The 2014 NFL Pro Bowl is over. Team Rice and Team Sanders—at least this Team Rice and Team Sanders—will never again don their fluorescent Orange and Yellow jerseys. The game was close, with never more than a single score separating each team, and for the most part hard-fought. This was a Pro Bowl like no other in recent memory.
In the end, it was an inspired two-minute drill lead by Alex Smith, and a two point conversion by Mike Tolbert which gave Team Rice the 22-21 win, but aside from the players on Team Sanders who take home around $30,000 less as a result of losing, the final score was never really the point.
The NFL made several changes to the Pro Bowl format for 2014, in what was considered by most a last ditch attempt to revive the format before abandoning it altogether. Did the gamble pay off and revitalise the format, or is the Pro Bowl destined to go the way of the tuck rule, gone, forgotten and not missed by anyone? Join me as we reflect on the 2014 NFL Pro Bowl.
Sanders and Rice Brought Much Needed Charisma and Hype to Pro Bowl.
In the NFL, there are no shortage of charismatic, vibrant and vocal individuals, both current and veteran. Deion “Prime Time” Sanders and Jerry “G.O.A.T.” Rice epitomise this.
The two had storied NFL careers, built on rivalry throughout much of it, but also camaraderie when they came together in 1994/5 to help build a Super Bowl winning San Francisco 49ers team. Their friendly rivalry, therefore, full of banter and oneupmanship—even where it was clearly played up for the cameras—was great to watch, and brought a level of passion to the Pro Bowl rarely seen.
Sanders and Rice were great sideline cheerleaders for their respective teams, keeping the energy levels high, and ensuring that players took their responsibilities seriously. Their enthusiasm throughout the week was a welcome change.
Players Seemed Pumped To Be Playing In Pro Bowl
This excitement which started with Sanders and Rice quickly rubbed off onto the players too.
Players seemed genuinely excited about being selected by these Hall of Fame “captains”. They responded with jubilation when picked, and expressed disappointment if they felt snubbed.
It continued onto the field too, with each player seeming determined to justify their selection to the team, and playing with a level of intensity, which while still a far cry from even a regular season game, was nonetheless much more entertaining to watch than the Pro Bowl games of recent memory.
In recent years, the honour for a player was in being named to the Pro Bowl, not competing in it. As a result, there was no reason to try, or in some cases, even show up. The draft format changed that. No longer is it good enough just to be voted it, you’ve also gotta be picked by someone. And once you’re picked, especially by someone you respect, like Sanders or Rice, it is much harder not to give it your all during the game.
Rule Changes Helped Increase Competitiveness of Pro Bowl
There were some questions about some of the rules changes, including the new timings rules for the game, but they really seem to have worked.
The timing rules did help maintain the tempo which the players brought to the game, and ensured that the momentum was not lost as the game progressed. Three of the four quarters ended with exciting two-minute drives, which featured interceptions, touchdowns, and would-be record-breaking field goal attempts. Having four two-minute drills ensured that as many of the quarterbacks taking part in the game (there were six in all) had a chance to run at least one, and this only added to the fun.
There changes to defensive rules also increased competitiveness. Simply by relaxing the rules on the schemes that can be used, and giving players permission to actually chase down the ball carrier gave defensive players a greater sense of ownership of their role. Picks were plentiful, as were sacks, and tackling generally was more frequent and harder (while still fair and safe) than we have seen in a Pro Bowl perhaps ever.
This competitiveness was apparent in the scoreline, in which both teams combined for fewer points (43) than the NFC posted through three quarters in 2013. But in no way was fewer points indicative of less excitement, rather, it was a sign of players on both sides of the ball actually playing with passion and conviction, of players playing through four-quarters, not giving up trying after one.
Teammates Love the Chance To Play Against One Another
One of the most interesting parts of the game, by far however, was watching teammates get a chance to play opposite each other. These guys see each other every day in practice, but rarely are they given permission to go at it in a live game. In the Pro Bowl, many got that chance, and clearly relished it.
Some of the biggest hits by far were between friends. Early on in the game, Derrick Johnson laid a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit on his Kansas City Chiefs teammate Jamaal Charles.
Have to give my fellow teammate some friendly fire. LOL! I can’t lie, it felt pretty good! #probowl
— Derrick Johnson (@superdj56) January 27, 2014
The same was true throughout the night, with T.J. Ward’s hit on his teammate Josh Gordan perhaps the most memorable.
In Spite of Changes, Fans Remain Apathetic
There is no doubt that the majority of those fans who watched the 2014 Pro Bowl enjoyed the new format. If you took to twitter during the game, or have read any of the comments on blogs since then, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
But in spite of this, sadly, the reaction by most fans remains one of apathy. The vast majority of NFL fans simply didn’t tune in to the game. Though viewing figures are not yet available, initial indications suggest that there has been no significant increase in viewership over previous years, which have not been impressive.
Although the official attendance figures for the game were 47,270, less than 3000 shy of the 50,000 capacity of Aloha Stadium, anyone watching could easily see that the stadium was only two-thirds full, at a generous estimate, for most of the game. Worse still, the stadium is by far the smallest used for any regular NFL game, hosting around 10,000 fewer fans than the NFL average.
Hawaii gets only one NFL game per year, the Pro Bowl, and that it cannot sell out a 50,000 seat stadium, even with the new format is worrying. For comparison, the NFL International Series in London has sold, on average, 83,000 tickets per game since it started in 2007. Most of these were considered fairly inconsequential games, and often featured at least one, if not both teams, with fairly small fan bases in the UK.
Nike Has Shown us The Future, and It’s Bright… Neon In Fact
One of the other major comments, even amongst fans who enjoyed the game, was about the Pro Bowl uniforms.
Make no mistake, the Pro Bowl jerseys have never been the hight of fashion, but for 2014, Nike made a radical redesign to the uniforms which very few would consider an upgrade. When Nike took over as official suppliers to the NFL, the only team which allowed them to completely redesign their uniform, the Seattle Seahawks. Their jersey was a love-it-or-hate-it ultramodern design, featuring bold, neon green accents and copious screen printed design elements.
Many had felt this was a one-off. A relatively young team taking a chance on a bold design, which was unlikely to rub off on the rest of the league.
However, with the Pro Bowl uniforms, Nike has made it clear that this is their desired design aesthetic going forward. Team Rice were decked out in an all-white getup, with bright fluorescent orange accents and silver-grey letters and numbers, while Team Sanders were given charcoal grey uniforms, with neon yellow-green accents.
Nike have already shown this penchant for the garish with in the NCAA College uniforms they have gotten to work on. Now, it would seem, any NFL team due for a uniform redesign are going to experience a lot of push back from Nike if they attempt to suggest anything more traditional.
In the end, teams do have a lot of sway in this matter, but in being given free reign over the Pro Bowl uniforms, Nike have made it abundantly clear what they would prefer teams to dress in.
This was a great event, a significant improvement over the Pro Bowl’s of recent memory. It is sad that more fans didn’t take the time to enjoy what really was a good spectacle of football, and a real celebration of the stars who make it.
In 2015, the Pro Bowl moves to ESPN. Sadly, this move could mean the end for the Pro Bowl altogether. Sitting behind a pay wall in America will quite possibly kill a game which is already struggling to draw viewers and cover it’s costs.
But if the NFL and ESPN are able to see the 2014 changes as a start, a jumping off point towards a new, more passion filled Pro Bowl experience, if they can take these innovations and add to them, grow them and nurture them, then the Pro Bowl could finally become the true spectacle it deserves to be.