The initial return on player Pro Bowl invitations had many fearing the event would continue to devolve into one of the most unwatchable exhibition games in all of professional sports.
According to ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert, this year's NFL Pro Bowl was "the most declined invitation in history." Seifert also noted that a record 133 players were "either voted to the Pro Bowl or added as an alternate."
That's not a good look for a game that's supposed to feature the best of the best in the most popular sport in America.
In fact, the initial return on invitations looked like a continuation of the issues NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell alluded to in a 2012 interview on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike in the Morning, when he stated (via ESPN.com): "We're either going to have to improve the quality of what we're doing in the Pro Bowl or consider other changes or even considering eliminating the game if that's the kind of quality game we're going to provide."
What transpired, though, was a stark departure from the concerns that many had entering the contest, which turned out to be a 49-27 victory for Team Irvin over Team Rice in Honolulu. In fact, this year's Pro Bowl could prove to be a solid blueprint for future success in this annual exhibition.
Those guys have been there so frequently that the game means virtually nothing to them.
This year's Pro Bowl, thanks in large part to such a high number of declined invitations, flipped that trend on its head and provided us with a much-needed youth movement.
Consider these facts from the 2016 Pro Bowl.
- Six of the seven players to log a pass attempt were 27 years old or younger—the lone exception was Eli Manning.
- Nine of the 12 men (excluding linemen and defensive players) to log a rushing attempt were 27 years old or younger—exceptions were Darren Sproles, Cedric Peerman and Adrian Peterson.
- Sixteen of the 22 players to log a reception were 27 years old or younger—exceptions were Delanie Walker, Gary Barnidge, John Kuhn, Sproles, Peterson and Peerman.
Given that, perhaps it's time the Pro Bowl is transformed into some sort of a "futures game."
Getting the likes of Tyrod Taylor, Jameis Winston, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson and Teddy Bridgewater out there to throw passes to young, talented wideouts like A.J. Green, Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones helped to revitalize this once-tired tradition.
The presence of young, hungry players encouraged a more explosive, exciting brand of football than we're used to. A perfect example of this was a bomb of a touchdown hookup between Carr and T.Y. Hilton.
Though this play was eventually overturned, it provides a good glimpse of the type of explosive playmaking we were treated to.
This improved explosiveness is also evidenced by the fact that, this year, we saw seven different receivers catch passes that were good for gains of 30 yards or more. Last season, the number of players to log a reception of 30 yards or more was just four.
One such play can be seen below, where Bridgewater hit Allen Robinson for a 50-yard touchdown:
Efforts like these helped lead to increased scoring—76 total points in the 2016 Pro Bowl, versus 60 total points in last year's game—and a contest that just felt like it was moving along at a quicker pace.
Making the move from "Pro Bowl" to "futures game" would also grant added exposure to these young talents and would help to familiarize fans with players like Taylor, Bridgewater and Robinson, who do not have the benefit of playing for oft-nationally televised teams.
Entertainment value is a huge factor in this exhibition, which has to be balanced against the potential for injury, which forever assures the Pro Bowl has zero chance of becoming a competitive game. As we saw in this one with Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, who left in a walking boot, per Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson, the risk of injury is prevalent even when players are deliberately taking it easy.
So, with very little in the way of physicality and competition to fall back on, maybe a move to a futures game could provide increased entertainment value. It seemed to work for this year's version, even if inadvertently.
Increased exposure for players who represent the future of the league, and an improved on-field product? Sounds like a win-win proposition for the NFL.