- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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One question brought the most grumbling, rolling eyes and blank stares in March at the NFL owners meetings: How do you fix the Pro Bowl?
"I don't think you can," Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey told ESPN.com.
"I don't have any thoughts on that," Bills general manager Buddy Nix added.
One NFL general manager, who spoke to ESPN.com on the condition of anonymity, pleaded: "Just cancel it now, please."
The NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL have found ways to make their all-star games interesting and entertaining for fans. Yet the NFL fails to hit the mark year after year with the Pro Bowl.
To be blunt, the game is no longer relevant. The consensus among NFL coaches and front office executives surveyed at the owners meetings is that fixing the Pro Bowl is a lost cause. Perhaps it was never more apparent than this past January in the AFC's 59-41 victory over the NFC. The contest, if you can call it that, had little energy and became a glorified flag football game. Commissioner Roger Goodell threatened to cancel the all-star game, but the NFLPA and NFL agreed to bring the game back Wednesday after players promised it would improve.
The Pro Bowl will resume in Hawaii on Jan. 27, 2013, one week before the Super Bowl in New Orleans. But poor timing is the NFL's first mistake. The league should move the Pro Bowl back until two weeks after the Super Bowl. The current format automatically rules out every star player from the AFC and NFC champions. That takes away from the game's credibility and star power. Add to the mix injury withdrawals and players who don't want to show up, and you get a watered down roster of alternates.
The old format used before 2010 was to play the game one week after the Super Bowl. I say move it back two weeks after the big game to give more players a chance to recover from long postseason runs.
The NFLPA and league office are not on the best of terms following many disagreements and a lengthy NFL lockout last year. Boosting player morale is important at this time and keeping the Pro Bowl is one olive branch Goodell was willing to hand out.
"The players have made it clear through the NFL Players Association that they would like the opportunity to continue to play the Pro Bowl in Hawaii," NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson explained in a statement. "We will support the players on this initiative to improve the Pro Bowl. We have had many discussions with the players in recent years about the Pro Bowl and they recognize that the quality of the game has not been up to NFL standards. We look forward to working with the players toward the goal of improving the competitiveness of this season’s game."
While players are in favor of the Pro Bowl, the game is mostly a headache for nervous coaches and general managers, who hope their star players don't get injured in a meaningless game. One freak injury in the Pro Bowl could impact a team's draft plans, free agency and more. That is why the game is coached and played at half speed, much to the dismay of the viewing audience.
"I don't think there's anything that can make the Pro Bowl more competitive," Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said candidly. "Because it's a tough game and guys want to protect themselves. It's a safety issue."
No sport is fun to watch at half speed, especially football. Player safety has overtaken the Pro Bowl's entertainment value. It's a boring, uninspired brand of football, and it's the NFL's duty to find a good competitive balance.
Still, the Pro Bowl remains a major success for television networks, which continue to feed our nation's insatiable appetite for NFL football. The 2011 and 2012 Pro Bowls drew a combined 25.9 million viewers. Despite a lack of quality, football fans still tune in by the millions. The ratings are simply too strong for the NFL and television networks to ignore.
Players also enjoy going to the Pro Bowl. It's a fun and free vacation for players and those close to them. There are also contact escalators involved with being named a "Pro Bowler." Some players earn bonuses from $500,000 to $750,000 for being voted to the team. Playing a quarter or two at half speed in Hawaii is just a minor inconvenience compared to the many perks.
One GM told ESPN.com the best plan is to ditch the game altogether but still give out Pro Bowl honors. That way, players will still be compensated for their stellar seasons.
"Still elect a Pro Bowl team, but just have some kind of ceremony where you recognize the Pro Bowlers," the GM said. "The game itself no longer matters."
But the void must be filled in some fashion. Many have suggested a Pro Bowl skills competition in Hawaii to replace the actual game. But will races or a weight-lifting competition draw 12-13 million viewers each year? Probably not.
For the Pro Bowl to thrive again, the best way to motivate players is with money.
The NFL should increase the purse to $200,000 per player -- winners take all. The current system awards $40,000 to each player on the winning team and $20,000 to each player on the losing team. This is chump change to NFL stars. Effort from players would increase dramatically, particularly in the second half of the game, if one team gets $200,000 and the losing team leaves Hawaii empty-handed. Sure, that's a lot of money to pay out to one side. But if the NFL is serious about making the Pro Bowl competitive, the league will have to show players the money. The NFL, in many ways, gets what it pays for.
Also, add stipulations to contracts that require players to participate in the Pro Bowl to earn their incentives. Currently, players get their Pro Bowl bonuses for being named to the team. They can still dodge the game and collect their bonus money. As we mentioned earlier, some top players have sizable Pro Bowl bonuses. If that player is required to play at least one quarter in the Pro Bowl to earn that bonus, you wouldn't have as many players backing out of the game.
By improving the timing and money aspect of the Pro Bowl, the league should have a better product.
The Pro Bowl should be an avenue for the NFL to showcase its best players, not embarrass them. I would consider getting rid of the game altogether. But if the NFL must continue Pro Bowls, major changes are needed.
3dField Yates and Rich Cimini