The Pro Bowl has always been an afterthought, tucked in the week after the Super Bowl, way off in Hawaii. But with the game set in Miami this year, a week prior to the Super Bowl, it's more in the spotlight than usual. And, quite frankly, there's nothing exciting about it all. The majority of the guys you want to see play -- or that fans voted into the starting lineups -- won't be there. An all-star game that's pretty mediocre to begin with has been dialed back a few more notches.
And it's time for the NFL to take a cue from America's other pro sports leagues. Sure, the league offices will point at the game being a sellout and proclaim in a spectacular success, but the NFL fans out there know better. This thing needs some help.
It's not an unprecedented realization. Major League Baseball, after an embarrassing tie in its All-Star Game a few years back, revamped the format and gave home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league. The NHL went to a North America-versus-the World format -- one that ultimately bombed, but at least it was something.
So, without further delay, some suggestions for spicing up the Pro Bowl.
1. Limit the fan voting: There's something charming and old-school about letting the people decide who plays in all-star games, but the ridiculousness of the voting has become a bit of an epidemic. With some leeway, the MLB usually winds up with a hefty portion of Yankees and Red Sox as starters, for example, because those teams have huge fanbases and stuff the ballot boxes (or whatever the online equivalent of "ballot boxes" are). There's also been commotion in the NBA about Allen Iverson claiming a starting spot in the 2010 All-Star Game, despite barely playing this year.
So, quite simply, if the fans can't do better, then they should lose some of their privileges. To wit: eight Vikings were initially tabbed as starters on the NFC team this year. Eight. A possible compromise? Let the fans select the so-called "skill position" starters: QB, RB, WR and maybe even TE, plus an additional "wild-card" spot -- similar to MLB's Fan Vote for the final roster spot. Let the players and coaches pick the rest of the team.
The NFL's Pro Bowl rosters are bigger, with enough leeway to include at least one player from all 32 NFL teams. So it might require some roster expansion, but it'd be worth it to give fans of every team a reason to watch.
3. Veterans vs. Rookies: We've reached the more off-the-wall portion of our debate, but this is the first suggestion for a complete format change. Basically, the rosters would pit anyone still playing under his rookie contract -- which can run as long as six years -- against anyone who's beyond that timeframe. There are more than enough talented young players to pull this off. Let's face it: AFC vs. NFC is kind of dull.
4. North vs. South: Stealing an idea from the Senior Bowl ... this format would redistribute all the Pro Bowl players by college -- all the Big Ten guys, for example, would play on the North, while all the SEC guys would play on the South, and so on. Even if the game still stinks, you'd still generate all that juicy "Which conference is the best?" talk.
(4a. A Timeout to be Ridiculous: Three Words -- Puppy Pro Bowl. Look, would you rather watch David Garrard running around the field Sunday, or a labrador in a David Garrard jersey running around the field? Don't lie. OK, this one has some logistical problems, and I'm not entirely sure how it would work. But regular readers of the NFL FanHouse Twitter feed know what a fan I am of the Puppy Bowl. No, I'm not sorry.)
5. Play After the Super Bowl (Again): I get wanting to tie the Pro Bowl into all the Super Bowl festivities. Heck, in Miami, it might work beautifully. But beyond that, the date change is a major cause of the high rate of Pro Bowl dropouts in 2010. No Saints. No Colts. Not many Vikings -- despite the fans' wishes -- because they just finished a tough playoff run.
Injury concerns prevent the NFL from moving the game into, say, the offseason or before training camp -- you can't take guys that have been lying low for months and then throw them into a full-contact game. But at least the post-Super Bowl date lets every player have the chance to play, and helps capitalize on that post-Super Bowl hangover when people still have a little itch for football.
6. Hype a Skills Competition: Let's not kid ourselves: the all-star showdowns in other major sports aren't as much fun to watch as the contests held a day prior. The NHL has a great skills competition; the NBA has its much-hyped slam dunk contest, as well as other events; MLB has its Home Run Derby. So why hasn't the NFL taken advantage of this?
Think about it: Saturday night, you could have a 40-yard dash pitting Chad Ochocinco against Chris Johnson. You could have Tony Romo and Donovan McNabb in an accuracy contest. DeMarcus Ware against Mario Williams in a pass-rush race. People would watch this.
7. Play Overseas: The NFL desperately wants to build its overseas fanbase. But how much does it help to send New England across the pond to rout Tampa Bay? You want Europeans to take notice of the NFL? Send the league's best players over there for an all-star showcase. Even if the game's a dud -- as it usually -- at least you're exposing non-traditional NFL fans to the best the league has to offer.
In all reality, the Pro Bowl will probably stay just as is -- save for a possible move back to Hawaii and reexamination of when to play. And, so long as people buy tickets and tune in for a bit, there's really no financial reason for the NFL to adjust.
But in a year when commissioner Roger Goodell has said that he'll look at ways to prevent teams from resting their stars down the stretch, it's apparent that the NFL is committed to putting a top-notch product on the field, at all times.
Right now, the Pro Bowl isn't a top-notch product. Just ask the 30 players who aren't going.