Pro Bowl nominations mean a lot to players for a multitude of reasons: It serves as a resume builder for some who may need the extra recognition in the long run, an extra financial incentive in many players’ contracts, and a means for those who don’t make the postseason to battle for some extra prize money and, even a car for MVP honors.
So, with all of that in mind, why is it so hard for the NFL to get its players to play in the actual game when it’s time for kickoff down in Orlando?
There are a lot of different ways to answer that question, which is a problem in itself, and one that needs to be solved quickly if the league wants to salvage the situation and make the Pro Bowl a must-watch event for football fans.
For one, the timing of the game could not be worse for the league if it hopes to get its high-profile stars involved. The league’s top four teams (theoretically) now play in the AFC Championship and NFC Championship games a week before the Pro Bowl, and the two winning teams then commit their entire focus over the following two weeks towards the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, the two losing teams undoubtedly use the following week to recover from their deep postseason run and regroup from a disappointing end to a long season, and the last thing they want to do is fly down to Orlando for another football game with no real meaning.
As a result of those games, Chiefs stars like Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones and more will be making a trip down to Florida soon, but for the Super Bowl, rather than the Pro Bowl.
Same goes for 49ers stars Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Richard Sherman and Kyle Juszczyk. Oh, and Aaron Rodgers after the Packers’ season ended, as well.
But, even if the 49ers’ season had ended earlier than they had anticipated, it doesn’t sound like the team was too concerned about making the trip for the Pro Bowl anyway.
“We’ve got four guys who made it, but I told the guys yesterday it doesn’t mean a lot to the team or the organization because it’s a Pro Bowl and stuff,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said on a weekly radio appearance in December.
So, what does that leave the league with? 28 teams to work with for their Pro Bowl, with eight other playoff teams to worry about.
Many of those remaining players who are voted to the Pro Bowl are either the best players on the worst teams, like Christian McCaffrey on the Panthers or Khalil Mack on the Bears, or they’re the stars of a perennial playoff contender who have other goals in mind as the month of January rolls around.
In this year’s case, McCaffrey and Mack both decided against playing, along with other stars like Buccaneers receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. On the other end of the spectrum, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower backed out after the Patriots’ postseason ended early, along with Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters and Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Sure, there is still a ton of talent making the trip down to Orlando for the game, and fans will still see some of the league’s biggest stars in attendance as they network with players from other teams and have some fun in skills competitions and the game itself.
But, the game itself has taken a hit (unlike the players involved) over the years as far as competitiveness is concerned, and it’s clear that things could be tweaked to make the event as entertaining as it could possibly be.
So, what can the league do to improve the Pro Bowl in future seasons?
- Change the timing
Holding the game the week before the Super Bowl isn’t going to work if you’re trying to get the league’s biggest names involved. So, the NFL could move the Pro Bowl to the week after the Super Bowl to try and catch some of those players before they head off on their vacations in the offseason.
Or, if the NFL is okay with being without the Super Bowl stars, they could move the game to the weekend of the Super Bowl, and make a whole weekend out of the spectacle like the WWE does with WrestleMania. Put the NFL Honors on Friday night before, the Pro Bowl on Saturday night, and the Super Bowl on Sunday night to turn it into a real All-Star Weekend that no other sport can match.
- Vary locations between Florida, Las Vegas, California, Arizona
This one may be the easiest change out of the bunch. The game used to be a fun destination for players when it was held in Hawaii, but for the past four years, the Pro Bowl has anchored itself in Orlando. While it may be easier for travel, the weather has not cooperated fully, providing for some cold and wet Pro Bowls over the years.
To give the game more variety, why not set a rotation of stadiums for the games to travel to? If the Super Bowl is in Florida, spread the love by hosting the Pro Bowl at one of the numerous California stadiums. Or, when the Raiders’ new stadium opens up in 2020, let them host the game to add more appeal to the destination for players and fans alike. It gives the postseason more of a country-wide feel, and makes each game feel more special each year.
- Ditch the game itself, and turn the whole event into various skills competitions
No one, outside of players like Von Miller and Jamal Adams, is going to put their best foot forward in the Pro Bowl. Meanwhile, the players involved will gladly take part in skills competitions, whether it’s a dodgeball tournament, a quarterback competition or a show of *best* hands for the game’s wide receivers.
If that’s all it takes to pique the interest of the players, then gravitate in that direction. Make the whole weekend about skills competitions, and put the cash prizes towards that. Add in a touchdown celebration competition that could be judged like the NBA’s dunk contest. Maybe host a 3-on-3 flag football tournament like the NHL’s All-Star Game format, and have players build their teams on air before the brackets are created.
Sure, it’s not going to hold the same entertainment value as a true football game, but it’ll get the players’ attention, and maybe encourage them to be more creative throughout the weekend.
- Change the rules altogether, test more potential future changes, or add in some one-time rules for the day
Just like Madden 20 does with their “House Rules” events in Madden Ultimate Team, make the game more unique by messing with the rules for one weekend only. Have touchdown passes longer than 50 yards be worth 10 points rather than the usual six. Make 60-yard field goals worth six points rather than three. Incompletions lose you a point, and tackles for a loss give the defense an extra point.
The league is already testing out real rule changes with the Pro Bowl in 2020, so why not mix in some sensical changes with nonsensical ones to make things more interesting?
- Add in some variety with the talent involved, including legends and celebrities
Who wouldn’t want to see legends like Brett Favre or Joe Montana slinging passes to Michael Thomas or handing the ball off to Ezekiel Elliott? How about Jerry Rice or Randy Moss lining up at wide receiver for guys like Russell Wilson or Lamar Jackson? The possibilities could be endless, and plenty of old-timers could still put up solid stats against today’s stars if a safe opportunity arose.
At that point, why not add in some other fun faces, as well? Throw in some NFL superfans like Rob Lowe or Snoop Dogg if you go with the flag football approach, or include athletes from other sports who may have downtime in their schedules? It’d increase the entertainment value and star power for sure, and give fans something they’ve never seen before.
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There are so many different options for the league to evaluate when it comes to fixing the Pro Bowl, and with the right amount of dedication and creativity, the event can be saved. It’s just a matter of whether or not it’s worth the effort.