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Thursday, December 26, 2013
Inside Slant: NFL Pro Bowl hopes

By Kevin Seifert

The NFL's 2013 Pro Bowl team will be announced Friday night amid much fanfare about its new format.

As in previous years, players will be elected in a vote by other players, fans and coaches. But the sides will be formed by a "draft" in January than determined by conference. (Think: Choosing kickball teams in third grade.) Other changes designed to quicken the flow of the game include two-minute warnings at the end of all four quarters, automatic change of possession after the first and third quarters, no kickoffs and a 35/25-second play clock.

Will those modifications improve the product in a substantive way? While they might provide some secondary value, I have a hard time believing they will impact the single-biggest obstacle to a genuine spectacle: The middling effort of players who have no incentive to risk injury in a meaningless game.

With that said, I'm willing to approach the event with an open mind if you are. I'm actually most interested in learning if lifting the conference restriction will elevate the integrity of roster composition.

Recent Pro Bowls teams are littered with rosters that didn't represent the best-performing players in a given year. Every professional All-Star game is going to have snubs, but last year's election of Green Bay Packers center Jeff Saturday -- who was benched for performance reasons during the season -- was an extreme example of how reputation and an ill-informed electorate can devalue the game.

Electing a genuine list of All-Stars is particularly difficult in football, where some statistics -- most notably interceptions and sacks -- can be overvalued. There are also too many positions without reliable statistics for guidance, especially at offensive line, nose tackle, 4-3 linebacker and Cover 2 safety. Those issues aren't just a barrier for fans; a player will face only 13 teams in a given season. His expertise on the other teams not including his own isn't likely to be high.

A quick look at the latest list of top vote-getters, via fan ballots, reveals the usual list of question marks and omissions. Is the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees really having one of the top two seasons in the NFL? Why is Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly trailing the Buffalo Bills' Kiko Alonso and the Dallas Cowboys' Sean Lee, among others?

The hope is that the end of conference affiliations will minimize the artificial split that have left off some deserving candidates. This season, for example, seven of the NFL's top eight rushing totals belong to NFC running backs. The new approach should allow one and probably two additional deserving NFC running backs to make it, rather than be left off because of designated spots for AFC runners.

The AFC, in fact, has only three 1,000-yard runners at the moment. The Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles (1,287 yards) deserves a nod, but I'm not sure about the San Diego Chargers' Ryan Mathews (1,111) or the Denver Broncos' Knowshon Moreno (1,015).

The NFL's 2013 Pro Bowlers will be announced Friday at 9 p.m. ET. It's the holiday season, so we'll hope for the best.