For years, fans, pundits and even the NFL have speculated wildly about how to "fix" the Pro Bowl—an annual snoozer where players sleepwalked through a slopfest that ended with a score that looked like the final of a game of Madden played by two 10-year-olds.
Ideas galore were both suggested and/or implemented, from ditching the AFC vs. NFC format in favor of a "fantasy style" draft to the notion of nixing the game altogether.
Nothing worked, and the Pro Bowl became a laughingstock.
Well, the conference format was back in 2017 for the game played in Orlando, Florida. And in the AFC's 20-13 win, a formula was discovered to make the game better. Make it watchable for fans. Make it a little enjoyable even.
The players actually put forth something resembling effort. And it showed.
Mind you, it still wasn't a crisply played affair. The run game, as it usually is in the Pro Bowl, was nonexistent. The game's leading rusher with 21 yards was the Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard, who was the only tailback to average over three yards a carry.
And there were the usual lapses on defense. The Seattle Seahawks' Michael Bennett, who to his credit had two sacks, also jumped offsides so many times I lost count.
There was also the obligatory tomfoolery that goes with an exhibition, whether it was the latest from the dance repertoire of Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in the end zone:
Or NFC teammates Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants and Xavier Rhodes of the Minnesota Vikings goofing around on the sidelines:
But there was something that hasn't been seen much at the Pro Bowl too. Something that was reflected in the lower score and close game. Something that made the game infinitely more fun for fans.
There was defense.
Especially in the early going, defenders weren't just wrapping up a ball-carrier and politely asking him to lay down. There was actual tackling. It might not have been the hits we're used to seeing in games that "count," but it was light-years better than in years past—and about all you can ask for from players in an exhibition.
In fact, on the game's final drive, Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham was none too pleased after getting whacked by Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander:
Alexander then salted away the win for the AFC by picking off Washington's Kirk Cousins on a wild play that involved a lateral, a forced fumble, a booth review and even an angry coach:
It was just one of a number of big defensive plays turned in by the AFC squad. In the first quarter, Chiefs linebacker D.J. Alexander (no relation) helped turn away Dallas Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliott on a goal-line stand:
Yes, there was an actual, honest-to-God goal-line stand in the Pro Bowl.
Yes, I'm just as frightened by that as you are.
I'm pretty sure it's a sign of the apocalypse.
That wasn't all. Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore also turned the NFC away in the second quarter, picking off a Drew Brees pass in the end zone:
The NFC defense did its part, too—piling up seven sacks. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen notched three of those, adding eight total tackles in the loss.
The defense set the tone all night long. Of the six quarterbacks, only one (Alex Smith of the Chiefs) posted a passer rating of over 100—and he only attempted eight passes.
I'm not going to say it was a great football game. The odds you're going to get one of those from a group of players trying their best not to get hurt who have played together for only a few days in a game that means little ain't good.
Beckham put that into perspective while speaking to the NFL Network after the game.
"I'm pissed [about the loss]," Beckham said sternly, before cracking a smile. "Nah, I'm playing. It was a lot of fun, win lose or draw."
When's the last time you heard an NFL player say a loss was "fun?"
But as Pro Bowls go, it was fun to watch, from the first quarter to the fourth.
Maybe it was the fact that over 30 of the players in Orlando this year were Pro Bowlers for the first time. They haven't gotten bored yet. Lorenzo Alexander, the 33-year-old linebacker playing in his first Pro Bowl as a defender who won Defensive MVP honors, didn't appear to be.
Maybe it was the later start time. A game that usually kicks off in the early afternoon in the Honolulu sun didn't start until 8 p.m. ET on a chilly night at Camping World Stadium.
You know...football weather.
Or maybe, as Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans told Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, it's that for young players on smaller rookie deals, there was more financial incentive to win:
Whatever the reason, fans were treated to the most entertaining Pro Bowl in years. The deciding play was the perfect microcosm for the evening, with Cousins racing down the field to poke the ball loose from Aqib Talib after Alexander's interception.
That was effort. And effort made this a good game.
Will this momentum carry over to next year, when the game is back in Hawaii? Who knows? That will be a different group of players at a different time in a different place. Odds are as good as not we'll go right back to yawning and griping about how bad the Pro Bowl is.
But this I do know—the mystery of how to fix the Pro Bowl has been solved. And it wasn't a complicated solution.
You fix the game by trying.
Sunday night, that's exactly what they did.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter: @IDPSharks.