Conference battle produces competitive Pro Bowl for NFL

ORLANDO, Fla. -- In recent years, a lack of effort and competitiveness have been the biggest takeaways from the NFL’s Pro Bowl. But this year’s all-star game had its share of compelling moments.

From goal-line stands to a dynamic interception return by Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, these moments were the kind that could benefit the Pro Bowl, an event the NFL continues to tweak to attract players and entertain fans.

The AFC beat the NFC 20-13 on Sunday in front of a sell-out crowd of 60,834 at the Camping World Stadium in Orlando, representing only the third time since 1979 the event has been held outside of Hawaii. The game came down to one possession with 1 minute, 23 seconds left.

Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander intercepted a tipped pass and forced a lateral to Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, who sprinted toward the end zone. But Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins hustled to strip Talib of the ball. The NFC was unable to recover the fumble, ending its chances of a comeback, but it made for an exciting ending.

The future of the Pro Bowl continues to be a topic facing the league. The product of the game hasn’t been where the NFL wants it to be, and players are backing out at a record rate. Eighty players declined Pro Bowl invites over the past two years, according to Elias Sports Bureau research, which is an NFL record for any two-year stretch.

The NFL returned the format of the game to a battle between conferences after the previous three Pro Bowl teams were determined via a draft by celebrity coaches. The conference battle appeared to create a more competitive game on Sunday.

However, there are no easy answers. Sherman and a few others told ESPN that one option would be to increase pay for players who participate.

“Pay a guy what he makes per game. That would help a lot,” said Sherman, who made $785,562 per game in 2016. “If you pay a guy what he makes per game, he would probably play like it's a game. A lot of these guys make a nice, decent chunk of change. That's why a lot of guys don't play. If you told them they're making a game check, I guarantee you not many guys [would be] passing up Pro Bowls."

This year’s pay scale for the Pro Bowl is $30,000 per player on the losing team and $61,000 per player on the winning team. That is cost prohibitive for most NFL players, especially stars who are among the best at their positions. Ten players on the winning team during this year's skills competition also received $17,500 each.

The money is paid by the NFL and negotiated under the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires in 2020. If the league and players are serious about bettering the actual game aspect of the Pro Bowl, this could be a topic of discussion in the next negotiation.

Seahawks teammate Michael Bennett agreed with Sherman that the NFL must put more money into the Pro Bowl if the league wants a more competitive game.

“Everybody gets $200,000; [the NFL] can do that easily,” said Bennett, who made $792,968 per game in 2016.

Increased money would solve the major problem of declined invites. To keep the Pro Bowl going, the league’s biggest stars must actually show up for the game. For example, Sunday’s AFC quarterbacks were Alex Smith (starter), Andy Dalton and Philip Rivers. All three were alternates.

But would money solve the league’s other big issue, which is lack of competitiveness? That’s more difficult to answer.

The game has been heavily scrutinized for the poor level of product. Players want to play but want to be safe. How can the NFL balance the two? Commissioner Roger Goodell said Sunday night it’s about having fun.

“This is a different kind of a game,” Goodell said to ESPN. “This isn’t a Super Bowl or a championship game. We recognize that. It’s gotta be something that reflects positively on our end. The thing that really struck me about the skills challenge was how much fun the players had. They were really enjoying it. And that’s what I said to them tonight: ‘Have fun. Enjoy it.’”

The consensus among Pro Bowl players this week was there’s a general understanding to take care of one another. As Alexander put it: “Nobody wants to get hurt, and nobody wants to be that guy to injure someone.”

There was an ankle injury to Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert last year at the Pro Bowl that cost him a portion of the 2016 season, which several players referenced this week as a cautionary tale. There were no known injuries in Sunday’s game.

Competitiveness in all-star contests is an issue facing all major pro sports. However, here's the problem with pro football: Physicality and contact are core aspects.

“Exhibition football is hard to do as a format,” Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake said. “If it’s baseball, you want to see 100 home runs. That’s great. In basketball, you want to see 160 points, dunks and alley-oops. That’s what they want to see: entertainment. Football, you kind of want to see big hits and aggression and tackling -- the chaos and the violence that is football. As an exhibition, is that risk/reward going to be worthwhile to the individuals?”

By most metrics, this year’s Pro Bowl was a success.

The NFL made some changes this year to try to bring the excitement back. The move to Orlando is part of a two-year deal with Camping World Stadium, with a third-year option. Sunday’s game was a sellout, and the league also sold standing-room only tickets.

A number of players welcomed the switch, especially those with children, because of the nearby theme parks. Mike Evans, a first-time Pro Bowler and self-professed Harry Potter fanatic, couldn’t wait to take his 4-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, to Universal Studios to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

“The NFL did a great job with this one,” Evans said. “The NFL is hooking [us] up with VIP tours and everything. I’m taking full advantage.”

Dalton, a three-time Pro Bowler, said the family-friendliness of Orlando made the trip special.

“Obviously, Hawaii is Hawaii, and it’s hard to beat that, but this has been great,” Dalton said. “We did Disney yesterday, and [my son] Noah loved it.”

Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, a two-time Pro Bowler who took part in the Pro Bowl parade at Disney, brought his whole family. His son, Princeton, was thrilled to meet Mickey Mouse.

“I haven’t had the pleasure of playing in Hawaii,” Sanders said. “The last time I was in the Pro Bowl, it was in Arizona. It was definitely fun in Arizona, but I like it out here, honestly. Just the flight to Hawaii, going through that whole process, with family members and stuff, that just seems way more difficult. I like it out here. You’ve got so many attractions, so much things to do. Yesterday, we went to Universal Studios; they shut down the entire park for us. It was awesome to be able to do that.”

If the quality of the game continues to be poor, would players be open to the idea of scrapping it altogether and just having the skills competition, along with some of the other events?

"I definitely feel that you need to play a game," Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "This is stuff for the fans, and it's all about being able to come out and put on events like this, showcase your talents. But you definitely want to go out and compete in a game like Sunday's, because as football players, that's what we do -- we play football."

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, playing in his third Pro Bowl, said, "The Pro Bowl still needs to be played, but you can still add this leading up to the game. ... They're both fun. But especially in that fourth quarter of the Pro Bowl -- it means a lot to a lot of people."

Former running back Jerome Bettis played in six Pro Bowls ranging from 1993 to 2004. According to Bettis, Pro Bowls were more physical in his day, but the game overall has shifted dramatically in terms of rule changes and player safety.

Bettis said the current generation of players will decide the future of the Pro Bowl.

“I think it’s up to the players,” Bettis said. “Because ultimately, they will decide if this game is successful or not, if it stays or if it goes. That’s based upon these guys and their willingness to compete.”

Compared to recent years, Sunday's game was a step in the right direction.