Sunday, January 30, 2011

The NFL Has Outgrown the Pro Bowl

T'is the season for a plethora of blog posts explaining how they should fix the NFL Pro Bowl.  Let's make a couple more adjustments to the rules, and somehow, it will all be fine and worth watching more than the commericials.

I'm here to tell you my solution:  it's time to give up on the Pro Bowl.

But the reason for my rather ultimate Solomon-esque decision isn't just based on how bored I was catching snippets of the game.  It's because of the nature of the game itself.  The NFL has simply evolved too much, and the Pro Bowl is like the prehensile tail that simply needs to fall off.

There are two major draws for any All-Star game in any sport.  The first, obvious one is to see the biggest stars of the sport all on one stage.  But having the stars there is useless if you aren't seeing the players able to go against each other, mano-y-mano, as a spectacle just ranking under the championship game itself.  So, we're dragging out the biggest names in the game to go onto a field and do little more than disappoint us, because they can't give us the game that we need to appreciate their talents.

Other sports can do this, because the basis of competition is still based in the rudimentary basics of the game.  Baseball is perhaps the best example we can use for a successful All-Star game, because the mechanics of each position is nearly independent of each other.  A batter doesn't depend on other players to swing the bat for him, and while some communication may be needed in the field, turning a double play is still based on basic individual execution of the fundamentals.

You can take a pitcher mid-season and throw him on a different team, and for the most part, he functions the same as he did on the other team.  Same can be said for position players.  A first baseman on the Blue Jays is going to still follow the same fundamentals as a first baseman on the Padres.

It's a little different in basketball, as you would figure most offenses (and defenses, for that matter) are highly dependent on knowing the scheme.  As a coach of both boys and girls basketball over the years, I've implanted some offenses that are pretty specific, if not complicated, for kids to understand.  And college coaches often take this to dizzying heights, as we can see from watching Memphis run the dribble-drive offense, or Dick Bennett run his swarming defense.

But basketball can always be turned back down to its "least common denominator", and become an individual game with basic fundamentals:  the pick-and-roll, the give-and-go, and the backdoor cut.  And at the level of talent the NBA has (with the streetball mentality it has taken on over the last twenty years or so), players can put on quite a show using just those fundamental skills, as well as individual matchups (just like baseball).

But the NFL has evolved so far, the fundamentals simply aren't enough anymore.  Oh, sure, forty years ago, football was still three yards and a cloud of dust, with defenders lining up one-on-one against their opponents and trying to win those individual matchups.   Whoever smashed more mouths and got more leverage would win.

Not anymore.  The NFL has become advanced tactical and situational gameplanning.  The game has evolved because of the constant chessmatches offenses and defenses play against each other.  When the offenses of the 70's and 80's became vertical passing games, defenses went with big front four formations with power blitzes.  This, of course, led to innovations like the West Coast Offense and zone blocking schemes to counter it.  Since then we've seen zone blitzes, the return of the 3-4, and playbooks so thick that you need a Wonderlic above 30 to understand it completely.

Misdirection, disguising coverages and blitzes, chop blocks and pick plays...everything has simply become more and more like surgical warfare than the simple game it once was.  It is the reason that the NFL has become what it has today: it is no longer simply a violent game of smashmouth football, but a one that appeals to the intellectual fans as well.   There are fans that are content to dissect a Dom Capers defensive formation and marvel at how effective it is in its complexity.

Taking players from each of their teams, throwing them together in a lump, and asking them to just play a simplified game is like taking one or two of the best dancers and actors from every Broadway musical, throwing them on a stage and asking them to perform brilliantly with only a few days of rehearsal.  In a way, that is what the NFL has become...highly specialized players who need months of OTA's, minicamps, and a full preseason to even begin processing the dependence on both the scheme and the players around them to be successful.

In other words, you cannot get NFL-caliber performances anymore out of players in such an exhibition.  You heavily dilute the quality of what the players can do, and not only is it not good enough for us, it's not good enough for them.

What would I want to see, because sure, I'd like to see Aaron Rodgers rubbing shoulders with Payton Manning and Tom Brady, is simply exhibitions of talent.  I know they do it already with long-ball throwing contests and obstacle courses.  Why not have the AFC take on the NFC in some position-specific "Battle of the Conference Stars"?

Sound ridiculous?  Not as ridiculous as the game we just watched, with professional millionaire heroes to fans everywhere walking through blocks and throwing interceptions left and right.  It's time to end the Pro Bowl, not because it is stupid or boring, but because the NFL has outgrown it

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