Commentary: Three ways to re-invent the NFL Pro Bowl

BY IAN MARTIN | JANUARY 23, 2013 5:00 AM

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The NFL Pro Bore — excuse me, Pro Bowl — will take place Jan. 27, marking another quiet chapter in the worst all-star game in American professional sports.

In 2010, the league changed the date of the game from the week after the Super Bowl to the week before the Super Bowl, to fill fans’ football void on the penultimate Sunday of the season.

This strategy has been somewhat successful as, according to an NFL press release, the 2011 and 2012 Pro Bowls had the highest ratings for the game since 2001. But, even with NBC carrying the Pro Bowl live from Hawaii — after Super Bowl broadcaster CBS declined to air the contest — it’s still seemingly unlikely to penetrate the American sports dialogue through Sunday evening.

The Pro Bowl’s problem lies mostly with the sport itself. Football, as a sport, cannot be played at less than 100 percent speed. Unlike basketball, hockey, or baseball, the pickup and playground versions of football — tackle or two-hand touch — still requires most players sprinting during the entirety of most plays.

The Pro Bowl isn’t full speed. Maybe it’s because players don’t want to get injured or because the majority of players on the field likely have hangovers. Surprisingly, the NFL’s incentive of $10,000 per player to the winning team — as opposed to $5,000 per player to the losing team — doesn’t raise the competitiveness of a game between millionaires. This is why the Pro Bowl needs a total reboot. Here are a few ideas:

The Relegation Playoff

On Jan. 27, the Kansas City Chiefs should be playing the Canadian Football League’s champion Toronto Argonauts for a right to play in the NFL in 2013. Imagine, the Chiefs could be relegated to cold weather after an emotional but pathetic year, while the Argonauts could foil Buffalo’s secret plan to move to Toronto. The hypothetical story lines are plentiful.

A team being demoted to a lower league (while another team is promoted to fill the void) is the final frontier in American sports. But the specter of relegation would motivate previously tanking teams in the final weeks of the season while giving fan bases of the three or four most losing teams reason to watch Weeks 14-17. Envision the Chiefs somehow winning their Week 17 game against Denver this season to put Jacksonville in the relegation game. The Jaguars’ fan would be livid.

The effects would go beyond a couple teams, though. For instance, the Chicago Bears might not have Marc Trestman as their new head coach in 2013 after he led his Montréal Alouettes into the NFL with their last-second defeat of the 2009 St. Louis Rams in the relegation playoff.

As far as quality of the game, this idea is less absurd (note: I didn’t say “not absurd,” just less absurd) than anyone who thinks Alabama should play the Chiefs or Jaguars because they’d have a chance to win. At least the Argonauts team consists of grown men, not college students.

Flag Football

This is the only serious suggestion that considers the needs of players, the fans, and the league. Given the casual nature of players’ efforts in the modern Pro Bowl, a flag-football game fits. The NFL could have the game played for charity on a regulation flag-football field (80 yards between end zones instead of 100) with regulation flag-football rules, except for maybe a regulation NFL clock so every player can get in.

For players, it’s a noncontact game with lesser risk of injury, so they would probably be more inclined to play. It’s also rare on-field face time for the usually helmeted athletes looking to promote their brand.

Fans, meanwhile, could watch Tom Brady (who has declined six out of eight career Pro Bowl selections, including this season) casually throw a ball nearly the length of the field in a surely high scoring game involving a rugby-esque number of laterals.

Rookie-Sophomore Game

“CAM NEWTON AND THE SOPHOMORES AGAINST RUSSELL WILSON AND THE ROOKIES,” the advertisements would blare. And you’d be in. It’s a blatant rip-off from the NBA, but the same NBA successfully sells its all-star festivities as a whole weekend. A rookie-sophomore game in the NFL would be played full speed, if only because the sophomores wouldn’t ever want to lose to their first-year colleagues. Heck, considering the current half-ass effort, I’d take a rookie-sophomore flag-football game any given all-star Sunday.

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