Shaking Up The Pro Bowl
No conference alignments, new rules and a player draft by two Hall of Famers give this year’s Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium a whole new look and feel
There is a truism in football that your star players have to come through for the team when the situation is most dire – big-time players raise their game in big-time moments.
This philosophy now has risen into the front office as the NFL looks to two of its most prodigious stars to save its often-maligned all-star game, the Pro Bowl, even as the commissioner is looking at phasing it out.
Hoping to shake up the once-proud tradition, NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth has tapped the league’s all-time leading wide receiver Jerry Rice and its most charismatic and game-breaking defensive player Deion Sanders to serve as captains in their new sand-lot-style format.
Giving a nod to fantasy football, which has both escalated the popularity of the NFL and created its own financial juggernaut with more than 24 million players and upward of $1 billion in revenues, the league is eschewing the conference format for the teams and instead is having the ultimate fantasy draft. The Wednesday before the game (to be played Sunday, Jan. 26, at Aloha Stadium), the two alumni captains will have a prime time live draft on NFL Network to determine who will play for Team Rice and Team Sanders.
Assisting the two Hall-of-Famers will be the top two vote-getting players on offense and defense, who will serve as team captains, and the top two fantasy players from among those 24 million who play online.
All 88 Pro Bowlers are expected to be in attendance, with the line-men, fullbacks and special teams players to be drafted the day before in a taped event, followed by the live draft with the skill position players at 3 p.m. HST Jan. 22 at Lanikuhonua at Ko Olina.
While the new format should be a treat for fans to see the selections and the snubs by their favorite players, the alumni captains believe it also will bring out the best in the players when they take to Aloha Stadium that Sunday.
“I think having captains like Prime and me will help to motivate them,” says Rice, the former San Francisco 49ers great and three-time Super Bowl winner. “They know what we stand for and how we played the game. I’m sure they will want to show us what they can do, and they’ll play hard.”
For Sanders, despite all his flash and grandiose narcissism, he knows what the player’s job is once he strides between the white lines.
“When you step onto the field, you always owe it to the fans to give them a great show,” says Sanders, a two-time Super Bowl champ with the Cowboys and 49ers. “That’s something Jerry and I need to remind these guys about all week long. From the players I’ve talked to, I think they’re excited about the changes this year, and they’re going to be ready.”
Despite being around football all their lives, serving in a management capacity over players is untested ground for Rice and Sanders, but they believe it will only help them grow their love for football.
“This is very exciting to me; I have never been in this position before,” says Rice. “It’s kind of like when I was on Dancing with the Stars - I was a fish out of water. But keeping up with these guys and how they are playing, it gives me a greater appreciation of the game.”
How those changes impact their teams will show through in their philosophies. Instead of being stuck with whatever players are selected from their conference, they will be able to pick who they think will be the best fit for their squad. For Rice, it is more about fire than it is about accolades.
“I’m one of those guys who thinks you have to be all in for what you are going to put on the football field – you have got to want to go out there and play,” says Rice, who was a 13-time Pro Bowler himself. “It might not be a seniority thing there anymore. We’ve got to get some of that young blood out there on the football field, (guys) who want to go out there and impress the fans and give them a good show. Hopefully, this year will be the start of that and get the fans back in the stands and loving the game.”
In addition to the draft, the NFL has made other changes to add to the excitement of the game while mitigating the injuries that players most fear when playing an exhibition game. The pace of play will be sped up by shaving five seconds off the play clock, meaning they have to get a playoff every 35 seconds instead of 40.
Perhaps most exciting are the new rules at the end of the first and third quarters, as they each will be treated the same as the second and fourth quarters. There will be a two-minute warning in each quarter, and the ball will change possession at the end of every quarter. This will force quarterbacks into a two-minute drill to end each quarter with a score, leading to an up-tempo pace four times in the game instead of two.
Addressing defensive concerns, new rules allow press and cover-two defense to ease the load on cornerbacks and safeties. And, to help eliminate injuries, there will be no kickoffs – teams will receive the ball on their own 25-yard line after each score or at the beginning of a quarter.
All these changes should help put excitement back into the game, but one change neither captain wants to see is its location.
“Other than with a Super Bowl ring, what better way to end your season than in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl?” asks Sanders, who played in the game eight times during his career. “There was always something special about playing alongside the best of the best. It was a blast to play with (and against) guys like Jerry, Barry Sanders and Dan Marino. There’s no other time of the year when you have that much greatness on the field at once. And you can’t beat the weather!”
For a simple guy from Crawford, Miss., there is a magic to Hawaii that always made it special for Rice.
“Without a doubt, the mystique of being over in Hawaii – the trees, the fans, the hospitality from the locals and just the atmosphere in general, the aloha spirit. It was always a really good time,” says Rice. “It is a time to get away and relax. It’s a tradition. That’s part of what we all looked forward to. Many of us used that time to take our families on vacation. It was fun for everyone, but the players also need to be committed to going out there and putting in a good effort.”
Once the drafting is done, the direction of the players will be turned over to the coaching staffs of the runners up from the NFC and AFC championship games, who will conduct practices from Thursday through Saturday. This doesn’t mean that alumni captains can relax, however, as their eponymous teams now represent them and they will make sure they don’t sully their names.
“Being named to the Pro Bowl is the biggest individual honor in the game,” says Sanders. “I always made every effort to play if I was healthy. Players are so competitive, especially with each other, and so are Jerry and I. We need to make sure we create that kind of atmosphere during Pro Bowl week.”
Rice echoes his thoughts, knowing how important it is to motivate the younger players.
“We got to pump those guys up and let them know that they are over in Hawaii for a reason, and that is for the fans. They paid their money to be at that stadium, they want your best effort,” says Rice. “Last couple years, I was very disappointed in watching the Pro Bowl, in the effort they put in. Changing the format this way hopefully helps it take off.”
Even with all their motivational speeches and hardworking examples, they also know that the real motivation for the players comes from the voices of the throngs in the stands.
“We feed off the fans, and when you have a full crowd in that stadium, you are going to want to go out and put on your best performance,” says Rice. “Playing in the Pro Bowl was an honor, and I never took it for granted. I think that may have been lost a little bit, but I think with the new changes this year, players and fans are getting excited again.”