Why the Pro Bowl overstayed its welcome, and how the new event could be a win for everyone

  • ESPN.com national NFL writer
  • ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
  • Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008

Aaron Rodgers leaned into the microphone and let it fly.

Speaking two days after the 2011 Pro Bowl, the Green Bay Packers quarterback said: “I’ll be honest with you. I was a little bit disappointed. I felt like some of the guys on the NFC side embarrassed themselves.”

The game had drawn boos at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium for its lack of intensity, and Rodgers — who was still a few years away from having a reliably contrarian opinion — added, “I was just surprised that some of the guys either didn’t want to play or, when they were in there, didn’t put any effort into it.”

It was an embarrassing problem that dogged the game for years. A decade after Rodgers’ comments, the most pointed criticism the Pro Bowl had received from an active player to that point, the NFL finally took the inevitable next step. The league announced Monday it would replace the traditional Pro Bowl game with a series of events that will lead up to an NFC-AFC flag football game on Feb. 5, 2023, to be televised by ABC and ESPN.

If your instinct is to sneer at the idea of a flag football game, then you weren’t paying close enough attention to the “tackle” football on display at the Pro Bowl over the past 10 to 15 years. Players long ago decided, understandably, to minimize the risk of injury in a meaningless game. They ran half-speed, largely passed up opportunities for big hits and increasingly avoided the simple act of tackling.

Games would include as many whistles to note the end of forward progress — i.e. when players stopped running after defenders gently wrapped their arms around them — than there were actual tackles.

And even when they avoided hard contact, significant injuries still occurred. Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert fractured an ankle during the fourth quarter of the 2016 game after jumping to catch a pass. His career never got back on track after that.

Prominent players have not hidden their reservations, and the NFL heard them all. Speaking in 2012, New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said: “Guys play a full season, they play physical through a full season, and you get rewarded. The last thing you want to do is go out in a game like that and hurt yourself. That is not good for the individual or for the organization.”

Why did the NFL take so long to act? My reporting over the years made it clear. The NFL had built a reliable audience for football content, either the week after or the week before the Super Bowl. It wasn’t going to give it up unless that audience diminished and the league had something comparable to replace it with.

That meant pushing through years of insincerely competed games, to put it kindly. By 2016, when the game moved to Orlando, the NFL was struggling to get players to commit to it at all. For that game, it had to invite a league-record 135 players in order to fill the 88-player roster.

In 2017, the number was 125.

A few developments helped push the NFL’s decision over the finish line. The league began experimenting with dodgeball and other skill competitions beginning in 2016, events that soon became the most entertaining portion of Pro Bowl week. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 Pro Bowl, and when it returned after the 2021 season, its television ratings on ABC and ESPN were the lowest in 15 years.

Those numbers lowered the standard for a credible replacement, and by coincidence, the NFL was simultaneously working on an initiative that fit the bill.

Flag football is one of the league’s most recent but intense programs, one it believes can preserve and eventually expand participation among boys and girls who otherwise would avoid youth tackle football. It’s also a relatively low-cost way to introduce the game to an international audience, and it’s why the NFL has partnered with the International Federation of American Football to lobby for it as an Olympic sport.

Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, recently told the Associated Press: “When we talk about the future of the game of football, it is, no question, flag.”

Flag football and skills competitions aren’t a foolproof way of avoiding injuries. Longtime Pro Bowl observers will remember that in 1999, New England Patriots running back Robert Edwards suffered a catastrophic knee injury at the Pro Bowl while playing an NFL-sanctioned flag football game on the beach. He missed the next three seasons, returned for 2002 and then retired.

It also remains to be seen if the game’s biggest stars will be more inclined to participate in flag football. But it has been clear for years that a conventional Pro Bowl would never return to a reasonable level of intensity, and finally, the NFL has done something about it. Consider it a win for everyone.

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