Is the Pro Bowl beyond fixing?

It’s almost a yearly tradition itself now. No, not the Pro Bowl, but how many ways can the NFL “tweak” the league’s annual All-Star showcase?

To rewind, the Pro Bowl used to mean something. No one can forget former Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor laying a big hit on Buffalo Bills punter Brian Moorman back in the 2007 edition of the game.

But those types of serious plays were usually the exception, rather than the rule. In past seasons, the commissioner has made multiple attempts to try and generate more fan interest in a game that has sunk to levels where no one really cares what goes on.

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The NFL first tried to tweak the formula in 2010, moving the game ahead of the Super Bowl so there wasn’t a “dead” week without football between the end of the conference championships and the Super Bowl. The game was also moved to Miami, when the league’s lease on Aloha Stadium, the traditional site in Honolulu, Hawaii, where the Pro Bowl was played yearly, had expired.

Playing in Honolulu and getting essentially a week’s vacation with family was seen as a perk for the “best of the best”. They balked at playing in Miami in 2011, before some backlash (and a cash handout by the state of Hawaii) convinced the NFL to move it back – at least temporarily. TV ratings and in-stadium attendance still floundered, as fans witnessed lazy performances by millionaires who didn’t want to risk getting hurt at the end of the season, potentially risking the following one.

There were attempts to pique interest, even seeing players jump teams, as was the case for former Colts teammates, C Jeff Saturday (then with the Packers) snapping the ball to QB Peyton Manning (then with the Broncos) back in 2013. That year, the NFC trounced the AFC 62-35.

In yet another failed attempt to generate fan interest, Roger Goodell announced a “fantasy football” style game which replaced the traditional AFC vs. NFC clash for several seasons. Each side’s captain (usually an NFL legend, such as Michael Irvin or Jerry Rice) drafted players like kids in a backyard game.

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The first of those games was played in Hawaii before the location shifted to Glendale, Arizona, then back to Hawaii, and finally, off to Orlando, Florida for the first of three years, which also saw the introduction of a skills competition conveniently held at ESPN’s parent company’s flagship park, Walt Disney World. (ESPN holds the rights to broadcast the Pro Bowl and has for many seasons.)

Still, no one really cared, even with a shift back to the conference vs. conference format. Changes to rules, including no kickoffs, modified play clocks, and removing blitzes, were among other ideas to encourage a more competitive game while addressing player safety: up to a “limited contact” format where play would be blown dead if a tackle were deemed to be likely.

Fans still panned the game, which saw all of the Super Bowl participants bow out now, as its played beforehand. Less than worthy alternates filled in for those star players, as the game continued to devolve into anything but a competition.

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The Pro Bowl was canceled entirely in 2021 due to COVID-19 precautions, returning in 2022 to Las Vegas, Nevada in the new home of the Raiders. But even moving to Sin City couldn’t help raise the profile of the Pro Bowl, which would see its most egregious changes come this season, as pads and helmets were replaced for shorts, caps, and sunglasses, with the league’s best competing in a flag football game.

The newly dubbed “Pro Bowl Games” integrated the skills competitions of previous years, but did so with mixed results.

A water balloon catching contest was one of the competitions, which would’ve been hokiest concept if not for pre-filmed sequences throughout, including a driving competition – not that one, but of the golfing variety, hosted on a range.

Acquiring points for a winner felt like a slap in the face of live competition with the heavily edited video production. The only saving grace was that of the quarterback skills portion, which brought back memories of chalked footballs thrown by Dan Marino and Randall Cunningham.

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The old NFL Quarterback Challenge, which was played from 1990 to 2007, felt like a true competition. It’s successor during the Pro Bowl Games, may have looked too futuristic, but moving targets were a plenty as Kirk Cousins and Derek Carr were among those taking shots at them… as was Tyler Huntley of the Baltimore Ravens.

Yes, that backup quarterback of the Ravens.

There was also some feats of strength, but nothing like witnessing a bench press competition of days passed (or even as it is during the NFL Combine), and while the dodgeball competition looks cool on paper, its execution missed the mark.

All of this derives back to whether or not this weekend can be salvaged. I mean, even the flag football game – pitting NFC vs. AFC and using former players as each the head coaches (brothers Peyton and Eli Manning) came off like a wet fart, especially ending in controversy as to whether the referees knew a rule that made the difference of a $40,000 extra to the victors.

I’ve long contended that the Pro Bowl would be a great concept to move around, but since the game has become such a farce, it’s akin to a traveling circus – one which is close to ceasing operations. Still, the league has to find something to maintain momentum the weekend before the Super Bowl.

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Right now, the NFL kicks off their season with the Hall of Fame Game, another tongue-in-cheek honor which sees 90% or more of the participants staffed with training camp bodies who are longshots to make their respective squads – or at best, third stringers who will never see the field when the real action gets underway a month later.

I doubt that money could even motivate players to vie for a third place faceoff, pitting the two conference championship losers in a bronze medal matchup of sorts. Fans might be interested in hitting a neutral site for that, but at to what lengths?

And what’s at stake? If the Steelers wind up in that game, it’s just as unlikely that T.J. Watt would still bow out of it as he did the Pro Bowl Games. It’s not worth risking playing, just as college players dip out of meaningless “insert sponsor name” bowls.

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Even if the league were to ditch a game entirely, they’ve demonstrated some clumsiness when it comes to the skills challenges. I already mentioned the lack of true strength contests, like a bench press. But can we get a tug-of-war, the return of the drone dropping the ball from 50 feet in the air to be caught, or heck, even the “best hands” receiver competition?

Those at least demonstrated football skills like the quarterback portion does. No one wants to see a 300lbs. guy try to catch a water balloon when he plays on the line. (And we certainly don’t care about the down markers to where we want to see them gimmicked for another contest either.)

Maybe the league could even have a rookie or “futures” game, played between players with two or fewer years of experience in the NFL – much like the NBA has done.

I’ve even seen some folks suggest that a draft pick or seeding be put into play, as if current players are concerned with helping teams get a better chance at picking their replacement!

Regardless, and it’s sad to say, but the Pro Bowl should simply go away. There doesn’t seem to be enough decent ideas to repair the damage that’s been done to its reputation, and there’s no amount of tweaking that can save it at this point.

The date, location, or even the participants – and what they do – can make fans care. Football is a rough sport, and in this era, we all understand what’s at risk by playing full throttle in a real game. Yet, this peek into the future, with a flag football game, showed that the participants were having fun… but the fans were not.

No one cares enough about either conference to effectively root for a side, no matter how its done. That’s why the Pro Bowl will never be the same again, if it continues to happen at all in the coming years.

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