For the first time, the Pro Bowl will be played prior to the Super Bowl and in a non-Hawaii location. Commissioner Goodell and his regime shifted the Pro Bowl to take place exactly one week before the Super Bowl and in the same city as the Super Bowl. This year, it will take place on January 31st in the newly named Sun Life Stadium in Miami. The procedure for voting players in did not change, nor did the positional requirements.
I can possibly get on board with the timing of the game, and maybe even the location, though most players seem to be a bit miffed that Hawaii is out and places like Detroit and Indianapolis become the "reward" destination. It's not unusual for players to bring families, or for running backs to bring their entire offensive line as a thank you. I can see it now "Hey guys, thanks for blocking all year for more and getting me into the Pro Bowl. As a thank you, I've paid for your airfare to beautiful, wintery Detroit. You can tour the remains of the auto industry factories and even stop by Motown if you really want to. As an extra thank you, I bought all of you a bullet proof vest, in case you want to walk to dinner one night." Doesn't sound too glamorous.
But that isn't even my main beef with the Pro Bowl process.
The Pro Bowl has often been more of a popularity contest than it has been a true reward for outstanding seasons. This comes into play even more so when looking at positions that are tough to quantify such as fullback or offensive line. Here, numbers mean little, but what you're perceived as makes the difference. A typical Pro Bowl career sees too few Pro Bowls early on based on lack of history to draw on and too many Pro Bowls later in the career as the player's entire body of work, not just one season seems to be considered. Offensive lineman make it on reputation more than play. It's a tough argument because those who vote, particularly the fans probably have almost no basis on how to judge a lineman other than who's name they recognize.
Voting used to be done by just players and coaches, making selections perhaps a bit more justified as players watch film, as do coaches and understand the game. In 1995, the NFL changed it's process to split the voting into thirds, with the coaches, players and fans each getting a segment. Now, on to my high horse. I love football. I feel I have a pretty good grasp of the game for someone who never played a down of professional football. But here's the catch. We all know people who like football, but know zero about it. Yet they can go on and vote (multiple times) for a player. Sure the voting by the coaches and players can balance it out, but it becomes more of a name recognition game than anything else.
Another gripe is the apparent disregard for position in some cases. There is a very big difference between kick returners and punt returners, but no distinction is made. I'm not the first to make this case, and certainly not the last, but if we want to reward the game's best players at each position, lets do so.
But my main gripe comes in the actual honor bestowed upon players and the alternate process. Lets take a step back and look at player legacies. When we hear about veteran players, or those who have been in the league for a few years, stats are tossed around, as are Super Bowl titles, and inevitably, the number of Pro Bowl appearances. While I do not vote for the Hall of Fame, I feel confident in stating that all things being equal, a guy with 6 Pro Bowl appearances will make it over a guy with 1 appearance. Seems logical.
Until you realize that in today's NFL, it seems that half of the league is a Pro Bowler. WIth the change in Pro Bowl week, it has been mandated that those players who make the Pro Bowl and who are on Super Bowl bound teams will not be able to participate in the Pro Bowl. Now, this only means they don't play the game, they still get awarded the Pro Bowl recognition, and why not, they apparently deserve to be there. But when you take out a player, you have to sub another player in to the spot. These are called alternates, and basically are the next person on the list in terms of votes received.
To give you a 2009 example, lets look at the AFC quarterback Pro Bowlers. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. You can easily make the case for why all three should be there. But here's where the fun begins. Brady has pulled out citing injuries, so on comes first alternate Matt Schaub, a good quarterback, but 4th in voting. Next Rivers pulls out, which means another alternate is tapped. In this case it's Ben Roethlisberger, who then pulls out, which means Vince Young gets to go to the Pro Bowl. Now, nothing against Vince Young, but first off, he was the 6th highest player in terms of voting. Secondly, he played a little more than half a season and was not exactly spectacular. Now, if the Colts make the Super Bowl, Manning will be prohibited from playing which means the 7th player (4th alternate) will be "elected" to the Pro Bowl (In this case, David Garrard). This also means that of the 3 players who weer originally selected, not one of them will go. This leads to a potential to have 7 AFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks. There are only 16 teams in the AFC, so logically, there are 16 starting quarterbacks. This means that 37.5% of the starters will now add 1 Pro Bowl appearance to their resumé.
While the Pro Bowl never seemed to be a serious game, the new voting process and appearance mentality has made it even more of a joke. There are several ways to fix the Pro Bowl process, but major changes are needed. First, it seems the fan voting should either be done away with or have it's impact diminished to something around the 10% mark. Let those who know the game and who see the players daily make the judgment.
Second, alter the process. I understand that some players just don't want to play and risk getting injured in a meaningless game, thus they opt not to attend. Maybe making it more of an incentive for players would help. Maybe a stipulation in contracts that a Pro Bowl selection equals X dollars and a Pro Bowl appearance (actually playing) is X dollars but neing an alternate is worth only half of X. This would help on several fronts. Fans watch and pay to see this game to see the stars play, not the 7th or 8th player selected. Additionally, we all know money dries most people, so this would reward players for being selected, but also reward them for going. Big names draw ratings and revenue, so the league needs to find a way to get those players to the game.
Third, make a Pro Bowl selection worth .5 an appearance. It sounds petty, but perhaps giving 7 quarterbacks Pro Bowl recognition from one conference is a bad idea. The NFC will have at least 4 quarterbacks with Pro Bowl honors as Favre, Brees, and Rodgers were elected and we know that Brees or Favre will be in the Super Bowl. This means a minimum of 11 quarterbacks or 34% of the starters in the entire NFL will have that to pad their Hall of Fame resumé. It's a joke. Giving players half a berth for getting elected and the other alf for playing helps. It probably doesn't matter in the long run, but something needs to be done.
There doesn't seem to be any incentives in place to get players to show up. Homefield advantage in the playoffs, like the World Series/MLB All Star Game. There are no "dunk contests" or fan friendly events to draw players or fans. There is also no downside to being elected and blowing it off. The NFL needs to re-configure the entire process quickly or the Pro Bowl will soon become about second tier players playing in the game. The downside to the teams is that often, incentives for Pro Bowls are put into contracts and when an 4th alternate gets selected, the team is on the hook for the bonus due to 3-4 players opting out.
There are probably many more ideas out there to improve the Pro Bowl process. The reward or notoriety for getting selected surely has diminished as many more players are now awarded the honor. The Pro Bowl process works if it's viewed as a friendly game with good players going. But with financial rewards, padding of the resumés and diluted rosters showing up in a game/process that the NFL still attaches value to, something must be done to change it.