Players try harder, but Pro Bowl still lacking

Ideally, the Pro Bowl would be an illusion. It would look and sound like a football game, but would not be an actual, dangerous football game.

This is the biggest issue facing the NFL today, primarily because the Super Bowl isn’t until next week. The league needs to find a way to make professional football look fast and physical without being fast and physical, and that might not be possible.

Sunday’s game — the NFC won 62-35 — was an improvement over last year, but that’s kind of like winning the 5k on “The Biggest Loser.”

Last season’s game was a watershed moment in Pro Bowl history. For the first time, the players seemed to go out of their way to show they weren’t trying. It looked like a silent plea to retire the event. They jogged through enough plays that the NFL this year let the players know if they weren’t going to try any harder than that the league might just shut the thing down altogether. Speaking on NBC before the game, Peyton Manning carried some of the NFL’s water, saying how enriching the experience had been for him over the years.

Not all his peers agree.

Presumably healthy players have declined invitations and some who accepted them made it clear they didn’t plan on leaving it all out of the field, exactly.

“This isn’t basketball,” Houston Texans running back Arian Foster told the Houston Chronicle. “You can’t go play a pickup game of football. If that’s what they expect and they’re going to take it away because of that, it’s probably going to be what it is. You can’t really expect that from guys that play 16-plus games a season and it to be a competitive game.”

This would not be much of an issue if the Pro Bowl wasn’t popular as a televised event. But the game drew 12.5 million viewers last year. That was down from the year before, but the Pro Bowl was still more popular than the MLB All-Star game, the NBA All-Star game, all but one game of the NBA conference finals and the Stanley Cup Finals.

So the Pro Bowl is still good for the bottom line, but that’s only part of the question. What if the game reaches a point where its very existence mocks the game it is supposed to be celebrating? Last year’s performance hit the bottom of that sinkhole, so the NFL decided this was something that needed to be officially addressed. Publicly airing its concerns about the game let the fans know that the NFL was hearing their complaints. It also signaled that maybe that this was the Pro Bowl’s last chance to fake it as a real football game before the NFL pulled the plug on that illusion entirely and turned this into a skills competition or something.

That wouldn’t bother Foster.

“Something like that,” Foster told The Chronicle. “Everybody’s all, ‘the Pro Bowl’s a joke.’ I think it’s an honor and a tradition. But for you to expect the best athletes in the NFL to come out and play a game 100 percent when you can’t game plan, you can’t blitz, you can’t do all these things, it’s just not going to be competitive like everybody wants it to be. We’re going to try to step it up a notch this year, but at the end of the day, you’re not going to see 100 percent effort out there, it’s just not going to happen.”

Most observers seemed to agree the players looked like they were trying harder this year than last, but they still weren’t fooling anybody. Football can’t be played at half-speed. More than any other sport, the speed, power and collisions are essential to the sport’s aesthetic appeal.

Sunday’s Pro Bowl didn’t solve that problem, because that problem can’t be solved.

Whatever happens, it’s clear there is an appetite for something football-related the week before the Super Bowl, and considering the maniacal interest in even the most mundane aspects of the game — have you seen NFL Network during the Scouting Combine? — it seems like a reasonable supposition that some sort of event in which Peyton Manning and Drew Brees throw footballs at disposable targets and Ray Lewis gives a pep talk to a crowd of tackling dummies would have legs.

But then again, why change something that’s working? Most people would say the MLB All-Star game is more significant (because it decides home-field advantage in the World Series) and the NBA All-Star game is more entertaining (because pick-up basketball between NBA players really is a spectacle). But in terms of measurable popularity, the NFL’s all-star game sets the standard. Granted, it helps that football is simply more popular in the United States than baseball or basketball, but the NFL helped create that appetite. We can’t blame it for cashing in.

We can blame it, however, for trying to tell us this game is something it isn’t. You’ll probably see some mention of J.J. Watt’s bloody hand in the discussion of Sunday’s Pro Bowl. It’ll be shown as a visual example that these guys really were going after each other.

“They can’t say we don’t play hard,” Watt said.

Maybe he can tell his teammate, Arian Foster.