Five reasons to watch the 2015 Pro Bowl
PHOENIX — The way football is played and the logistics involved doesn’t cater well to an All-Star game. The NFL knows this, and that’s why last year the league changed the Pro Bowl format to include a draft led by former players with personality.
"At some point, the Pro Bowl started to get boring," Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson said of the changes. "I think it’s fun. I think it adds another element to the game."
This year’s version aims to build on that when the teams led by NFL alumni captains Michael Irvin and Cris Carter kick off at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday. The game serves as the official kickoff to Super Bowl week in Arizona, which is reason enough for the locals to be excited. But there are other reasons you just might want to head over to the game (unlike a week from now, tickets are plentiful and affordable) or flip the television to ESPN at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Troy Vincent, the NFL vice president of football operations, admitted this week that the league has worked to make the Pro Bowl a more anticipated event.
It helps it’s taking place in the same city as the Super Bowl rather than Hawaii, but the efforts have gone beyond making it more fan-friendly. The NFL has worked to create excitement among the players participating. The Pro Bowl Draft was an entertaining event in its own right, but the league hopes the personalities of those involved continues through the game.
"Our men, they’ve stepped up, they’ve accepted the challenge," Vincent said.
The draft and the practices leading into the game allowed for players to rub shoulders with past stars. But the week leading into the game, as manufactured as the events feel, has built organic storylines.
"When you’re sitting in the waiting room waiting to get picked and you get picked to the team, it’s like school-yard ball," said Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. "It adds some sort of element to that competition and that intensity. I think you saw it on the field (last year), and I think you’ll see it again."
NFL kickers find themselves embroiled in the heart of an important rule change discussion.
For experimental purposes, the Pro Bowl field goal posts will be reduced from 18.5 feet to 14 feet wide, and extra points will be moved back 15 feet to become 33.5-yard boots. The thought behind it is simple: Kickers have become too darn good, hitting 99 percent of their extra points.
Part of that thought process is thanks to the good work by the oldest player on either team, 42-year-old Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri. He’s wary about the changes becoming more than a quirk to make the All-Star game exciting.
"It’s January something, in a blistering snow storm; 50-yard field goals won’t be hit very often," Vinatieri said. "You just have to know what you’re getting into.
"I’m a traditionalist. Don’t change it unless it needs to be changed."
On Sunday, how the kicking crews do with more challenging opportunities could play into the narrative.
The Pro Bowl will present the opportunity to get more acquainted with the league’s upcoming stars.
Thirty-four players will be participating in their first Pro Bowl, and 16 have played no more than three seasons in the NFL. New York Giants rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was the fourth pick in the event’s draft but played for a no-so-watchable New York Giants team that went 6-10.
His fame is already there — OK, so the Giants did have their fair share of national prime time games — and was the beneficiary of his behind-the-head, one-handed catch against the Cowboys in November.
"It’s pretty insane what social media can do these days," Beckham said. "After the catch, I didn’t fully expect everything that came with it. Just me being me, I didn’t know it would draw as much attention as it did."
Not every young player gets the chance to make himself a household name so early in his career.
After all, four players will make their Pro Bowl debut in their 10th season in the league: Eagles return man Darren Sproles, Eagles guard Evan Mathis, Colts safety Mike Adams and Dallas long snapper Louis-Philippe Ladouceur.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham wonders whether he will get fined. He’s not wondering whether he’s going to produce a patented dunk through a goalpost if he scores a touchdown.
Players are going to have fun with this. Trick plays are expected, and that’s also built upon the level of competition expected.
"It is an All-Star game, so they want to put up points," Peterson said. "It being on national television in my back yard, I don’t want any of those plays on me. I definitely will take it serious."
And when we’re talking pure entertainment value, expect more camera angles on the sidelines and enough microphones on Carter and Irvin to keep your attention, Vincent said.
Maybe more than other sports, football relies upon playbooks, complex terminologies of those playbooks and then execution. There’s an expectation of ugliness if teams don’t use their short time together to learn these things.
But Carter said NFL players don’t get enough credit for being smart and picking up those play calls quickly to prepare for an All-Star game.
"Football’s about concepts, and these guys have spent the last six months going over the concepts," Irvin added. "Now what we’ll do this week is teach them the terminologies. Once they get down the terminology, it’ll come easy."
Fans will see those concepts play out between some must-see matchups.
Can A.J. Green burn Peterson or be used as a decoy? How will the offensive line open holes for DeMarco Murray against Watt? Who wins the war of words between alumni captains Carter and Irvin?
Aficionados, take heed.
As for casual fans, the experimental tweaks could make it an interesting novelty act and place-holder between conference championship weekend and some other game that’s yet to come in a week’s time.