Tonight is the Pro Bowl, the annual NFL All-Star game that people have made a habit of ripping on every single year. Being a Pro Bowl hater isn’t especially unique these days, and the NFL is doing their best to change the perception of the game with innovations like last year’s shift from AFC vs. NFC to “captains” choosing the teams. For this week’s Ask Complex, we took a look at why the Pro Bowl is actually kind of awesome, and everybody needs to chill with all their criticism. Here’s the question:
Q: Is there any reason for the Pro Bowl to actually exist? Why even bother playing when nobody even tries? –George M., Malvern, PA
It’s so easy to pile on the Pro Bowl. Every year, we go through the same ritual of talking about how pointless it is, how nobody watches it, how the game barely resembles football, and on and on and on. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of the game, sure. But there are legitimate criticisms for real football games too, but you don’t see people trying to argue that those should cease to exist. So why save all the hate for one game? If you take it at face value, the Pro Bowl is actually kind of fun.
The NFL is rarely ahead of the curve on anything, but this formatting style...is the way to go.
Look, the Pro Bowl is never going to be a game of smash mouth football where teams pound the ball up the middle, linemen battle in the trenches, and players lay into each other with huge hits. It’s a finesse showcase in which the No. 1 priority is not to get injured, with making entertaining/spectacular plays second, and actually winning the game coming in a distant third. If you think this is a dumb way to play the game, you probably hate all the other All-Star games too. The NBA All-Star game never, ever has any defense outside of the last two or three minutes of the game. The MLB All-Star game has very specific “unwritten rules” for pitch counts. Every single player on the ice tries to score in the NHL All-Star game, and the goalies get pummeled. It’s the same thing in every sport.
And do any of us really want to see a Pro Bowl that finishes 17-14? Of course not. We are living in an era of offensive explosion in football, and the people want to see points on the board. Would it be more “realistic” if we watched Pro Bowl teams run the ball on first and second down every possession? Sure. But who the hell wants to watch that? Fans want to see big plays and the occasional gimmicky surprise. The Pro Bowl has that in spades.
While there’s little doubt that this year’s “Team Irvin vs. Team Carter” format sounds kind of lame, it’s actually the best way for the Pro Bowl to evolve into what it was meant to be: a showcase for what a real fantasy football team would look like if you threw them together on the field. While it’s not quite a complete roster since the two Super Bowl teams aren’t involved, it’s still a unique way of putting All-Star teams together by “playground rules.” The NHL already does it, and the NBA needs to try it. The NFL is rarely ahead of the curve on anything, but this formatting style (which the NHL started in 2010-11) is the way to go.
When you pit these competitive players against each other, adding the element of draft “snubs” and “overlooked” players, you have a recipe for guys playing harder and making great plays all over the field. While the guys in the trenches, especially, can be lacking in effort, there are always plenty of big plays to go around. Here are just a few examples:
Sure, the game could definitely use a few small tweaks—the league is already trying out thinner goal posts this year. Maybe the quarters get shortened to encourage teams to play harder, since there will be fewer plays. Maybe you throw in the wrinkle of allowing the team GMs to trade players during the game. Maybe you outlaw punting. Maybe you play with only three downs. These are all small tweaks that would certainly add to the intrigue, but by no means does the game need this massive overhaul that people suggest seemingly every year.
No, it’s everyone’s attitude that needs the recalibrating. Given that you’ve been watching playoff football for nearly a month, it’s understandable that the Pro Bowl can be a little off-putting at first glance. But if you stop hating for a second and remember that you’re watching an exhibition game where the best football players in the world are showcasing their skills and having fun, you’ll appreciate the Pro Bowl for what it is.