FIXING THE PRO BOWL
Updated: Feb 5
This article was originally published on January 22nd, 2020.
The NFL Championship games are complete and football fans have one last opportunity to watch an NFL game before the 54th edition of the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl.
The NFL is by far the most popular and lucrative sports property in the U.S. Everything from its weekly TV ratings to the bets taken in Vegas, to its fantasy leagues prove that the league eclipses other sports in the country.
However, the modern Pro Bowl appears to be of no interest to the average sports fan.
The Pro Bowl maybe all of the best NFL players on one field at the same time. The top players in the AFC taking on the top players in the NFC should be one of the best games of the season, instead, it is boring.
The Pro Bowl, in reality, is an exhibition game played between thrown-together rosters. There are no real stakes attached to the game, meaning few players are really trying to win the game. This can be expected especially with the possibility for players to suffer an injury right before the off-season.
The Pro Bowl is a game without intensity, the whole reason fans love the sport in the first place.
All-star games across all American sports have seen their popularity drop over the past 20 years.
A trend that has made leagues desperate to try any change that will get people to tune in.
In 2018, the NBA decided to change its format, dropping the Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference game that has been used since 1951. Replacing the previous format with a game that features teams selected by captains LeBron James and Steph Curry.
The NHL All-Star Game is no longer a single five-on-five game, but rather a series of three-on-three games between teams from each of the league’s four divisions.
The NFL has taken notice of this decline in popularity and has tried to institute more changes than anybody else, in a bid to create interest.
They changed the location of the Pro Bowl from Hawaii to a new permanent home in Orlando. The league even decided to change the date of the Pro Bowl, moving the game from the week after the Super Bowl to the week before.
The format would also change from AFC vs. NFC to fantasy-drafted rosters led by NFL greats. However, despite being a good idea, in theory, it only really works on a smaller scale, like in the NBA’s All-Star Game, a larger roster used by the NFL makes it harder to execute.
None of these ideas has made a difference, because it didn't solve the underlying problem.
For the 2020 Pro Bowl, the NFL will be using the game to test two new rules.
Last offseason, the Denver Broncos proposed a rule change "to provide an alternative onside kick that would allow a team who is trailing in the game an opportunity to maintain possession of the ball after scoring." The rule change would have given teams an opportunity to convert a fourth-and-15 from their own 35-yard line instead of attempting an onside kick in order to get the ball back. It could have been used just once during the fourth quarter.
The Pro Bowl will get to test the rules, and the league has added a new twist. The scoring team may elect to give the ball to its opposition at their own 25, or it may elect to take the ball at its own 25-yard line for a 4th-and-15 play. If it is successful, it will maintain possession as normal, and if not, the result is a turnover.
The NFL is also looking to adjust the "illegal shift" penalty, giving wide receivers a reprieve when lined up in a two-point stance. Receivers can move one foot while in a two-point stance, as long as another foot is on the ground. The receiver will have the opportunity to reset, similar to a defensive end jumping in the neutral zone, but immediately getting set and jumping back towards his side of the ball.
It is not a false start if a flexed, eligible receiver in a two-point stance flinches or picks up one foot, as long as his other foot remains partially on the ground and he resets for one second prior to the snap. A receiver who fits this exception is not considered to be "in motion" for the purposes of the illegal shift rules. It is not a false start if all 11 offensive players have been set for at least one full second and any flexed, eligible receiver breaks his stance by picking up both feet.
The rule changes could make the Pro Bowl interesting, especially if players take the opportunities to test the new rules, it could offer fans an insight on what's to come in future seasons.
There appears to be a number of recommendations to benefit the Pro Bowl. Some fans have even called for the complete cancelation of the game. This action should not be necessary as there should be a way to create more interest with so much of the talent being in one place. Something that the NFL should focus on is that the Pro Bowl is an exhibition and it is not a regular NFL game, therefore it should not have to be played under NFL rules. Potentially following the footsteps of the NHL, which five years ago shifted its format to create a four-team tournament, each representing one of the NHL's four divisions. Where a three-on-three version of the game is played in 20-minute contests. This could be replicated within a football environment with something like seven-on-seven matchups potentially creating the opportunity for more interesting games and fun moments. These competitions may generate more interest and make players want to come and not make excuses to leave. This along with a weekend of skill challenges for different position players could be a fantastic opportunity for the NFL to showcase the league and its players. The Pro Bowl, if the right steps are taken, has the potential to be a great spectacle for fans again.