Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Super Mario, others get Pro Bowl cold shoulder
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
Mario Williams, Charles Woodson and Fred Taylor should all be going to Hawaii in February.
Twenty months ago, on the evening in which the Houston Texans chose defensive end Mario Williams over tailback Reggie Bush with the first overall selection in the 2006 draft, I suggested the franchise should think about turning over such critical decisions to Mr. Magoo, who might actually demonstrate a little more foresight.
But on Tuesday night, with the taste of crow still fresh on my palate, I find myself wondering just who in the league, and in the voting public, are really the most nearsighted. Because during a year in which Blooper Mario has transformed into Super Mario, collecting the second-most sacks (13) in the league, the Texans' second-year end ranks among the most notable Pro Bowl oversights.
Place the emerging star right up there with Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson, who is enjoying a defensive player of the year kind of season; running back Fred Taylor of the Jacksonville Jaguars; and Pittsburgh's 3-4 inside linebacker James Farrior among the guys who have a legitimate beef over not being chosen for the conference all-star squads that were announced Tuesday.
To be sure, the annual Pro Bowl vote has always been a popularity contest -- this old hack has been around long enough to have witnessed players visiting opponents' locker rooms after games to lobby for votes and barter for trips "across the water," as the hippest players now say -- and the interactive age has made it considerably more so. But at a time when there is so much data available on players that we all suffer from information overload, it's difficult to believe that not enough people paid attention to Williams.
Although this has become a day when it's fashionable to parse the Pro Bowl rosters and make knee-jerk reactions to the selections, I'm not fond of using the term snub to describe worthy players not chosen for a game that many of them consider meaningless anyway. Roster limits always mean that deserving players are going to be excluded. And it is difficult to argue that most of the players elected don't belong.
Plus, given the salary levels in the league, even players making the minimums can afford a vacation to Hawaii, so it's not as if they are going to miss out on the opportunity to visit the islands.
But in contract negotiations, teams generically refer to Pro Bowl selections as honors for a reason. And while some players come up with reasons to eschew appearing in the game, it still means something to win a Pro Bowl invitation. It certainly would've meant something to Williams' reputation to add Pro Bowler to his résumé, especially after a rookie season in which so many people, yours truly included, viewed him as a bust.
For the most part, the people who do the Pro Bowl voting get things right. This year, they got it wrong, especially as it pertains to Williams, who is coming off a dominant 3½-sack performance in Thursday win over Denver.
• Choosing cornerback Al Harris of Green Bay, one of the NFL's best pure coverage players and the kind of physical edge player in the secondary every team would love to have, was an inspired selection. The 10-year veteran has been slighted for way too long. But Harris, one-half of the NFL's best tandem, is only the second-best cornerback on his own team.
Woodson, a gifted two-way defender, is having a brilliant year. He supports the run as well as any cornerback in the NFL, has four interceptions and 10 passes defensed, and also returns punts. Terence Newman of Dallas is a superb player, but he missed two full games and four starts because of a knee injury.
Steelers linebacker James Farrior has 84 tackles this season.
• Taylor is the 18th-leading rusher in NFL history and, at age 31, is having one of his best seasons. And the guy has never been to a Pro Bowl game. In fact, the Jaguars' star is the only player among the top 49 rushers in NFL history never to appear in a Pro Bowl contest.
Taylor is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, second best in the league among runners with more than 200 carries, and tops in his conference. If he had as many carries as Pittsburgh's Willie Parker, he would lead the league in rushing by more than 300 yards.
• Taylor isn't the only deserving Jacksonville player not going to the game. In fact, it wasn't exactly a good year for the three Florida-based teams, as they combined to send just one player, Miami defensive end Jason Taylor, to Hawaii. The Jaguars and the Bucs have 19 victories between them, and zero Pro Bowl players. Hard to figure why a pair of Bucs defenders -- strong safety Jermaine Phillips and middle linebacker Barrett Ruud -- didn't merit more consideration. Or why Jags left guard Vince Manuwai, a powerful in-line blocker, wasn't picked.
• On the subject of guards, Cleveland's Eric Steinbach, Chris Snee of the New York Giants and Jahri Evans of New Orleans probably deserved Pro Bowl nods. Evans is the best player on a Saints line that has surrendered the fewest sacks in the NFL. Steinbach helps form one of the best left sides in the league, and the Browns are averaging nearly five yards per carry on plays that are run behind him.
• One of my pet peeves remains that the Pro Bowl balloting should differentiate between left and right offensive tackles, because they are truly disparate positions. Once again all six tackles chosen for the game play the left side.
Yes, it has been a brutal season for right tackles league-wide, and the position definitely is a problem area in general in the NFL right now. But Jordan Gross of Carolina has been a bright spot in the Panthers' otherwise dismal season, having surrendered only one sack, and probably deserves a nod.
And if the voters are going to choose all left tackles, at least pick guys who are having good seasons. Jonathan Ogden of Baltimore is going to the Hall of Fame, but he shouldn't be going to an 11th Pro Bowl, given that a chronic toe problem has dropped his performance level. Michael Roos of Tennessee or Cleveland rookie Joe Thomas would have been a better selection.
• All three of the outside linebackers on the AFC squad, and four of the six overall, play in 3-4 fronts. And all of them are very deserving of their selections. But the voters once again ignored 3-4 inside 'backers, most notably Farrior, who has 84 tackles and a career-best six sacks, but who remains excellent in pass coverage as well. And there are no pure 3-4 defensive ends, either, meaning that Darnell Dockett of Arizona, a former 4-3 tackle, was shut out.
• A Steelers defender who did make the AFC squad, but who probably would concede he has not had the production of past years, is strong safety Troy Polamalu, who has missed time because of a knee injury. Arguably a better pick would have been Kerry Rhodes of the New York Jets. And on the NFC side, O.J. Atogwe of St. Louis, who is second in the NFL with seven interceptions, merited stronger support.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.