Inside Slant: On Pro Bowl roster integrity

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
10:30
PM ET



In the political world, at least, it has long been said that Friday afternoon is the best time to publicize bad news. If there is ever a time when people unplug and tune out, it's the start of a weekend. Reporters are finishing their work week, television viewers tune out, online traffic dips, newspaper readership is scarce and the story's impact is minimized.

So what does that theory say about the NFL's decision to announce its 2014 Pro Bowl selections on Friday night at 9 p.m. ET?

The league has attempted some genuine reform to the Pro Bowl format this season, electing a pool of 85 players -- without regard to conference affiliation -- that will eventually be divided into teams by "captains." A handful of in-game rules changes, including mandatory change of possession between quarters and a quicker game clock, could make the event livelier.

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLeaving the likes of Lavonte David off the initial Pro Bowl roster makes it tough for avid NFL fans to support the game.
But to me, the first and most important component to a credible and honest all-star game -- if that is in fact the goal -- is to get the best players on to the initial roster. I know that everyone loves a good "snub" argument, but it seems clear that this year's modifications got us no closer to a roster that we can trust as a thorough representative of this season's top performers.

You can't fit every good player onto the Pro Bowl roster, and the truth is that dozens of alternates eventually get called up as Super Bowl/injury replacements. But as long as some of the very best players in the league are left off the original roster, as was the case this season, it's difficult to view this game as a serious event.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Lavonte David isn't on the team. He might have been the absolute best linebacker in football this season. Those who understand offensive-line play consider three of the top-performing guards to be Evan Mathis (Philadelphia Eagles), Larry Warford (Detroit Lions) and Josh Sitton (Green Bay Packers). None are on the roster. Nor was either of the interior linemen who led the NFL with 10.5 sacks, the New York Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson and the Tennessee Titans' Jurrell Casey.

To label that group "snubs" is to imply that their exclusion was debatable. It is not. It is simply the result of a glaring mistake. Viewed collectively, these errors tell us this is not a serious endeavor. This is not the first time we've seen it, but the annual repetition has worked to erode our faith in the game.

On the other hand, Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd made the team even though he opened the season in a contract holdout and played in only 10 games. Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis was a shadow of his previous All-Pro self as he worked back from a torn ACL. He is on the team. So is aging Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, whose coverage skills have deteriorated badly.

The new format did alleviate the necessity to tap equally into the NFC and AFC at each position. That allowed five of the six tailbacks to come from the NFC, as they should have. Both place-kickers -- Matt Prater (Denver Broncos) and Justin Tucker (Baltimore Ravens) -- came from the AFC.

But the changes also led to the artificial exclusion of the Minnesota Vikings' Cordarrelle Patterson, who is on pace to set an NFL record for average kickoff return. Patterson, however, doesn't return punts and thus was hurt by the elimination of kickoffs in this year's event.

Pro Bowl rosters are determined by votes from fans, players and coaches. It's a fun and inclusive way of developing an end-of-year event, and I don't want to be uber-serious and trash the idea altogether.

We have one of two choices, as I figure it. We can accept the Pro Bowl for what it is -- a debatable, approximate list of good players at some positions and merely popular ones at others -- or we can push for a new way to select the team. One idea is to shift from the current moderately informed electorate to a list of scouting experts who spend all season evaluating league rosters.

I'm sure there are other possibilities, and frankly I could see it either way. If the NFL felt its Pro Bowl roster wasn't worth anything more than a Friday night release, then maybe we should all adjust our expectations accordingly.

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