End of an Era? Sunday's Pro Bowl could be the Last
The National Football League has had some sort of All-Star Game dating back to 1939. The current Pro Bowl format pitting the AFC and the NFC began following the merger between the conferences in the 1970 season.
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However, Sunday's annual matchup in Hawaii could be the final Pro Bowl if it's not a competitive game. Last year, the AFC beat the NFC 59-41 the week before the Super Bowl. It was the second-highest scoring Pro Bowl of all-time, just seven points shy of the mark set in the February 8, 2004, game when the NFC won 55-52.
Most football fans prefer offense, and the teams combined for 52 first downs, 1,142 yards and zero true tackles last season. It's that final stat that has the Pro Bowl on life support. Players on both sides were barely giving an effort, especially on defense, and weren't attempting to hide the fact they didn't want to be on the field. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers summed it up by saying this to the media afterward: "I was a little bit disappointed. I felt like some of the guys on the NFC side embarrassed themselves. Some of the guys either didn't want to play or when they were in there didn't put any effort into it."
Soon after, Commissioner Roger Goodell agreed that it was embarrassing and threatened to end the Pro Bowl immediately, but several players lobbied to keep it and promised better effort. This week, NFL executive Ray Anderson said the fate of this game going forward is completely dependent on that effort. The league had considered perhaps replacing the game with skills competitions, like MLB, the NBA and NHL have prior to All-Star games, or seven-on-seven scrimmages. Fans didn't respond to those ideas. The NFL plans to decide the Pro Bowl's future by the time it releases the 2013 schedule in April.
Broncos QB Peyton Manning, the consummate professional, implored his fellow players this week to compete hard, saying the past two years the effort was "unacceptable". Manning, who missed last year's game while injured, is making his 12th Pro Bowl appearance, the most ever for a quarterback, and will start for the AFC. The record for Pro Bowl appearances since the merger is 14 by former Oilers/Titans offensive tackle Bruce Matthews, a Hall of Famer.
Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez and Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis are tied among active players with 13 Pro Bowl selections. Neither will play Sunday, and both future Hall of Famers are expected to retire. Gonzalez's Falcons were eliminated in the NFC title game, but he pulled out of the Pro Bowl with an injury. Gonzalez has said he's 95% sure he will call it quits. Lewis is of course in the Super Bowl and no players from those teams will play in the Pro Bowl. The NFC champion 49ers led all teams with a franchise-record nine selections this year. Lewis already has stated unequivocally that he is retiring.
The game does solid TV ratings each year and also surprisingly good action at Bovada. The line has moved all week, with it currently listed as a pick'em at the book with a total of 84. Only one NFL game all season exceeded that total - Week 3: Titans 44, Lions 41 in overtime.
The Pro Bowl has easily exceeded 84 points the past two years. In last year's game, then-Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall was named the game's MVP by catching six passes for 176 yards and a Pro Bowl-record four touchdowns. The only player to repeat as Pro Bowl MVP since the merger is former Raiders QB Rich Gannon in the games following the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Marshall, now with the Bears, won't become the first to win it with different teams. He was voted an NFC starter but pulled out with an injury and was replaced by Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald.
The NFC has been gutted with injured stars pulling out. All three of the conference's quarterbacks (Rodgers, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Washington rookie Robert Griffin III ) won't be making an appearance. They have been replaced by the Saints' Drew Brees, Giants' Eli Manning and Seahawks' rookie Russell Wilson. Record-setting Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, voted a starter, also will sit out. At least Minnesota's Adrian Peterson will play.
The AFC hasn't been hit nearly as hard offensively, although Patriots offensive stars Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski all will miss the game following the loss to the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. Brady and Welker played against Baltimore, but Gronkowski was ruled out for the year after the Divisional Round with a re-broken forearm. Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck replaced Brady, meaning he will be able to share notes with Manning, whom Luck replaced this season as the franchise player with Indianapolis.
Look for AFC coach John Fox (Broncos) and NFC coach Mike McCarthy (Packers) to have Wilson and Luck playing at the same time. Last season, Carolina's Cam Newton and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton became the first pair of rookie signal-callers named to the Pro Bowl in the same season. They each played the entire second half for the NFC and AFC, respectively.
If this is the final Pro Bowl, the winner will hold a 22-21 all-time edge. The AFC has won two of the past three, but the NFC won three of the previous four. The longest streak by either side was four-straight victories by the NFC from 1977-80. No Pro Bowl has been decided by a field goal or less since 2006. Two Pro Bowls have gone to overtime: the AFC won 23-20 in 1993 and 26-23 in 2007.
Considering a bet on the Pro Bowl MVP? Much like the Super Bowl, recent history favors an offensive player, especially a quarterback. Since the Pro Bowl following the 2000 season, a QB has won the award six times. Manning certainly will be a favorite this year with his professional approach to any game. He won the award in the February 2005 Pro Bowl. A defensive player has won Pro Bowl MVP twice this century: since-retired Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks seven years ago and current Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall two years ago.
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