Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Pros (and Cons) of the Pro Bowl

In today’s lesson, we take a look at the only game in town (so to speak) this weekend—the Pro Bowl.

So, what is the Pro Bowl, anyway?

You know how the other major American team sports—baseball, basketball and hockey—have their All-Star games in the middle of the season?  Well, the Pro Bowl is football’s All-Star game, except it happens at the end of the season.  The game features the top players from the NFC playing against the top players from the AFC.  Until very recently, it wasn’t held until the week after the Super Bowl.  However, in 2010 this changed and it is now held in the week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl—so, this weekend.

How are players selected?

Players are voted into the Pro Bowl by three sets of constituents:  coaches, players and fans.  It used to be that only coaches and players had a say.  That changed in 1995 when the league gave fans the right to vote for their favorite players.  This approach has some detractors, who argue that teams in larger markets, like New York, or with broad fan bases outside of their markets, like Dallas, send an disproportionately large number of players to the Pro Bowl, regardless of their ability.  In addition to top vote-getters, Pro Bowl alternates are also invited; they will play if a voted player will be in the Super Bowl, suffers an injury or is unable to play for any other reason.  For a look at this year's roster, click here:

Why is it played after the season is over?

The reason for the delay is concern over players being injured and being unavailable for regular games.  This fear is more acute in football because of the higher degree of physical contact and risk of injury.  Also, with only 16 games in a season, any injuries are more significant when players who are obviously critical to the success of their teams (or else they wouldn’t be in the Pro Bowl) are unavailable.

When did the Pro Bowl start?

The first of these games was the “Pro All-Star Game” and it took place after the 1938 season.  After the 1942 season, the game was suspended because of World War II and not revived until 1951, when it was first called the “Pro Bowl.”

Where is the Pro Bowl played?

Until 1980, the Pro Bowl took place at venues all over the country.  From 1980 to 2009, the game was held in Honolulu, Hawaii.  The league has since determined that the game should be rotated among other venues in addition to Aloha Stadium; partly to increase ticket sales, and partly to increase television ratings, which are never stellar for this event.  In 2010, therefore, the game was played in Miami.  This was also the first year that the game took place in the bye week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl—another change designed to improve ratings.  The 2011 Pro Bowl returned to Hawaii, where it will take place again on Sunday.

Who coaches the Pro Bowl?

Until recently, the head coach of each team was the head coach of the team that had lost its Conference Championship Game.  So, this year it would have been the Harbaugh brothers—Jim of the Baltimore Ravens and John of the San Francisco 49ers (which would have been pretty cool).  Now, though, the coaches are from the losing teams from the divisional round of the playoffs that had the best records.  This year, therefore, the coaching staff of the Houston Texans, headed by Gary Kubiak, will coach the AFC team and the Green Bay Packers coaching staff, led by Mike McCarthy, will coach the NFC team.  This new arrangement gives the coaching staffs more time to work with their teams.

Is this game played any differently from other games?

Yes.  For one thing, the “starters” won’t play long.  They usually only play for maybe a first quarter, then their alternates take their places.  Why?  To minimize the chance that they will get hurt.

For another, several rules are different; again, this is to minimize the risk to the players.  Among other differences, intentional grounding is legal (to let the QB get rid of the ball instead of taking a sack); there is also no blitzing allowed.  Also, there is no rushing allowed for kicking plays:  punts, point-after attempts and field goal attempts.  Finally, there are certain rules governing formations on offense and defense—e.g., the defense must be in a 4-3 formation and the offense must use a tight end.

So, the year’s big winners won’t play because they’ll be in the Super Bowl, the best players that do play don’t play for long, and the rules virtually eliminate the rough stuff.  Why should I watch?

That’s an excellent question.  Unfortunately, you're not the only who asks it, either.  The Pro Bowl has notoriously low ratings every year, primarily for the reasons mentioned.  This is a shame because election to the Pro Bowl is one of the Big Three honors a player can earn, with the All-Pro designation (determined by members of the press) and induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Whenever you read a player's bio (like in Naptime Huddle's "Stars and Legends" series), the ones for the great players always mention these three accolades. 

One day the league might come up with a better way to honor the best players of the season--like maybe a ceremony instead of a game, with other skill events surrounding it (like baseball's Home Run Derby).  In the meantime, if you don't have anything better to do this Sunday, maybe you can switch it on?

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