A British Fans Guide to the NFL Pro Bowl

To the average American, an All Star game like the NFL Pro Bowl needs no introduction, but to british fans, the concept is quite foreign. For us, and fans of any sport with international appeal, the nearest obvious equivalent we have would be international competitions—the World Cup or European Championships in Association Football for example.

But for a sport like American Football, a sport which is rarely played at a professional level by anyone born outside of the boundaries of the continent for which it is named, the idea of international competition is not just a pointless whitewash, but in some cases impossible.

What is the Pro Bowl?

The Pro Bowl is the natural out working of a league with two conferences, and no international games of any meaning. A way to see not which conference has the best team—that is the job of the Super Bowl—but to see which has the best players, and what the sport could look like if they all played on the same team.

Why isn’t it more of a big deal?

All Star games rarely turn out to be the spectacle we hope for, even in sports where these sort of non-club bases games are common. Elite players rarely play to their full potential in these sorts of circumstances because they simply are not familiar enough with one-another, are often asked to play out of position, and do not understand what the coach is actually asking of them.

In a league like the NFL, of however, this comes with no shortage of additional problems. Unlike Association Football, Cricket, Baseball or Hockey—where the same basic strategy applies no matter who is playing together—Football is a much deeper sport. An average NFL playbook may be hundreds of pages long. Each team uses unique vocabulary, utilises very different techniques and formations, and spends all season tweaking their plays so things work exactly as planned.

Plays rely on timing and chemistry, which only comes after hundreds of repetitions in practice. It’s the reason mid-season trades are so rare and rookie’s often take 2-3 seasons to really bed down into a team.

And yet, in an all-star game, we expect players from a wide variety of teams to come together and play at an elite level with almost no practice, no understanding of the playbook, and often very little chemistry with their teammates.

To make matters worse, the NFL schedules the Pro Bowl for the week before the Super Bowl, meaning all selected players from Super Bowl bound teams—theoretically the best players in the league—are not eligible to play. In 2014, that was 11 total players—six Seahawks and five Broncos including Peyton Manning, Marshawn Lynch, Demaryius Thomas and Richard Sherman to name but a few. It’s hard to take an all-star game seriously when so many of it’s biggest stars don’t get to take part.

Finally, there is the fact that the game really doesn’t mean anything at all. NFL Football is a brutal sport, and people do get hurt. But unlike the World Cup, there is simply no incentive for NFL players to put their careers on the line in a game like the Pro Bowl.

The result is, that defense becomes effectively non-existent and offense predictable, and safe. No one wants to injure themselves in a game with no meaning, and more so, no-one wants to be the guy who got someone injured in a game with no meaning, so nobody ever really plays with much passion

The result is a game few, if any, fans care about very much. Which is sad, because it really is a game with a lot of potential.

What are the NFL doing to change that?

Not a lot really.

Many fans have been calling for major changes to the Pro Bowl format for some time, and while it seems the NFL are aware that changes need to be made, they are short on answers.

Many have called for the NFL to move the Pro Bowl back to its traditional post-Super Bowl schedule. There is a certain logic to this—it ensures that Super Bowl players get to take part in the game—but the reason the NFL moved it in the first place is because most fans lost interest in Football after the Super Bowl, and weren’t tuning in then anyway.

Other fans have asked for the NFL to find a way to make the game mean something, or add more to the so-called “Pro Bowl Weekend” aside from the game.

Some have even suggested replacing the Hall of Fame game which kicks off the preseason with an All Star format.

But thus far, the NFL have failed to find a way to make the Pro Bowl a must-see event.

It’s not that the NFL is not trying to add intrigue however. In the last few seasons, the NFL has tweaked the rules to hopefully make the game more fun. They have allowed players to tweet from the sidelines, for example—something which is usually strictly forbidden. They have introduced fan voting, and ensured that fans have a bigger effect on the overall lineup.

In 2014, the NFL made the biggest change to the Pro Bowl format in a long time.  Instead of the traditional AFC vs NFC matchup, they have instead handed the reigns to Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders who have conducted a Pro Bowl draft to select the teams. The two will serve as “Alumni Captains” with the hope being that the two-day draft event would increase fan awareness and interest in the game to follow.

Did it work?

Sort of. The two day draft, which ended yesterday, did a little to build interest in the game. Certainly, the draft has resulted in more media chatter in the run up to the game than we would usually see. Whether that has translated to fan engagement remains to be seen, and won’t really be clear until after the game.

However, this change may in fact have in the opposite effect. Although the NFC vs AFC game was hardly a ratings winner, for fans, you at least knew who you were rooting for. If your team had any players selected—and it is rare that a team would have no-one—you would root for your teams conference. However in this new format, there is no conference rivalry. Teams have players on both sides, making knowing who to cheer for even more difficult a choice.

The Kansas City Chiefs, for example, arguably the AFCs proudest team, have 10 players in the Pro Bowl. In previous years, those 10 players would have filled out much of the AFC roster, and resulted in a good number of Chiefs fans tuning in to the game to cheer for their conference and players. In 2014, however, those players are evenly split between Team Rice and Team Sanders.

What are the lineups?

Following the conclusion of the fantasy draft, the lineups are as follows.

Team Rice
Coach: Ron Rivera, Panthers

QB Drew Brees, Saints
QB Philip Rivers, Chargers
QB Alex Smith, Chiefs
WR Josh Gordon, Browns
WR Alshon Jeffery, Bears
WR Brandon Marshall, Bears
WR Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
TE Jimmy Graham, Saints
TE Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
RB LeSean McCoy, Eagles
RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
RB Matt Forte, Bears
FB Mike Tolbert, Panthers
T Joe Thomas, Browns
T Tyron Smith, Cowboys
T Jordan Gross, Panthers
G Jahri Evans, Saints
G Ben Grubbs, Saints
G Evan Mathis, Eagles
C Ryan Kalil, Panthers
C Nick Mangold, Jets

DE Robert Quinn, Rams
DE Cameron Jordan, Saints
DE Cameron Wake, Dolphins
DT Jason Hatcher, Cowboys
DT Marcell Dareus, Bills
DT Kyle Williams, Bills
OLB Justin Houston, Chiefs
OLB Robert Mathis, Colts
OLB John Abraham, Cardinals
ILB Vontaze Burfict, Bengals
ILB Derrick Johnson, Chiefs
CB Joe Haden, Browns
CB Brandon Flowers, Chiefs
CB Antonio Cromartie, Jets
CB Alterraun Verner, Titans
S Eric Reid, 49ers
S Jairus Byrd, Bills
S Antrel Rolle, Giants

ST Justin Bethel, Cardinals
PR Dexter McCluster, Chiefs
K Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots
P Johnny Hekker, Rams
LS Matt Overton, Colts

Team Sanders
Coach: Chuck Pagano, Colts

QB Andrew Luck, Colts
QB Cam Newton, Panthers
QB Nick Foles, Eagles
WR A.J. Green, Bengals
WR Dez Bryant, Cowboys
WR Antonio Brown, Steelers
WR DeSean Jackson, Eagles
TE Jason Witten, Cowboys
TE Jordan Cameron, Browns
RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
RB Eddie Lacy, Packers
RB Alfred Morris, Redskins
FB Marcel Reece, Raiders
T Trent Williams, Redskins
T Duane Brown, Texans
T Branden Albert, Chiefs
G Marshal Yanda, Ravens
G Logan Mankins, Patriots
G Kyle Long, Bears
C Mike Pouncey, Dolphins
C Alex Mack, Browns

DE J.J. Watt, Texans
DE Greg Hardy, Panthers
DE Mario Williams, Bills
DT Ndamukong Suh, Lions
DT Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers
DT Dontari Poe, Chiefs
OLB Brian Orakpo, Redskins
OLB Tamba Hali, Chiefs
OLB Terrell Suggs, Ravens
ILB Luke Kuechly, Panthers
ILB Paul Posluszny, Jaguars
CB Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
CB Darrelle Revis, Buccaneers
CB Brent Grimes, Dolphins
CB Tim Jennings, Bears
S Eric Berry, Chiefs
S Eric Weddle, Chargers
S T.J. Ward, Browns

ST Matthew Slater, Patriots
PR Cordarrelle Patterson, Vikings
K Justin Tucker, Ravens
P Brandon Fields, Dolphins
LS J.J. Jansen, Panthers

For Team Rice the captains will be Drew Brees and Robert Quinn. For Team Sanders it was J.J. Watt and Jamaal Charles.

Anything else I need to know?

Yes, there are some additional different rules you need to keep in mind.

Firstly, there will be no kickoff, with the coin toss deciding who will field the ball  from the 25 yard line.

Next, the rules have been relaxed a little for defensive backs. Cover-Two and Press Coverage schemes will be allowed. This is designed to result in, hopefully, a little more defensive play and turnovers without much additional risk to the players. It is still a very offensively weighted game, but hopefully a little less so.

Also, each quarter, not half, will end in a two-minute drill. This is considered by most to be the most exciting part of the game, especially in a lame-duck game like the Pro Bowl, so increasing the number of these will hopefully result in a slightly more interesting game.

Other timing rules have also been tweaked slightly too, for example, the game will run with a 35/25 second play clock, as opposed to the usual 40/25 second variety, and the clock will continue to run on sacks outside of the 2 minute drill. Additionally, in the two-minute drill, any play which doesn’t gain at least one yard will result in the clock stopping, as if it were an incomplete pass. All of this is designed to keep the tempo of the game high,  and encourage big-play attempts.

How can I watch the game?

The game takes place at 2:00pm local time in Hawaii on Sunday 26th January. This translates to a 12:00 midnight “kick off” UK time

There will be Pre-game coverage from around 9:00 PM on Sunday 26th on NFL Network via NFL Game Pass if you have it. The game will be shown live on Sky Sports 1, and will run till around 3:30 AM.

The game will be replayed again on Sky Sports 2 at 11:00 am on the 27th, and will be compressed into a 1 hour edition. This is more than long enough to include every play, once you subtract stoppages. It wi also air on Sky Sports 3 at 4:00 PM and 7:30 PM.

Should I Bother?

It is definitely worth watching the game, even if only in a compressed replay. The new Rice vs Sanders format should be fun, and the rule changes will make for a more interesting game.

It’s also important to remember this is the penultimate game of the season. Aside from this and the Super Bowl, you will not be seeing NFL football again until the Hall of Fame Game in August. It may not be great football, but it is some of the last NFL Football you will see for almost 6 months.

Unless you are a hard-core fan, staying up till 3:30 for this game may not be a good use of your time, but do make sure you catch a replay.

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