This Sunday, the absolute best available players in the NFL who don’t have anything else in the entire world to do will participate in the annual tradition of dressing up in fancy uniforms and walking through the basic outline of a practice scrimmage. The NFL, altruistic as always, will televise this event and it will garner higher ratings than any games in last year’s NBA Championship Finals. What is life but a series of unbelievable occurrences?
86 total players were initially invited to participate in the 2016 Pro Bowl. About half of them declined. A total of 37 guys decided that they would rather do anything else in the world than take a free trip to Hawaii with their families and participate in a dress rehearsal. In all, 133 total players had to be asked–possibly begged–to take part. Some of these players, like Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger, have legitimate injuries. But a good portion of them obviously just don’t care enough to go. At some point the NFL is going to need to address the reasons why, and more importantly, they are going to have to figure out a reasonable alternative to the current system.
I would like for you to let this next nugget of information sink into your brain before you move on: Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston will forever be known as 2016 Pro Bowl participants. For perspective, I present you with their 2015 statistics:
292/447 for completion percentage of 65.3%. 14 TD’s, 9 INT’s. Total quarterback rating of 88.7, which was 22nd in the NFL.
312/535 for completion percentage of 58.3%. 22 TD’s, 15 INT’s. Total quarterback rating of 84.2, which was 28th in the NFL.
So basically, what the NFL (and by proxy, fans thereof) is stuck with are two quarterbacks who were in the bottom 15 statistically, playing in their all star showcase (Derek Carr, too.) 8 different quarterbacks had to be asked before the NFL had enough to actually play. Roethlisberger, Palmer, and Andy Dalton are hurt. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees all declined. Russell Wilson is the only quarterback who has been committed to the event from day 1, and that’s probably only so he can learn the ukulele or try to put nanobubbles into Spam.
The issue of participation isn’t relegated only to quarterbacks. Adam “Pac Man” Jones was invited to play as well, if his parole officer will let him out of the state (citation needed). Jones was the 7th cornerback asked to play.
This doesn’t happen in other sports. Sure, the NBA has problems of their own with fans voting in players who have been hurt all season, and Major League Baseball has had a treasure trove of hilarious all star game shenanigans, but you don’t typically see their biggest stars decline participation in their games. In fact, in recent years players have begun to campaign through social media and other means in an attempt to garner an invitation. It’s a big deal to them. Why is the NFL so different?
For starters, the physicality of the game creates an atmosphere of resentment. Hear me out before heading to the comment section, please. For 16 regular season games, plus preseason and playoffs (if they’re lucky), players are beating the snot out of each other. During the week, they are constantly alternating between treatments to heal their bodies and preparing for the next game. There is not a lot of downtime, and it wears on them both physically and mentally. This goes on from August until January. By the end of the season, it’s easy to see how the idea of putting on pads and risking injury in a meaningless and somewhat patronizing game would be less than enthralling.
Many players have incentives written into their contracts that are based on being chosen for the Pro Bowl. Typically there is no qualifier stating that they actually have to play, or even accept the invitation. All they need is to be asked. So imagine that you are a 7 year NFL veteran and you’ve played 16 regular season and a playoff game. You’re hurt, you’re tired, and your mind is starting to meander towards off season activities. One day in December you receive an invitation to your 3rd Pro Bowl, fulfilling your requirement to earn a decent monetary bonus. You will be paid whether or not you choose to go to Oahu. What would you do?
From the players’ perspective, it’s understandable why they would take the money and run. When you look at the game as a fan, it’s understandable why you would ignore the whole event completely. In recent years it has become a jumbled, unorganized, inane mess. Fewer top tier players actually show up, those who do barely go through the motions, and the rules don’t make any sense. There’s no reason to invest your time or emotions into something that is just so meh. It’s like being told that you are going to go to your favorite restaurant for the only time this year, but all you can order is dry salad and tap water.
It is time for the NFL to do something that they are not comfortable with, or particularly good at–make a change that will benefit the fans and players simultaneously. The Pro Bowl as we know it needs to be scrapped, and a new event be designed in its place. There are several ideas floating around among fans, each with their own merits and challenges. My personal favorite would be a skills competition. I’m dating myself here, but when I was a kid in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, there were quarterback skill competitions on ESPN every year. They were a blast to watch. So was Voltron, but that’s neither here nor there.
Of course there are logistical issues with a skills competition that would need to be addressed. Who will compete? Only “skill” players like quarterbacks, receivers, and kickers? Or will there be competitions devised that all position groups could do? What kind of games or competitions would provide a level of entertainment for the fans, give the players a tangible reason to compete, and be safe enough that they can feel comfortable participating? I think it’s worth the NFL trying to answer these questions, and come up with something fresh.
It’s true that the NFL and ESPN would need to spend time and money to create something that everybody would enjoy, but it is something that needs to happen. However, I wouldn’t count on it. For some reason, people still watch this nonsense in droves. The 2014 Pro Bowl was the highest rated all star game in the 4 major American professional sports. This doesn’t make it good. Millions of people saw Gigli in the theater, too. The ratings do not have to justify the product, and in this case the product is bad. Sooner or later people are going to stop watching. It’s up to the NFL to stay ahead of the curve, which is something that has always been a problem for them. I’m not saying it’s too late, but Ben Affleck wants to be the next commissioner. It’s up to the league to fix it, and soon.
P.S. Good luck to Clay Mathews, John Kuhn, and Josh Sitton. Don’t get hurt, and no matter what he says do not let Eddie Lacy eat any spam.
Tags: Pro Bowl