The Pro Bowl's search for meaning
Why can't the NFL find a way to make its all-star game a real happening?
The Pro Bowl People -- players (?!) -- will tell you, "You have to be there" to enjoy it or even to understand it.
The Pro Bowl Hawaii. The annual paid-in-full vacation week for the NFL elite. Invite only.
The Pro Bowl No Tom Brady. No New York Giants. No Ray Rice. No Arian Foster. No Matthew Stafford or Calvin Johnson. No Troy Polamalu or Robert Mathis. No Green Bay Packer, Baltimore Raven or New Orleans Saint really wants to be there after his realistic Super Bowl expectations were shattered.
No Tim Tebow.
The Pro Bowl No blitzing, no attempting to block punts or field goals, no more than two wideouts lined up on one side, no offensive shifts or movement on the offensive line prior to a snap, no defensive alignments allowed besides the basic 4-3. Intentional grounding? Legal.
The Pro Bowl. What the ?
The Pro Bowl is not football.
Not that it has to be a full representation of what we see every fall weekend in the NFL, but it shouldn't be this far away from the game's core. It shouldn't be this far removed from how every other game is played.
No one cares about the Pro Bowl.
The Rules of the Game
The Pro Bowl is simple. Maybe too simple, at least next to what we're accustomed to seeing on a regular-season or playoff NFL weekend. Most of these rules are designed to minimize injuries. Do they excite you?
• A tight end must be on the field every play
• No motion or shifting
• Three WR's cannot line up on the same side
• Intentional grounding is legal
• Must run a 4-3 at all times
• No more than 4 DBs can be on the field
• No press coverage except inside the 5-yard line
• No blitzing
Special teams rules
• Cannot rush a punt, PAT, or FG attempt
Let me correct that: The NFL does a good job of making sure it seems that no one cares.
The execs and suits that make up commissioner Roger Goodell's front office staff surely have to know -- even with the changing of the game's date from the weekend after the Super Bowl to the weekend between the conference finals and the Super Bowl -- that the Pro Bowl is the most meaningless all-star game in sports.
The buzz it creates is iPhone 2G-on-vibrate low. When the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl (this year, Madonna) generates more excitement than a game that should be a showcase for the league's best talent well, there's a pretty strong indication that something needs to be done. Football fans shouldn't be more interested in hearing songs from "Hard Candy" and "Ray of Light" than hearing the sound of Patrick Willis blasting Mike Wallace after catching one across the middle or Von Miller breaking through the NFC offensive line to lay Aaron Rodgers on his back on third-and-long. (Or even the miked-up sideline sounds of Clay Matthews yelling about how he's going to do the exact same thing to Ben Roethlisberger once he gets back on the field: Payback.)
But the rules prevent that. The rules -- the guidelines, the history, the traditions, the thing's whole culture -- of the Pro Bowl prevent all of that.
Somehow, the NFL has to do something to get to a new iteration of this scheduled football celebration. Soon. Change the location. Change the time and timing. Change the ancillary events, the activities and extracurriculars. Change the rules.
Change the purpose, if that's what it takes. Because at this point, it serves none.
(Of note: The NFL's current contract with the Hawaii Tourism Authority ends after Sunday's game.)
Not that the NBA's All-Star Game/Weekend is perfect; but because it is in a different, more feasible and financially digestible location every year -- reachable by car, bus, train or foot to far greater numbers and at far smaller cost than Hawaii -- fans at the least can make an effort to get to it.
Not that MLB's All-Star gala is perfect; but because the winner of the game gets home-field advantage for its league's representative in the World Series, the outcome has at least a modicum of meaning.
Where's the Home Run Derby/Slam Dunk Contest equivalent at the Pro Bowl? Where are the celebrity games? Where is the public fascination, the marketing buildup and the media interest? Where's the love?
The Pro Bowl should be so much more. It should have core NFL fans shutting down their entire weekends to be engaged in it. To be a part of it.
To give a damn.
Yet it remains so not.
The NFL has to find a way to allow the Pro Bowl to be a game in which the best players are playing at the highest level. To allow coaches to scheme. To allow kicks to be blocked. To allow pass coverages to be deceptive. To allow the game to be played in a variety of destinations, making it accessible and affordable for, say, the Patriots fan living in Roxbury and the Packers fan living in Green Bay.
The league has to find a way to create a QB/WR contest to see if Stafford and Johnson can one-up Roethlisberger and Wallace. To create a one-on-one RB versus LB contest to see if Maurice Jones-Drew can shake DeMarcus Ware with no up-front blocking.
The NFL has to find a way to hold players accountable for no-shows. Financially. (In 2010, a record 29 players skipped the game.) Which would give the fans a much better chance to see the true best ball against the best.
And the league has to find a way to allow Jamie Foxx to coordinate (and host) all the parties. To convince the two Jimmys (Kimmel and Fallon) to do their shows live for the week from the Pro Bowl city. To make the players on the losing side shave their eyebrows. Anything to make this game pop.
I understand that football doesn't lend itself to 60 playing-time minutes of superficial entertainment. The game is based on strategic and tactical theories of war, so playing this game just for the sake of playing it -- even when 90 percent of the best players in the game are on the field -- is counterproductive. Counter-intelligent.
But for one weekend, one given Sunday, can't the NFL figure out how to at least throw a meaningful party?
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.