The National Football League postseason is the highlight of the year for football enthusiasts. The best teams in the league play tough playoff football. Every game is an elimination game, and each week the matchups get more exciting right up until the Super Bowl. Except for one misstep. Somewhere in the middle is something called the Pro Bowl: a middling attempt at an all-star game that the NFL has to change.
The Pro Bowl has problems. Players don’t want to get hurt, and fans don’t want to see a game where nobody, including the players, cares. It’s not the players’ fault. Football is a dangerous sport where one injury could jeopardize an athlete’s future to play and earn lucrative contracts. Because of this, a lot of players decline to show up. The NFL then scrambles to find replacement players (remember when Tyrod Taylor was in the Pro Bowl?) until they can put together a full roster. Beyond the problem of players declining to show up, the Pro Bowl selection process is flawed. Fans make up one-third of the votes on who plays; while I understand why the NFL would want fans to be more involved in the game, Pro Bowl nominations have serious implications, since players often receive bonuses if they are invited to the Pro Bowl. Beyond that, the number of Pro Bowl invitations a player receives is frequently referenced as a sign of his greatness. Fans are highly biased and tend to pick the players who play for their favorite teams, not the best players. The current process leaves players feeling commercialized and fans just wanting to fast-forward to the Super Bowl.
So should the NFL scrap the Pro Bowl? Definitely not. All-star games are magical. There’s something to be said for bringing together the best players in the world. Team rivalries disappear, and all of these playmakers can show off their skills.
From a pragmatic perspective, it also doesn’t make sense to get rid of the Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl makes the NFL a lot of money. Beyond that, the two-week gap before the Super Bowl allows the league to coordinate logistics and gives Super Bowl teams time for injured players to recover, making the game more competitive. If the Pro Bowl is here to stay, the question becomes: How can the NFL make it better?
There are a lot of directions the NFL can take the game. First of all, Pro Bowl selections are important, both to players’ salaries and their legacy, so let’s see that reflected in the selection process. There should be a committee of independently affiliated sportswriters selecting Pro Bowl nominees, like the much more reputable All-Pro and Hall of Fame selections. That would help avoid the Pro Bowl snubs that we see year after year.
Another simple improvement would be focusing more on the smaller competitions throughout the week, such as the Gridiron Gauntlet and Dodgeball. The skills competition is my favorite part of the Pro Bowl; it’s one of the only opportunities for fans to watch players compete without pads and helmets. It helps us see them as people and not as football players. Therefore, there should also be more events for every position. Let’s get the special teams’ players involved. Let’s see circus catch competitions for wide receivers. Let’s see offensive linemen compete in sack races. Let’s see some flag football with wide receivers playing quarterback and vice versa. The NFL needs to get more creative to design games that showcase the players’ superhuman athletic abilities. The more fun the NFL can introduce into the Pro Bowl, the more fans and players will appreciate it.
As for the actual game, the NFL is already going in the right direction. They’re trying to make the Pro Bowl faster by reducing the time between plays from the typical 40 seconds to 35 seconds. Other changes include allowing coaches to communicate with multiple players on offense and defense during a play, compared to only talking to the quarterback or middle linebacker in a usual NFL game. This should make the game much more dynamic.
While some sportswriters want to raise the stakes by giving $250,000 to the winning team, I believe that a payout is against the nature of the Pro Bowl. No player should get injured during the Pro Bowl, and increasing the prize money would definitely incentivize hitting harder and risking injury. While I love the big hits just as much as any other fan, what does it say about the game if we want to see players hit each other more than we want to see safe, competitive play? In this sense, the NFL faces an impasse. At the highest levels, there is no way to guarantee safety, and in trying to do so, we lose some essence of the game. That’s why it can be viewed as a good thing that players are cognizant of their long-term health and playing future. A better idea to make the game more exciting is changing the playbook to bring in more college trick plays. I want to see more defensive players on offense. I want to see more wacky formations. Fans want to see all of the fun play designs that teams are too afraid to bring out in the regular season.
Additionally, the fundamental flaw with the AFC vs NFC format is that not enough people identify with such large conferences. Each division could have its own seven-person team, similar to how the NHL All-Star game functions. By dividing the teams based on smaller divisions such as the NFC East or AFC North, fans will be much more invested in their division’s success and there would be an actual storyline. This wouldn’t take away from any of the competitiveness of the game.
I love the idea of an all-star game, and for so many reasons the league has to keep it. There are a lot of directions the NFL could go with the Pro Bowl, but the only wrong move would be changing nothing at all.
Kshitij Sachan ’22 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.