Friday, January 29, 2010

Why the Pro Bowl Sucks

Of all the major sports all star games, the Pro Bowl has always been, by far, the worst. This has been for several reasons, not the least of which is that it fails on the basic promise of an All-Star Game.

Simply put, the whole point of an ASG is to see the best play with and against the best. That's what sells the baseball ASG - the thought of Mariano Rivera trying to nail down a win against a Murderer's Row of, say, Hanley Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Chase Utley. It's Carl Hubbell and his screwball getting swings and misses from five Hall of Famers in a row. And for all that managers these days are careful about getting lots of players in and not scragging pitchers' arms, one gets the genuine sense that the baseball being played in the ASG is fundamentally identical to the baseball played throughout the season and the playoffs.

The same goes for the NBA All-Star Game; sure, nobody plays defense, but they're playing hard. It's Dream Team vs. Dream Team out there, the Garnett-to-LeBron-to-dunking-over-Tim-Duncan moment that's literally impossible in the "real" world for all those pesky salary cap reasons. We can't see this anywhere else. It offers us a cross between fantasy sports and gladiatorial combat in way that's compelling.

The Pro Bowl, on the other hand, throws this out the window by allowing everyone and their uncle to cop out of the game with the exuse that their kitten has a hangnail. It's played at a leisurely pace with a dumbed-down playbook and guys going half speed, because nobody wants to get hurt, and it's generally played after the Super Bowl, when we've all got sort of a football hangover. If the Super Bowl is the biggest feast of the football year (the Buffalo Bills' occasional participation notwithstanding), then the Pro Bowl has traditionally been that one bit of food you work out from where it's stuck between your teeth about two hours later.

And this year, they managed to make it worse. While the idea of raising the game's profile by sticking it before the Super Bowl was at least theoretically a good one, in practice it borks the game even worse. To start with, the best players can't play. When your fantasy of the best against the best fails to feature the best players on the best teams, well, it's like one of those Peter Gabriel "Best Of" collections that didn't have "Sledgehammer" but did have room for "Moribund the Burgomeister".

Second, the timing switch doesn't help. Nobody's going to be interested in watching half-speed competition in the two weeks between the ceremonial Brett Favre Throwing Of the Interception and what's supposed to be the most hotly contested game of the year. It's overshadowed by the game it's supposed to be warming us up for - as well it should be. As Bill Simmons might put it, you don't watch Godfather III in between I and II.

And the final insult, the thing that seals the deal, is the fact that they moved it to Florida. The only watchable thing about the Pro Bowl in the past was watching to see what percentage of the stands was filled with offensive linemen who'd been bought tickets to Hawaii by their Pro Bowl-bound skill players - and the endearingly awkward interviews that went with them. With the game in Miami, that's gone. The one goofily human moment of the whole charade is removed. Sure, these guys could fly their O-lines to Miami, but hey, that's just a couple of hours. Sending your long snapper to Hawaii? That was commitment.
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