Why you should care
Because it’s time to make the Sunday before the Super Bowl worth something.
This Sunday at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, 29 replacement players will take the field in the NFL’s most mildly contested exhibition of the year: the Pro Bowl. Chicago quarterback Mitch Trubisky, filling in for Los Angeles’ Super Bowl–bound Jared Goff, ranked 20th in passing yards this season. Cleveland wide receiver Jarvis Landry, filling in for Atlanta’s Julio Jones, is 19th in receptions, 21st in receiving yards and tied for 62nd in touchdowns. The list goes on.
This is not to say that the replacement Pro Bowlers are undeserving. The original all-stars and fill-ins combine to form roughly the top 7 percent of the league’s players. Still, both fans and players share a deep indifference about the league’s annual attempt to suck up another week of TV viewers. “Competitiveness is always going to be an issue” in the Pro Bowl, says CBS analyst Nate Burleson. “It’s tough to get up when nothing’s on the line. Most guys are just having fun.”
And that indifference is precisely the problem. On the field, the detachment manifests in an embarrassing display of missed tackles, endless interceptions and an intentional lack of contact. Do you know anyone who actually plans to watch the Pro Bowl? Me neither. It fails to trend on social media or capture a large TV audience. While last year’s game saw a 25 percent uptick after four years of steep ratings declines, the Pro Bowl is widely ridiculed for the mockery it’s become: the worst all-star exhibition in sports.
So let’s get rid of it.
Aside from one more chance to watch their favorite team, fans will get another opportunity to obsess over draft prospects.
It’s time for the NFL to ditch the Pro Bowl in favor of a pre–Super Bowl game slate that really matters. Let’s give football fans hope for the year ahead by letting the league’s eight worst teams compete for positioning in the NFL draft. One thing we know is that when football matters, fans will watch nothing else. We also know that fans love the draft. Rather than struggling to deflect Pro Bowl criticism, the NFL should change the conversation entirely. “Football fans want a reason to watch,” says Fox Sports analyst and two-time Pro Bowler Mark Schlereth. “[The NFL] has tried making the Pro Bowl more exciting, but it’s tough to fake effort.”
Here’s how it should work: This would be a four-game slate among the regular season’s eight worst teams. Worst versus second worst, third versus fourth and so on. The reward for winning one of these postseason consolation games would be the better draft position. We would start the day with a 12 pm ET game between the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds and end with a prime-time matchup between the two worst teams. Should No. 2 beat No. 1, their picks would be swapped. In return for playing one more “meaningless” game, the players get postseason bonus checks, and the league could use the opportunity to test new safety measures and rule changes like, say, using extra referees or reviewing pass interference penalties.
Critics will say the downtrodden fans of the league’s eight worst teams will have put football season in the past and won’t care about these exhibitions. Hogwash. Jets-Bills matchups prove that millions of football fans will tune in no matter how heinous the product. These four “Draft Games” will at the very least have meaning behind them.
Aside from one more chance to watch their favorite team, fans will get another opportunity to obsess over draft prospects. And don’t we all need more screen time for Mel Kiper Jr.? Plus, trading the Pro Bowl for the Tua Tagovailoa Bowl will be another line of defense against the type of tanking that has taken over the NBA. “But the players won’t want to play,” say the critics. Yes, that’s a valid point, and the players’ union is sure to raise a ruckus — just like it has fought a longer regular season. But most players will take a postseason paycheck however it comes. It will be up to the teams to convince those who still choose not to participate.
Much like the Pro Bowl, additional injury risk will be a primary concern. With that in mind, we propose the NFL takes this opportunity to test progressive safety measures. Football will never be totally safe, but shortened quarters, the elimination of kickoffs and no overtime would go a long way toward reducing the miles on golf carts for injured players. And don’t think we’ll be totally eliminating the Pro Bowl recognition and rewards. As it stands now, 71 players are named NFL All-Pro, while 88 players make the Pro Bowl. So expand All-Pro rosters to 88, with a televised All-Pro skills competition held on the Saturday of Super Bowl weekend. And, of course, the 88 All-Pro players will be compensated accordingly. With so much overlap between All-Pro and Pro Bowl rosters, NFL owners might actually save some bonus money.
Now I’ve really got their attention.
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