The National Football League took a step in the right direction with the Pro Bowl this season, moving it up two weeks, to the Sunday before the Super Bowl. This is historically a dead weekend for football fans who are frothing at the mouth for their favorite sport. In prior years, when the game was played a week after the Super Bowl — in Honolulu — most American sports fans had already turned their attention to the NBA All-Star Game or the Daytona 500. The venue won’t be as attractive (Sunday’s game will be played in Miami, site of the Super Bowl) and the game will miss players selected from the Colts and Saints (for obvious reasons). But it’s a step closer to making the NFL’s all-star game a legitimate highlight on the sports calendar.
We’re not there yet, though.
To begin with, every year players opt out of the Pro Bowl for reasons that vary from twisted knees to twisted emotions. Two of the three AFC quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Philip Rivers) have said "Thanks, but no thanks" to this year's event. And the third (Peyton Manning) won't play since his Colts are AFC champs, with a pretty big game the following week. So the AFC will be down to its fourth-string quarterback. What began as a 43-man roster for the NFC has swollen closer to 50 with “injury replacements” for players unable (or unwilling) to suit up. You have to wonder about the value of a Pro Bowl nod, when players are so quick to avoid the game, and so easily make replacements (without any fan or coach voting to determine the newly decorated substitute).
You can hardly blame NFL stars (weary from five months of collisions and joint pain) for being reluctant to don helmet and pads for an exhibition game after their season has ended. The free trip to Hawaii was a nice hook, but with that now gone, why would an aging star like Brady risk exposing a knee or shoulder to one ill-fated tackle?
I’ve got a solution: flag football.
Instead of donning helmet and pads, why not have the NFL’s biggest stars play a game the way you and I would in our backyard or the nearest rec field? Each player could wear the T-shirt of the team he represents, with “uniform shorts” that would sell like hotcakes at nfl.com. (The flags they wear could be auctioned off for charity after the game. This is a concept, folks.)
Among the reasons the NBA has grown into the brand it has is how naked the players are. When Kevin Garnett lets out a post-dunk scream as though his right foot was amputated when he landed, every fan — and television viewer — sees it. This element could be brought to football for one afternoon. Sure, the players would be holding some terror back, would scale down the intimidation-meter. But wouldn’t it be fun to see the grimace Ryan Clady sports as he tries to keep DeMarcus Ware from Vince Young’s flag? Or what about the goofy facial contortions Chris Johnson displays as he weaves between “tacklers” on a 40-yard jaunt? For one afternoon, the NFL would look like the Kennedy home movies.
Baseball’s All-Star Game has meaning because of its history (and how peeved every National League player is that they can’t win the thing any more). The NBA was made for All-Star festivities, a personality-driven sport that thrives when it can remove the inconvenience of defense from its end-to-end formula for entertainment. And I, for one, love the NHL’s All-Star Game, when you can see more goals in three periods than you will in three weeks of following your favorite team.
But the NFL’s All-Star Game? It just seems contrived. Players will use multiple Pro Bowl selections in contract negotiations ... then not show up to play the game. So take the pads off, remember what it was like to play football when you were 10, and give America what it wants: Football stars unmasked.