Is the game about to go away? Is that a bad thing?
As we enter into the dead zone the NFL calendar, any sort of NFL story will jump out. Sometimes the stories are of major significance, but other times, it is merely some sort of player transaction, maybe involving someone you’ve heard of, maybe not. Even if some NFL players get together to play a made-for-tv event and set the game of golf back several years, it will make headlines.
Recently, sports media picked up on one of those dead zone stories with some significance. According to reports, the NFL is seriously considering major changes to the Pro Bowl. The NFL’s version of All-Star weekend should, in theory, be a major sporting/entertainment event for the league. The NFL rules the American sports scene, and its stars are among the most popular and marketable. The idea of getting the best of the best to play against each other on a football field should fulfill many a fan’s debate, especially if it involves players that might normally not match up against each other.
Also, the NFL puts its All-Star game at the end of the season, not in the middle, thus, those who are selected will go, in theory, due to a superior full season of stellar play. The other leagues can sometimes over-reward those who get off to a hot start and then fade, or ignore those deserving players who kick it into high gear in the later part of the season, when such efforts might have more significance. Plus, the locations for the games are generally nice places to be outside for winter, so it should be easy to get players, families and friends out to the game/ massive NFL-celebratory extravaganza (and continue to line the pockets of the league with muy mucho money).
Yet, the reality is far, far different. The Pro Bowl suffers from several issues:
The end of the season timing can hurt as much as help: After a full season of games, to include those players who get into the playoffs, many are in beat-up shape. While there is a pride angle for making it to the Pro Bowl, the innate competitive nature of the players and the fact that most maintain high levels of fitness year-round, seeing players coming into a game either on empty for physical and mental shape does not always yield quality results for the viewers.
Lack of Defense: Typically, All-Star games at the Pro level tend to be short on defense. While that can lead to some significant offensive production and plays, it does feel like the effort associated with competitive football games is not always there. In particular, the NFL thrives on effort and all-out intensity on offense and defense. That has been lacking for many years at the game, which for many a fan, cheapens the experience on the field. This can tie into a bigger issue about effort in such games. The Pro Bowl is for fun, and no one wants to see or suffer an injury on the field, especially with increased emphasis on concussion mitigation and reducing instances of dangerous contact.
Are we really getting the best of the best? Even before the league shifted the game from the week after the Super Bowl to the bye week, many of the biggest stars that played in the Super Bowl did not play the Pro Bowl. With the shift, absolutely no stars from either Super Bowl participant will play in the game. Even with fan voting, and all the other mechanisms to name players to the game, there is a significant amount in turnover of stars, so those initial selected decline for various reasons, and backups get selected. While nice to get a deserving player that may have missed out for whatever reason, it does give the appearance that more people are selected than are truly deserving.
Lack of Texans players: Ok, this was only for the 2022 game, but honestly, if there are no Texan players in the game, does it really even count? Can anyone build on the MVP performance from Matt Schaub?
In spite of all the NFL’s initiatives, the ratings for the game continue to drop. The NFL is not alone in this regard. Most other All-Star games are suffering the same fate of declining ratings and concerns about the quality of the matchups. Still, it is galling for the NFL that when people should be starving for fun matchups, they aren’t tuning into the game.
Some of the suggestions of various authors range from shifting the date of the game back to after the Super Bowl to just making the game a flag football event, thus reducing the injury risk. A flag football type game could work, but how quickly would the sad tale of Patriots’ RB Robert Edwards come up? Additionally, even before the game was shifted to the week before the Super Bowl, few of the participants from the Championship tilt found their way on to the field. For example, Tom Brady has been selected to 15 Pro Bowls, but only ever played in 2.
What is to be done for the game? For the NFL, there is little to no incentive to shift the timing of the game in its current format. While a mid-season break might be nice for the league and players (a universal bye for all), the NFL is loath to sacrifice TV dates, and an all-star game based on 8 total games/performance just doesn’t really move the needle for the fanbase. Trying to hold an actual game between the end of the season and the start of the next season will likely be a no-go for the players, and there is no certainty that such a move would mean an improved product or generate ratings. Unless the Pro Bowl even considered offering a full NFL game check, instead of a bonus fee (less than many key players will make per-game), the players will not make playing in the game a major priority. Owners will probably not want to risk their most valuable assets to injury for a full-contact event that does not directly profit them. From this author’s perspective, if the actual game died, there would be few tears shed.
If the on-field game is to be sacrificed, that is not to say that there aren’t ways for the game to celebrate its best and still make the league its massive amounts of money. Skill challenges do tend to bring out the best in players and that competitive spirit will reach out to the fans. Also, the league could maximize fan/player interaction action at such event. Perhaps the exact timing can be up for debate. If there is no game, then wait two weeks after the Super Bowl and/or time it exactly for when the league year is about to end, then hold the “Pro Bowl Experience” to close out the NFL season on a high note. There is the argument that perhaps the Pro Bowl Experience is shifted to Hall of Fame weekend. Throw in some celebrity Madden action, and there are endless possibilities.
There are tons of suggestions out there. No doubt you the reader will have the solution to make the Pro Bowl fun and relevant. If that is the case, throw your ideas out here. Maybe you’ll have the idea that sparks massive change, making the Pro Bowl exciting and fun for all NFL players and fans once again.