ORLANDO, Fla. — Like most of the players at the Pro Bowl, Richie Incognito hears the criticism.
The game lacks intensity. There’s not enough drama. It’s not real NFL football.
But Incognito, a Buffalo Bills guard, is like the vast majority of the 88 players invited to this all-star gathering Sunday night. He sees the Pro Bowl more as a celebration of achievement and as a way to thank the fans.
He wouldn’t change a thing.
“In my mind it’s as good as it should be,” Incognito said. “You really can’t ask guys to come out here and fly around at full speed when we’ve been off for the last two or three weeks. And some guys are just coming down here after conference championship games. Maybe make it more fan interactive, get the fans involved more, do more of the skills competition.”
The NFL has seemed open to ways to energize its end-of-the-year showcase that is now sandwiched between conference championship and Super Bowl weeks. A few years ago the league broke from the traditional AFC-NFC Pro Bowl matchup and allowed celebrity coaches to draft two teams.
Now, in hopes of giving the game a lift, the NFL has moved the Pro Bowl from Hawaii to Orlando, where it has become more of a weeklong event, complete with a re-imagined Skill Showdown. The AFC-NFC matchup has also returned after three years of nonconference games.
Still, it remains to be seen if the NFL can continue selling a game that bears little resemblance to the product it puts on the field during the season. The players come to the Pro Bowl to have fun, not get hurt and maybe win.
“This Pro Bowl for me in a sense is special because you are coming here to celebrate what you’ve accomplished,” New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman says the intensity would rise and more invited players would show up if the NFL gave them their weekly game salaries. Under the collective bargaining agreement, each player from the winning team will make $61,000 this week and the losing players will take home $30,000.
“You pay them what you are paying them and you get this performance,” Sherman said. “It’s a different element. … I guarantee you less guys would miss the Pro Bowl if you told you are going to pay them their normal salary for one more game.”
Former NFL player and coach Herm Edwards says the game as played now is fine. He says the Pro Bowl is not about the game, it’s about the fans and the players giving back. Thousands of fans have been out at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex this week watching both the AFC and NFC practice.
After the practices were over most of the players signed autographs and took pictures in the laid-back atmosphere. All of the practices are short and glorified walk-throughs, and the players are mostly having fun with each other and the fans.
“We are all ambassadors to this great game of football and how you conduct yourself once you leave this practice field is more important than how you play the game,” said Edwards, who now works as analyst. “The fans aren’t going to remember the game. The fans remember if Odell Beckham, Patrick Peterson, or if Drew Brees takes a picture with them, signs an autograph.”
Edwards, however, understands the criticism. He even admits, as a football purist, he doesn’t watch the Pro Bowl.
But he says if the game does become more fiercely contested it would come at a cost that players, teams and even fans may not want to pay.
“The only way to make it better is you do this: If you want all of them to show up, make the game worth $500,000,” Edwards said. “They will all show up and now they play. Here is the problem, when one of them gets hurt you have the same problem.”
Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie acknowledges being torn when his players are selected for the Pro Bowl. On one hand, he is excited for their recognition. On the other, he’s concerned about injuries.
McKenzie would be in favor of more of skills challenge than a game where key players can be injured.
“It’s a risk,” said McKenzie, who will have four players representing the AFC on Sunday. “I cringe every time I go to practice, but it’s the nature of the game. It’s what it is. But you do everything you can to set your safety-type precautions. What else can you do? Not play? I don’t think that’ right.”