break—ANYONE having to put up with TO for an entire year has got to be deserving of a free trip to Hawaii. And he does have the 'Boys in position for postseason action. If he can't play, at LEAST let him be a ball boy.
Matt Ryan: Come on, admit it: You WANTED him to fail, along with the entire Falcons organization. After the debacle with Michael Vick, NO ONE gave Atlanta a chance. But a chance is just what they have. A win and a little help, and Atlanta is in.
Jake Delhomme: This is real simple: Carolina clinches HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE throughout the playoffs with a win this week. No help needed or desired. Take that, Eli Manning.
Steve Slaton: He's a rookie, he plays for the Texans, and he still has over 1,100 yards this season. Plus, he leads the AFC in rushes over 20 yards with 12. What he did to Tennessee last week was a marquee performance, and he's had more than one of those this season. Being a rookie should not be a disqualifier.
LaDainian Tomlinson: Okay, his numbers are not awe-inspiring. But he's playing behind Phillip Rivers, who is having a banner year (albeit unrecognized). LT is still the guy to go to in a pinch and should have at least gotten a nod as a reserve.
Mewelde Moore: Yes, I'm a Steelers fan, but no, I am not considering overall numbers; I'm looking at overall impact. With Willie Parker out due to injury, Moore stepped in and filled his shoes well enough to help the Steelers clinch the AFC North and potential home field advantage.
DeAngelo Williams: Williams gets the nod over Portis because he has more TDs—including a 69-yarder—and he hasn't put the pigskin on the ground once this year. Portis has coughed it up twice, hasn't broke 40 once, and has only scored seven times. Edge goes to Williams.
AND, Williams and the Panthers are one win away from the top seed. Washington? In a death match with New Orleans to be eliminated from the playoffs.
Brandon Jacobs: Again, more TDs than Portis, and a higher first down percentage. He has dropped the rock once more than Clinton, but Jacobs' success at running back is more crucial to the Giants' current playoff position than Manning's.
Let's be honest here: How many of us pay close attention to the fullback position anymore?
The days of a big, bruising FB who could lay a crushing block on a linebacker and open a hole for his halfback are long gone. The tendency nowadays is toward a single-back set with a small but shifty running back; the fullback position is almost an afterthought. They don't even get a reserve pick in the Pro Bowl. You're just as likely to see a tight end shift into the backfield to block as you are a true fullback.
As such, the following picks are based on stats alone.
Le'Ron McClain: He leads all fullbacks in rushing touchdowns and rushing yards and contributes in the passing game. No argument on this one; hard as I tried, this pick is the right one.
Jason McKie: Three touchdowns, which, in the grand scheme of things, matter more than yardage. No one wins games solely on having more yards than the other guys; getting six is what gets the "W."
Hines Ward: Without question, this guy is a Pro Bowl-caliber WR. Name me another receiver who plays with as much enthusiasm, smiles half as much after being hit by a truck, and would just as soon block you as catch a touchdown pass. Cheap shot artist? Only if you are dumb enough not to pay attention to where he is on the field.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Yes, he plays for the Bungles. Yes, his quarterback doesn't throw to him as much as he should. YES, he hasn't broken 1,000 yards receiving (he's 96 yards away from it). But when he catches it, he keeps it. And that is crucial.
Steve Smith: Plays for the Panthers, who control their own destiny. Only receiver in the NFC averaging more than 100 yards per game. Among top-tier receivers, has the highest percentage of passes caught for first downs in the NFC. This was a major oversight.
Calvin Johnson: Okay, this may be a sympathy vote, because the Lions are horrible. But with nearly 1,200 receiving yards, the second-most TDs, and the second-longest reception for a touchdown in the NFC, this guy should be rewarded. Maybe he'll be picked up by a worthwhile team, where his contributions will be noticed.
Remember Barry Sanders? He played for the Lions, too.
As much as I'd like to throw someone else in here, I can't. The other two potential picks are fumble-bunnies and have fewer TDs than the two who are going. Sorry, Heath Miller, you just don't have it this year.
John Carlson: TDs? Four. Fumbles? Zero. Chris Cooley is one and three, respectively, in those key stats.
Donald Lee: Again, his five TDs and ZERO fumbles edge out Cooley. For that matter, he edges out Witten in touchdowns, but I'm gonna pick on Cooley because I don't like the 'Skins.
These poor guys get enough disrespect; they don't even KEEP stats for these hard-working, underappreciated souls. Personally, I think they should ALL get a trip to the Pro Bowl, even if they only get 50-yard line seats and a free hotel room for the week.
I, for one, will not argue these picks one iota. They are all bigger than me and could squash me like a bug if I happen to tick one of them off. Not happening.
Sam Koch: Again, I am defying convention and going with the Ravens here. Not only does he have more total punts inside the 20 than Lechler (31 to 28), but his overall percentage is 41 percent, higher than Lechler's 35 percent. And when it comes to the Coffin Corner, Koch is money.
Brad Maynard: 40 percent of his kicks end up inside the opponent's 20. Nearly 30 percent of his kicks result in a fair catch. He edges Feagles in both categories.
Rob Bironas: Bironas gets the nod here, but it's close. The deciding factor for me is that he hasn't had a kick returned for a TD this year, and he is 100 percent in onside kick recovery. Yeah, I know, he didn't recover it; but it has to be kicked just so to be successful. Any former kickers out there know this is an art form, and Bironas has shown he can perform if asked.
John Kasay: Nearly 100 percent, only missing one from 50+ yards. He can still kick it downfield on the kickoff if necessary, although his teammate, Rhys Lloyd, leads the NFC with 24 touchbacks.
Nothing like forcing the kick returner to kneel in the end zone to prevent a runback.
Leodis McKelvin: More big returns on the kickoff than Leon Washington, which will be key in the Pro Bowl.
Clifton Smith: A good choice here; the only returner in the NFC this year with a return touchdown on both kickoffs AND punts.
And there you have it. I'm sure that many will disagree with some, if not all, of these picks, but that's the beauty of putting it out there. It's my column, so I get to make the rules.
Tomorrow we pick apart the defense and start a whole new argument.