Should the NFL sack the Pro Bowl Games, or save them?

One of the responsibilities I have with writing for a sports-oriented website is keeping tabs on current events. With college football coming to a close weeks ago and only two NFL teams still active – but taking this weekend off – I’m forced to write about something that no one probably cares about: the Pro Bowl.

Or as it has been rechristened, The Pro Bowl Games: a sad attempt at salvaging an all-star game for the National Football League by changing its format to flag football games and a skills competition more reminiscent of American Gladiators than what happens on the gridiron.

At first, I was thinking, should I write about this? Am I being too harsh? And then I discussed this with some friends, including someone who doesn’t watch football. Even the most casual fan asked why anyone would watch football that’s not actually football?

Good question.

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On one hand, I understand the concept. The best players I the league get recognized for having a great season. But even this honor has been devalued to more of an acknowledgment, as the NFL moved the once real Pro Bowl game to be played before the Super Bowl, instead of after it.

Upon that swap of dates, the AFC and NFC teams lost players who were representing the two remaining teams playing in the Super Bowl. Incidentally, guess which teams usually have the best players? (If you guessed the ones playing for the championship, you would be correct.)

Yet, the Pro Bowl had its problems before its most recent cheesy incarnation. With possibly the exception of former Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor (who nearly murdered Brian Moorman in 2007’s Pro Bowl game) most of the athletes playing are millionaires who don’t want to hit or be hit.

And who could blame them? An injury in mid-February could mean missing training camp, the preseason or some of the next regular season, depending on the severity. Worse, if that player is scheduled to enter free agency, they’re suddenly left injured and unemployed.

For those still under contract, an injury could setback their current team. Try rationalizing that to an owner who’s paying out a guaranteed contract, to one of their best players, to not play; all because they got hurt in a meaningless all-star game.

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Still, one has to wonder if its worth trotting these men out on the field for even a flag football game. It looks fun for the players, but for fans, football means violence, not grasping at laundry to stop a play. It’s even harder to invest when the players are wearing street clothes as opposed to their team’s helmet with the appropriate jerseys for each conference.

Showcasing how these players are world class athletes is also fun, but the festivities are slow to capture on film and then heavily edited to fit into a TV time window, where either presentation (live or taped) loses its luster.

A return to a full contact game will never be in the cards, but even when those were played, getting a team of strangers up to speed for a game that usually takes a full season to prepare for is daunting. The quality of those games also struggled.

The only neat aspect for fans is seeing a star quarterback throw a pass to a star receiver from another team. It was fantasy football before that was such a thing.

Now that’s been reduced to a bastardized version at best. So, is there anything else that could be done? Probably not.

A few years ago the league started playing with moving the Pro Bowl around. It was once a nice vacation for the players and their families, with a week spent in Hawaii. Now the game is mostly based in Orlando, Florida, which doesn’t offer nearly the same exotic paradise.

A switch back to Hawaii might get a few more players to opt in instead of out, but for the most part, the Pro Bowl is going to be minus half of the stars it should have, due to early rehab and those prepping for the Super Bowl.

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This got me thinking about alternatives.

There’s already the “games” aspect, featuring tug-of-war contests or carnival-style quarterback competitions. Those are fine, and sometimes fun, but mostly passable. Plus, the largest aspect of games is missing for those: a stadium full of fans.

Honestly, the only thing the NFL could do is get rid of the games entirely. Moving it back after the Super Bowl could net a few more players for a dodgeball game, but its unlikely many people are setting aside their weekend to tune in.

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Mobile, Alabama may have one answer with the Reese’s Senior Bowl, which hosts many of the top draft-eligible college prospects in action. Yet, that game is only half baked for the most part as well.

Other sports, which also struggle to motivate their stars for a “nothing” game, play their all-star game midseason. That’s not going to happen in the NFL, as noted earlier, due to injuries and money.

The only other idea that could offer competition in the way fans expect it, would be a third place game between the AFC and NFC runner up teams. As farfetched as this may sound, its already commonplace in the FIFA World Cup. Also, every single Olympics competition has a bronze medal winner: even basketball and hockey.

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The risks of such a game would have to be weighed versus the rewards. However, I believe that Commissioner Roger Goodell would have the owners bend an ear. The game could be played the weekend before the Super Bowl, supplanting the Pro Bowl as the appetizer to the main course. It could also be played during Super Bowl weekend too.

Either way, the NFL gets another big money game that has no competition for ratings. With the money thrown around by Amazon and Google to get rights to NFL games, this would be a boon for the league.

While injuries and participation may still be an issue, as it was with the Pro Bowl, fan bases would be more inclined to show up at a stadium to see their team one last time. The players get a chance at redemption after missing out on the Super Bowl too, which with a monetary incentive, could make a third place game highly competitive.

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I’ll never say never, as Goodell found a way to extend the regular season to 17 games and expanded the playoffs in recent years. Yet, there’s something about players or teams not playing in the Super Bowl that is the ultimate turnoff. Would fans truly care to tune in for a runner up contest?

In the case of the World Cup or Olympics, those events are destinations. Fans are already in those locales with nothing much else to do but support their team one more time. In that regard, the NFL would have to set the game up like a college bowl game, in a remote destination: fans may sit indoors at Detroit but who’s going to sit in Baltimore weather during February for a game that ultimately doesn’t count towards anything but bragging rights?

Herein, that may be the answer after all: do away with the Pro Bowl and do away with any other ideas. We just have to bite the bullet that football season is over for 30 teams and look forward to next season, no matter how painful that may be.

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