Commentary

Pro Bowl still on shaky ground

Mailbag: If owners make changes that fail, game could be doomed

Originally Published: May 20, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

On Tuesday, NFL owners will assemble in Boston for the spring owners meeting and a chance to vote on Super Bowls L and LI.

There shouldn't be a lot of drama. San Francisco and South Florida are the two bidders for Super Bowl L in 2016 (capping the 2015 season). With the Miami Dolphins failing to get political support for much needed upgrades to Sun Life Stadium and owner Stephen Ross saying he's not going to put more into the stadium, San Francisco should land that Super Bowl.

That would move South Florida into a vote against Houston for Super Bowl LI, making Houston a virtual lock to win.

But a bigger drama is brewing behind the scenes. Open for discussion is a plan to spruce up the Pro Bowl. Though ratings for the Pro Bowl are solid, the game isn't, and commissioner Roger Goodell is judging the future of the game each year. Last year, he thought players put more effort into it, so it appears to be a go for this year.

But will the Pro Bowl be around in 2016 and '17 as a prelude to those Super Bowls? The decision made this year could determine that.

On the table is a plan for the top vote-getters in each conference to serve as team captains to select the squads. Instead of having the AFC going against the NFC, the team captains would pick from the list of 88 Pro Bowlers.

Also on the table are incentives to reward squads for scores by the half or the quarter. Two-minute warnings could be added in the first and third quarters. The league is open to any suggestion, but such major changes would need support to be implemented. If the league changes the Pro Bowl, players have to brace for the consequences. If the moves fail, there probably won't be a Pro Bowl by 2016 or '17.

In 2003, baseball commissioner Bud Selig decided to have the winner of the All-Star Game determine which league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. That change didn't stop the declining ratings. In 2003, the rating, which had been in steady decline from 1988 to 2002, held at 9.5. Although there were 9.3 ratings in 2006 and 2008, viewership continues to decline. It was down to 6.8 in 2012 as part of a five-year slide.

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Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesIf the owners make changes to the Pro Bowl format, there might be no turning back.

The 2013 Pro Bowl, despite a slight decline from 2012, drew a 7.7, still a tick above the World Series. Ratings aren't the problem. The quality of the game is.

But if the ratings trend downward, the game could be canceled.

To be honest, I wasn't a fan of the moving the game to the Sunday before the Super Bowl, but that worked for the ratings. Fans and viewers were starved enough for football that they kept watching.

A major change, though, could put the Pro Bowl on the path to doom. Changing to a draft system instead of having conference ties would make it tough to go back to the conference concept if the fans don't buy into it.

Another item on the agenda is the discussion about moving back the dates of some offseason traditions. If owners buy into those concepts, the scouting combine could be a little later. The draft might be moved into May. One thing that won't happen is delaying the start of free agency. The players association isn't in favor of that.

For free agency to start later than the beginning of March, players would have to side with the owners. Not happening.

From the inbox

Q: I'm a displaced Detroit Lions fan, and I love my Lions. I keep reading that they are looking for receiver help, and I just don't understand why. Are they looking for a burner or a slot guy or what? Additionally, and I hate even typing this, but would a Terrell Owens or a Randy Moss help? I remember reading that they needed an outside threat to keep pressure off of Calvin Johnson. Moss can still run, can't he?

Brian in Hartsdale, N.Y.

A: They are just looking for someone to step up at wide receiver other than Johnson. Nate Burleson is getting older and may be around for just this year. Ryan Broyles could be the answer, but he came into the league with knee problems. They've invested second-round picks to help the receiving corps, but so far they haven't hit gold. They don't need an older receiver, so I don't see Moss helping out. Plus, Moss isn't sure he wants to play. With the addition of running back Reggie Bush, I think they can get by and do well with the weapons they have. But the Lions want a lot from the offense, so they might keep looking.

Q: Now that the Jets have waived Tim Tebow and David Garrard has suddenly decided to retire, does this open the door for incumbent Mark Sanchez or do Geno Smith and Greg McElroy still stand a chance?

Brittany in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

A: Garrard's retirement clearly gives the job to Sanchez. Had Garrard worked out, I could have seen the Jets cutting Sanchez at the end of training camp and Garrard getting the job at the start of the season. Now that can't happen. Naturally, there will be an open competition, but it would hurt Smith more than help if they rush him into the starting lineup. There aren't enough weapons for him to be an instant success. Plus, the team is rebuilding. I'm sure the fans want Sanchez to leave, but I think it's pretty clear he will be the starter at the beginning of the season. Then the question will become, when will Sanchez move aside for Smith to get some time.

Q: How can the NFL justify upholding the NCAA suspension of Terrelle Pryor in the NFL? Last week you stated that there was separation between the NCAA and the NFL, yet this was a case in which the NFL chose to ignore said separation. How can the coach who deliberately commits recruiting violations (aka cheating to get better players) in college be embraced by the NFL with open arms? They say what's good for the goose is good for the gander, yet it seems it only applies when it's convenient.

Armando in Haleiwa, Hawaii

A: The Pryor situation was different because he entered the league through the supplemental draft. He had to apply for the ability to be drafted. Remember that Pryor was planning on playing that season at Ohio State. His five-game suspension gave him the desire to leave school and come into the league. The commissioner felt he should serve the time in the NFL. I can see a college coach who comes into the league serving an NFL suspension only if the NCAA has a firm ruling already in place. Most often, the coach leaving college doesn't get the NCAA ruling until a year or two after his departure from college.

Q: Are teams that hard under the cap in terms of space that they can't fill needs? If we look at the Vikings, why haven't they signed a middle linebacker? I haven't heard of options on their roster. Same with interest in some of the older pass-rush specialists like John Abraham. I know teams can use them, but is it just the reality of very little cap space kicking in here?

Sam in Waterloo, Iowa

A: The Vikings clearly weren't looking at Brian Urlacher and believe in Erin Henderson to some degree. They have tried to address several needs. The cap isn't a problem to them. With four starters on the defensive line in the last year of their contracts, the last thing they wanted to do was add a veteran pass-rusher who would sign a one-year deal for big money. They did bring in Lawrence Jackson as a backup. Had they not signed Greg Jennings, though, I would be more critical of their offseason.

Q: Have the Bills done enough (i.e., nothing) to address the interior of their O-line? What was a strength last year could be a weakness with just the loss of Andy Levitre. I don't know much about Chris Scott, but why wouldn't the Bills go after Brandon Moore (since they ignored the position in the draft despite solid prospects being available). He's a beast of a lineman and his price has to be dropping due to the apparent lack of interest. Thoughts?

Zach from Tampa, Fla.

A: I think they needed to do more. They could pick up Moore and have an insurance policy. They are all right at right guard with Kraig Urbik. Left guard is another story. It could be Scott. It could be Sam Young. But what if someone gets hurt? Then the Bills have a problem. You have to get the feeling the Bills are taking a cautious approach. They know they can't turn around the franchise overnight. I would be for a Moore signing.

Q: Now that the Panthers are around $8 million under the salary cap after restructuring DeAngelo Williams' contract, how should they spend their money this summer to make the team better? I'm still concerned about wide receiver, but also know the defense needs some help. What do you think?

Gary in Columbia, S.C.

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Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireSteve Smith could use some help in the Panthers' passing game.

A: There isn't much more they can do this late. I know it is May, but the market has been picked dry of impact players. I'm with you, though, on the receiver position. Steve Smith is getting older. While I liked the idea of drafting defensive tackles, the Panthers really needed to come up with upgrades at wide receiver. Adding Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn wasn't enough. This is an important year for Cam Newton, and he needs weapons. Unfortunately, I don't see much out there that can help them now.

Q: Yes, it is another Tim Tebow question, but I feel this one is much more logical. Feel free to disagree.The Jaguars are expected to have the first or second pick in the 2014 draft based on many expert projections. Most feel the Jaguars will look to draft the best QB prospect with that pick. If that is the case, why would the Jaguars not want to sign and play Tebow for one year?

Myke in Aldie, Va.

A: Simple: Tebow isn't a good option at quarterback. Second, his presence would make it impossible for Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne to get any better. I know you might chime in and say they aren't going to get better. I might agree with that. Tebow is too popular for his own good. I don't think you are suggesting Tebow play at quarterback for a year to make sure the Jaguars have the first or second pick in the draft. Each day Tebow isn't on a team lessens the chance for him to improve as a quarterback. The Jets experience set him back. I'm not seeing anyone picking him up just as a quarterback.

Q: I've been really bothered by my team's early bye week the last few years. It got me to thinking of an alternative that would be more fair for everyone. Why not make all byes Weeks 8 and 9. Half the league plays Week 8 then is off Week 9, leaving the other teams to play. Also make sure they are all division games. This masks the shortage of games those weeks by giving everyone high-profile games that mean much more. Could it happen? Really, why not do it?

Mace in East Chicago, Ind.

A: There is a television network problem with that option. If only 16 teams play on Week 8 and 16 teams play on Week 9, there are only eight games available for the networks. Each week needs three night games, so that only leaves five games for a Sunday. Fox and CBS would be shorted on inventory, and the football fans would be feeling like not much is happening. The solution causes more problems than it solves.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer