The NFL is all about star power. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr., and Julio Jones are a big part of what makes the league tick. In theory, a collection of the NFL’s very best on the same field sounds appealing. A closer look at last Sunday’s NFL Pro Bowl, however, reveals a disappointing truth. The game lacks enthusiasm by both players and fans –and has for some time. Of the four players named above, only Odell Beckham Jr. played in Sunday’s Pro Bowl. It’s an increasingly frequent occurrence. Players opt to skip the event to rest up after a long, grueling season, or if they’re fortunate, to play in the Super Bowl. Less deserving players are named as substitutes, resulting in lower quality football.
The players, as well as the NFL, haven’t always put their best foot forward. This is a game that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. After three years using a revised, “un-conferenced” draft format, the NFL, thankfully, reverted to the traditional NFC vs. AFC format for this year’s contest. While an improvement, the game itself is meaningless. While well paid in laymen’s terms ($64,000 per winning team player vs. $32,000 per losing team player), it’s pocket change for most for most Pro Bowlers. Unlike Major League Baseball, where the winning league gets home field advantage in The World Series, aside from bragging rights, there is no meaningful reward for the winning team.
In addition to being a meaningless contest, Pro Bowl rules are different. Only defensive ends and tackles are allowed to rush the quarterback on passing plays. Blitzing is not allowed. Intentional grounding is allowed. There are no kick-offs or kick-off returns. Blind-side blocks and blocks below the waist are illegal. These rules are designed to protect the players, and rightly so. In last year’s Pro Bowl, the Cincinnati Bengals star tight end, Tyler Eifert, sustained an injury and missed the first six games of the 2016 season. While protecting players is the right thing to do, it’s beginning to feel we’re just a few Pro Bowls away from a well scripted professional wrestling match. Sunday’s Pro Bowl, a 20-13 AFC victory, was a better game than has been seen from the event in a while, but was sloppy with a combined total of seven turnovers. Sloppy play is a common in the Pro Bowl because the game itself doesn’t mean much.
Lack of bankable stars, unconventional rules that suppress player’s natural instincts, and sloppy play are problematic. What’s really killing the Pro Bowl, however, is the decision in 2009 to move it to the week before the Super Bowl, rather than the week after. Since then, the event has seen a steady decline in ratings. According to NBC Sports, Pro Bowl ratings have steadily declined over each of the last five years, from 8.6 in 2011, to 4.6 this year. Why? Perhaps, after the Super Bowl, fans are eager to watch anything resembling football. There’s a chance players from the Super Bowl teams will participate. It’s still not a great football, but fans watch because it’s football, because it’s on, and because it gives them one more week before the long offseason begins. Moving the Pro Bowl before the Super Bowl negates any anticipation there might be for it because everyone is thinking, talking and writing about the Super Bowl. The best way to fix the Pro Bowl, if it is indeed fixable, is to move it back to the week after the Super Bowl. It’s far from perfect, but after the Super Bowl is over people can say “Oh yeah, we still have some football to watch”.