Why the 2014 Pro Bowl was still a sham

All the gimmicks can't hide that the best of the best still weren't there
01/28/2014 8:44 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Nick Foles might not have been Pro Bowl MVP if the actual NFL MVP was eligible to play.(AP)
The NFL tried to revamp the Pro Bowl this year, but even after the excitement generated when Team Rice’s last-minute comeback and two-point conversion gave them a 22-21 victory over Team Sanders, the message was still clear: The Pro Bowl, as constituted, simply isn’t going to matter.

And so, the NFL realistically needs to do one of two things to save its superstar showcase: push it back to truly allow the best of the best to play in it, or simply scrap the game altogether.

Sure, the ratings – 11.4 million viewers, the most-watched sports all-star event of the past year according to a Tweet from BFL PR head Greg Aiello and a highly-rated event – will say the game mattered, as will Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statements on ESPN Radio Monday morning that he thought “the players played much harder” and “it was a very positive step.”

And, to a point, the new conference-free format did bring a novelty air to the game, one that pitted teammate against teammate, similarly to the way the NHL’s old North America vs. The World format did the first couple years they tried it.

But will it last?

Not likely after what everyone saw Sunday: a game between two teams that basically amounted to street ball, forced into that mode because the two-day sandlot-style draft that left the teams with just a handful of opportunities to get on the same page offensively.

Perhaps because of that, the game featured five fumbles (with two resulting in turnovers), six interceptions, and nine sacks on a day where defense reigned more than anything but the Hawaii skies – at least until the final five minutes, when fans saw pretty much the same thing they’d see in any NFL game with a 21-14 score in that scenario: the trailing team throws the ball at will, while the leading team tries to run out the clock if and when they get the ball back.

Whether it’s the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl, or a pee-wee scrimmage, that’s simply basic football strategy, and nothing that any gimmick format created.

No matter the gimmick, though, there is the one other snafu with the Pro Bowl as constituted in 2014: is it really a showcase when some of the best are excluded? Sure, in terms of “quality,” teams in the past haven’t necessarily may not have been able to practice together for much more than a few days, but at least in the AFC vs. NFC, post-Super Bowl days, players knew their teammates more than 72 hours in advance – and, theoretically, could work with most if not all of them at least a little once the Super Bowl matchup was set and 93 percent of the roster was free.

Instead, we have the most recent change prior to the unconferenced format to thank for the fact that Peyton Manning, who only had the best season by a quarterback in the history of the NFL, wasn’t there this year, nor were either of his 1,000-yard receivers. Richard Sherman, the self-proclaimed best corner in the NFL who just so happened to back that up by leading the league in interceptions, was also absent, as was teammate Marshawn Lynch, who happened to be the sixth-leading rusher in the league this year.

No, Manning, Sherman, and the rest, despite literally being the best in the league at their positions, only could have made it to Hawaii by failing at the one thing they get paid for: winning football games. That’s why it was Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski who got to miss a crucial field goal, 49ers safety Eric Reid playing almost the whole game after a teammate was injured, and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham the target on Drew Brees’ pass on fourth-and-goal from the three (a play you often see a team run down 7-0 in the first quarter) – their teams all lost to Seattle or Denver en route to the Super Bowl, freeing them up for a side sojourn to Hawaii while their rivals freeze in the polar vortex that is metro NYC.

So then, regardless of the sizzle of the gimmick, how can you truly sell the steak of an “all-star game” when by definition, the best of the best all-stars aren’t even eligible and those who do show up have no idea what they’re doing?

The answer is you can’t, and so help Roger Goodell the day a Pro Bowl hit like the one Cleveland Browns/Team Sanders safety T.J. Ward put on real-life teammate (and Team Rice receiver) Josh Gordon in the second quarter ends up injuring someone to the point of disturbing their career; sure, that could happen to anyone at any time (just ask punter ex-Bills Brian Moorman about that), but when it’s between two guys who actually work towards the same goal at their “real” jobs, it’s almost like the self-fulfilling prophecy of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

I’m not saying the Pro Bowl should, say, determine the “home” team in the next year’s Super Bowl a la the MLB All-Star Game, nor am I saying it should be allowed to degenerate into an individual showcase like the NBA’s; what it should do, however, is be all-inclusive.

Maybe a system like college football’s Senior Bowls would work best – waiting until late February, when people are clamoring for football, to let the best of the best be represented and play a coherent enough game to pass for it “counting.”

Given how close the Pro Bowl was to cancellation just a year ago, it couldn’t hurt to try, right?

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