SOUTH FLORIDA, January 26, 2014 — In a desperate attempt to save the NFL Pro Bowl, the league took radical steps. The Pro Bowl has become little more than a Hawaiian vacation for NFL players with a pickup scrimmage game tossed in the mix.
Many top players refuse to play in the game, and moving the game to the week before the Super Bowl prevented some of the very best players from participating. Super Bowl players selected to the Pro Bowl received a game check in absentia.
In a week that features the Grammy Awards and the State of the Union address, the Pro Bowl is already assured of not being the most boring program on television. The key is how to keep the game from being the most boring pro football game of the year, including preseason.
This year the NFL abolished the conferences for the game. The AFC against NFC battle is done, at least for now. The game is now being marketed as a treat for fantasy football fans. Retired Hall-of-Famers Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice were selected as team captains. They held a Pro Bowl draft, with Sanders selecting Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck first overall.
For all of the attempts to market the game, the NFL is one entity where Shakespeare’s “the play is the thing” maxim runs true. The NFL succeeds not because of cheerleaders or other gimmicks, but because of the game of football itself. The only thing that can save the Pro Bowl is if it is played like a real football game with great players making great plays.
This was a real football game that even featured significant amounts of defense, with six sacks and six turnovers in the first half.
There was still plenty of offensive entertainment despite the relatively low score. In the first quarter, a flea-flicker led to a 36-yard touchdown pass from Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to Philadelphia Eagles receiver Desean Jackson as Team Sanders led 7-0. In the second quarter, Drew Brees threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to his New Orleans Saints teammate Jimmy Graham to tie the game.
An interception of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was returned 42 yards, setting up Team Sanders at the Team Rice’s seven yard line. On fourth and goal at the one, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton snuck it in to put Team Sanders up, 14-7. Rivers rebounded to throw a ten-yard touchdown to Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon as the teams took a 14-14 tie into the locker rooms at the half.
The defenses took this game seriously, especially given that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has threatened to cancel the game permanently if it did not start resembling real football. The fourth quarter usually sees an increase in intensity since the winners get twice the money as the losers.
In the third quarter facing fourth and goal from the four, Team Sanders decided to go for it rather than kick a field goal. This would never happen in a real game, and the try failed. Midway through the fourth quarter, Team Rice opted for a 53-yard field goal try by Stephen Gostkowski. It bounced off the upright, no good.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles went deep for a 39-yard completion to Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. One play later, Foles threw a 12-yard touchdown to Cleveland Browns receiver Cameron Jordan to put Team Sanders up, 21-14, with under five minutes to play.
After converting a pair of fourth down conversions, including a fake punt, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was intercepted by Miami Dolphins defender Brenton Grimes with 2:17 to play. Team Rice got it back with 1:38 left. Smith threw a 30-yard touchdown to Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray with 41 seconds to play.
Although it would never happen in a regular season or playoff game, the Rice team decided on the two-point conversion. Carolina Panthers running back Mike Tolbert appeared stopped short, but a second effort allowed him to bull his way just past the plane of the goal.
With five seconds left, Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker came in for a 67-yard field goal try for Team Sanders. Tucker was no good.
Derrick Johnson of Team Rice was the defensive Most Valuable Player. Nick Foles of Team Sanders was the offensive MVP despite the loss. In presenting the trophy, a malaprop occurred when Team Rice was declared Super Bowl champions rather than Pro Bowl winners. Foles was confused, asking, “am I supposed to speak?” He then said he had a blast.
While Team Rice triumphed over Team Sanders, the real winners were the fans. This was a real football game that deserves to be played again in this format. 22-21, Team Rice.