The sad truth, as Roger Goodell well knows, is that the only thing that might be able to save the Pro Bowl is bounties. OK, I can think of one other possibility: Winner take all. If you lose the game, you even have to pay your hotel bill (and leave a decent tip for the chambermaid).
Without those kinds of tweaks, the event simply can't survive. That's all the NFL commissioner was saying on the radio earlier this week. The Pro Bowl has become — to Goodell and everybody else — "embarrassing." You know when DeAngelo Hall talked about the breakdown in the secondary Sunday, about how the Redskins "gave" the Giants the winning touchdown? Well, that kind of giving goes on in the Pro Bowl all the time. The final score of the last one was 59-41 — 100 points allowed by the best defensive players on the planet.
Johnny Blood, the Hall of Famer from the early days, said one of the best things about pro football is that it's "dead on the level. You can't fake it." But there's plenty of faking going on in the Pro Bowl, with its reluctant tackling and half-speed ball pursuit. I mean, you'll find more hitting in games of two-hand touch on Thanksgiving morning. (But only after the participants have started doing shots. Hey, maybe that's the answer: Make Pro Bowlers do a shot at the beginning of each series. That would certainly release the hounds.)
It's amazing, really, the Pro Bowl has lasted this long — 63 years in its current incarnation. After all, the NFL doesn't need it any more, doesn't need it to promote its product. Back in the '50s, when the event was launched, it did. In those days, remember, teams played only 12 regular-season games, and there were no playoffs to speak of, just a championship game between the winners of the two conferences. Then the league went into hibernation and didn't emerge until midsummer.
That, of course, is no longer the case. Now the NFL has all kinds of offseason programming to sustain its fan base, be it free agency, the combine, the draft, minicamps or OTAs. All of them get exhaustive coverage, enough to keep the league in the news year-round. Getting rid of the annual Honolulu road trip won't change that.
Also, in the Pro Bowl's beginnings, it was more competitive because there was more of a financial incentive. Salaries weren't nearly as high, and the difference between winning and losing the game, while it might be just a few hundred dollars, could be considerable for a player making only, say, $7,500 a year. (Before the January 1954 game, the Los Angeles Times said a certain star was "determined to snag a winner's share of the Pro Bowl swag.")
On top of that, there was more bad blood when the NFL was smaller (i.e. 12 franchises for most of the '50s) because teams bumped into one another more often. At times, that enmity could spill over into the Pro Bowl (as it did after the 1964 season when Frank Ryan, quarterback of the champion Cleveland Browns, suffered a dislocated shoulder courtesy of Gino Marchetti, whose Baltimore Colts had lost the title game to the Browns).
Today, players — particularly QBs — routinely are no-shows in Hawaii because, well, who needs the money, never mind the risk of injury? Anybody selected from one of the Super Bowl finalists, meanwhile, also gets to skip the Pro Bowl now. And so the game has been devalued further, overpopulated with one of my least-favorite sports species, the Pro Bowl alternate. Is it just me, or has "Pro Bowl alternate" always had a "substitute teacher" ring to it?
Add it all up, and you get a superfluous "attraction" that has outlived its purpose. Especially when you take into account the rule alterations — no blitzing, etc. — that turn it into Football Lite (if not, on occasion, badminton).
No one should be surprised, then, that Goodell and the owners were prepared to bag the Pro Bowl — until, according to the commish, "the players asked if they could take another crack at it to try to work to get the game more competitive." What this might entail is anyone's guess. Perhaps they'll pipe one of Gregg Williams' pep talks into the locker room or lobby to allow, for one week only, the use of PEDs.
Granted, the elimination of the Pro Bowl would leave pro football as the only major sport without an all-star game. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, considering the "showcases" that baseball, basketball and hockey continue to foist upon us. Besides, the NFL can always say: "At least we never ran out of players and had to declare a tie."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.