NFL Pro Bowlers look like they’re just going through the motions. They give about 80 percent of normal effort on offense, and even less on defense. No play looks well-executed, no player comes off as a peak athlete.
A game comprised of the reputedly best players in the NFL winds up looking like anything but. People complain about this every year.
But after watching Sunday’s game, I wonder if anything can fix it, or if it’s simply doomed.
Problem: An Unclear Purpose with an Unideal Cast
MLB’s All-Star Game awards home-field advantage for the World Series to the winner. Having that extra home game definitely matters (just ask the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals), so the All-Stars play to win.
Conversely, the NBA’s All-Star Game doesn’t mean anything, but the league embraces that. They intentionally play up basketball’s pageantry, making the All-Star Game a culmination of a weekend of fan-friendly activities and raucous after-hours parties. These All-Stars don’t play to win, but they do put on a really good show.
The NHL All-Stars, meanwhile, know their sport trails the NBA, NFL and MLB almost everywhere. They have to seize every opportunity to publicize themselves, which means making sure everyone comes. The truly best NHL players play in their All-Star Game (unless injured).
Unlike the other three All-Star Games, the Pro Bowl has no clear purpose. If Pro Bowlers want to win the game, why does everyone half-ass every play? If they just want to put on a show, why take a knee with a minute left? And if they’re trying to represent the best of the NFL, why do so many Pro Bowlers bail, often simply because they don’t feel like going?
Of course, some of these problems are unavoidable. It takes a full week to recover from an NFL game, so the Pro Bowl can’t happen in between two regularly scheduled games, and no team wants an extra bye-week for some of their players but not all. The game has to be played towards the end of the season, and before the Super Bowl is definitely preferable to after, when America stops caring about football.
The Pro Bowl can’t and shouldn’t move, but its timing means many of the best players always drop off. In the AFC’s case Sunday, seven Patriots (eight counting the injured Andre Carter), all originally starters, bailed out last-minute.
Solutions: Reward and Assurance
A reward for victory would be the first and easiest way to improve the Pro Bowl. Super Bowl locations are chosen well in advance, and many stadiums won’t ever host the championship. Instead, let the Pro Bowl decide the coin toss.
Whichever conference wins gets to kick or defer to start the Super Bowl. That’s a real decision with legitimately strategic implications either way. Pro Bowlers might not play any harder to help out teammates who skipped the game, but any reward has to motivate more than no reward at all. Make the Pro Bowl mean something, and the effort to win it should increase.
Alternatively, the NFL could build far-superior injury protection into players’ contracts. Football has the unfortunate double-whammy of offering the least salary protection among the Big 4 and the highest likelihood of injury. As such, players will never try hard in a meaningless game for fear of risking their careers.
Ironically, the half-assed football Pro Bowlers play to avoid injury can actually lead to more injuries. Both sides’ offensive lines mentally checked out on pass-rushes Sunday, leading to three or more defenders reaching the quarterback on several plays. Although Pro Bowl rules water down the tackling, a freak accident could still occur.
If players aren’t worried about getting hurt, they’ll play more with more energy, excitement and intensity. As it is, players approach every game terrified of a bad tackle ending their careers. Regular-season performances and championships ultimately benefit a player’s earning power, but doing well in the Pro Bowl doesn’t. So if nothing good can come from a Pro Bowl performance and plenty bad can, why try?
The Pro Bowl suffers because its players see no upside to anything beyond a minimum effort. The game is a diluted, bloodless doppelganger of a real NFL game. Rewarding the winning conference or assuring players that an injury isn’t catastrophic might raise the quality of play.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much in football left undecided, and owners fought tooth-and-nail for the current contractual rules. Neither are likely to change, and that means, unfortunately, neither will the Pro Bowl.