Pro Bowl Doesn't Need a 'Fix'
"Being here just validates a player's career," Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said at the end of the NFC team's practice. "You work hard all your career to get to this point, and when you get picked, it doesn't matter whether it's in Hawaii or Miami, or who can't go. You're a Pro Bowler. You made it."
And then it hit me. The reason people are so upset about this dropout-plagued, substitute-infested Pro Bowl is the modern sports fan's sense of self-entitlement. Fans have become so accustomed to the idea that everything in sports is or at least should be done for them that they can't get their minds around things that aren't. And like it or not, the Pro Bowl isn't for the fans. It's for the players.
No player, nor anybody connected with the NFL, is going to come out and say that, of course. It's not good politics. And fans still get a portion of the vote that determines who gets picked for this game, which gives them some claim on it. But that feels like a fading anachronism. Does anybody really think there'd be some kind of major fan uprising if the NFL decided next year that the Pro Bowl teams would be picked only by players and coaches?
I don't. I think that of all the things the NFL does, the Pro Bowl has to rank among the very lowest on the fan-concern meter. If the fans were really all that into this game, I don't think the NFL would run it opposite the Grammy awards. And if it mattered that much to the NFL that fans pay attention to this game, I think it would do more to impel its players to do things to promote it. You know. Like, show up.
But so what? So Matt Schaub and Aaron Rogers start the game instead of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees? Is that so bad? If the Texans were playing the Packers on a Sunday afternoon in December, people would tune in to watch those guys play. Why is it so bad that they're playing this Sunday? That field is still going to be absolutely teeming with truly outstanding football players. If you're that offended by the fact that they're not THE BEST, don't watch.
It's certainly not going to bother these guys. These players are having fun. (Not necessarily Bryant McKinnie-level fun, but still.) For the guys who jogged through a final practice Saturday morning without pads or helmets, running plays alongside the mascots, and signing autographs on their way on and off the field, this game is a celebration of how good they all are. And they're enjoying it.
"You feel like a little kid around here," Titans running back Chris Johnson said. "Everywhere you look is a stud."
Johnson, coming off the sixth 2,000-yard season by a running back in NFL history, has been besieged this week by people who want to race him. Chad Ochocinco has been the most vocal (surprise, surprise), but he hasn't been the only one.
"People want to race me, but I don't want to race anybody," said Johnson, who's considered the fastest player in the league. "I've got nothing to gain."
For Ochocinco's part, he's been the star of the show. In addition to playing his regular position, the Bengals wide receiver is planning to kick, punt and play special teams on Sunday night. He's joked that the versatility he plans to demonstrate should help him the next time he has to negotiate a contract with the Bengals. He's been practicing kicking all week, and he's been giving pointers to Dolphins Pro Bowl kicker Dan Carpenter.
"He wasn't pointing his toe, following through. His head wasn't down," Ochocinco said. "It was going right a little bit, so I had to show him. He had to adjust his hips. I think that'll help his percentage in kicking field goals next year."
Ochocinco keeps a straight face when he delivers these lines, but few around him can do the same. He goes on TV and rips Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, but Revis is his friend, and knows he's kidding, even if no one else does. As for Revis, rather than trash-talk about which one of them is better, he and the Raiders' Nnamdi Asomugha are enjoying being on the same team, and imagining how unstoppable they could be together.
"It's fun because you have somebody else who people have said, 'He's the best corner in the league,'" Revis said. "So you get to compare notes and talk about things together. It's a great opportunity."
This week has been about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb hazing first-time Pro Bowlers by asking them for their room number and then ordering food on their bills. It's been about Jets coach Rex Ryan crashing the players' barbecue to hang out with his offensive linemen. It's been about the players celebrating with each other at the end of a long (and, in the case of the guys who are here, a very good) season.
That's what the game will be about too. The Pro Bowl is about the players, not the fans. And there's really nothing wrong with that. Once people realize it, maybe everybody will stop getting so worked up about what's "wrong" with the Pro Bowl.
And wouldn't that be nice?