Monday, February 1, 2016

Bury the Pro Bowl Game

It is time. In fact, it’s way overdue.

It is time the National Football League’s journey into crass exhibitionism, the annual Pro Bowl Game, is put out of its misery and retired.

What once was a fairly decent game played after all the post-season festivities were concluded has devolved into nothing more than a romp on the beach in Hawaii followed by a poor facsimile of what the NFL calls a football game.

Now it is played the Sunday between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. It is in the strictest sense of the word an exhibition. It doesn’t count in a far-out way. It’s the most meaningless of all the meaningless All-Star Games and nothing more now than a reason to stroke the egos of the players.

It is the only All-Star Game of the four major sports in this country that is played after the season. All others are played as a mid-season break.

I remember when the Pro Bowl was played in the manner of a regular-season game. Back in the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s, there was a distinct rivalry between conferences.

Like in the 1965 Pro Bowl Game when Baltimore Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti planted Frank Ryan in the ground and dislocated his shoulder as the Cleveland quarterback attempted to pass.

Marchetti admitted it was an act of revenge because he believed Ryan was trying to run up the score of the championship game the week before, declaring he wanted “one more shot” at Ryan. The Pro Bowl afforded him the opportunity.

The Browns were leading, 27-0, in the 1964 title game in Cleveland when fans ran onto the field and tore down the goalposts with 26 seconds remaining in the game and the Browns in possession at the Baltimore 16. Officials called the game at that point despite Ryan’s protestations to continue.

Feuds used to spill over into the final professional football game of the season. Now, all the players do during the game is waltz – sometimes literally – through games, hoping not to get hurt. Sagging television ratings indicate the fans’ disdain for the game.

As it is played now, the Pro Bowl Game has become a joke and the league, for some reason, chooses to perpetuate it, believing perhaps that fans cannot get enough football no matter in what form it is presented.

Commissioner Roger Goodell a few years ago entertained thoughts of completely doing away with the game, which in 1950 became the game most fans became used to, an extension of normal aggressive football, not the touch football it has become. Unfortunately, they were passing thoughts and passed away.

What we have today is a stepchild of the original format, which featured All-Star teams from rival geographic conferences over the years. The AFC-NFC rivalry has given way to the current fantasy-draft procedure of players selected by fans and coaches.

The so-called “unconferenced” format has Hall of Fame wide receivers Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin selecting their teams fantasy football style the last two seasons, often times forcing teammates during the regular season to oppose each other.

The allure of the game is now watered down by the absence of those playing in the Super Bowl a week after the Pro Bowl, diluting the star quality of the game.

Factor in the number of players who have been selected pulling out of the game because of injuries, real or perceived, which further weakens the product. Of the 86 players originally chosen this season, a whopping 47 bowed out for a variety of reasons.

Perfect example: Seven members of the New England Patriots were voted to the Pro Bowl. None participated, having been allowed to pull out.

The number of those selected to the game or as an alternate this season ballooned to 133 from the original 86. One pundit calculated that’s 8% of the players in the league who can claim Pro Bowl status.

The game has become a highly watered-down version of a regular-season game with, among other changes, no blitzing, little or no creativity on either side of the ball, no rushing the punter or placekicker, no kickoffs (teams begin possessions at the 25-yard line) and intentional grounding is legal.

In other words, it has become a game that is totally unlike what you see in the NFL during the regular season and playoffs.

What to do? Cancel the game. Have balloting for a game that won’t be played in an effort to reward those good enough to warrant selection. Give them something about which to gloat, to put on their résumés.

Limit the number of names to the 22 positions on the field, include punters and kickers, and one additional selection for each position for a total of 70, or 35 per conference team. Then pay all the players chosen the same amount of money rather than the winners’ and losers’ share as they do now.

Take away their all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii  -- or Brazil, which is being considered for the 2017 game (no kidding) – because many players don’t seem to really care about taking advantage of it.

Don’t make the fans suffer any more than they have to for the ultimate meaningless game in sports.

It’s time to say aloha to the Pro Bowl. May it rest in peace.

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