This weekend, NFL fans can tune into ESPN to catch a glimpse of the top players in the NFL participating the NFL Pro Bowl.
At least it’s supposed to be the top players in the league.
While the best-of-the-best are voted in, inevitably the Pro Bowl sees a max exodus of players who decide not to participate in the Pro Bowl, leaving us with 50% Pro Bowl caliber players and 50% reserves/fill-ins.
To give you a clear idea of how dilluted the product on the field is, according to ESPN writer Kevin Seifert, an NFL record 133 players have been voted to the Pro Bowl or added as an alternate.
So how many were originally voted in? A mere 86, which means there are 47 Pro Bowl absentees. Fourty-seven players have been added as alternates due to players in the Super Bowl unable to make it, injuries, or simply, players opting out.
In short, the Pro Bowl falls short of what fans want in an all star game.
But what if the NFL took a page out of the NHL All Star play book, and started enforcing a penalty on players who opted out without a valid reason?
Here’s the rule, direct from the NHL:
“Per League rules, a player who is named to the NHL All-Star Game and does not participate shall be suspended for one regular-season game – either the game immediately preceding or following the NHL All-Star Game.”
The rule is not one that many are familiar with, but for good reason, as it’s very rare to see players back out of the NHL All Star game. This year, the rule is front and center before the NHL All Star game in Nashville, as 2 of the leagues brightest stars in Alex Ovechkin (nagging leg injury) and Jonathan Toews (illness) are skipping the ASG, and thus, face a 1 game suspension.
Some fans of the game see this as harsh, but is it really? Players get a pass on the suspension if they are currently on the disabled list, but minor injuries that have not kept players out are not excused. In the case of Ovechkin, he’s played every game leading up to the All Star Weekend and is taking the break to rest, and Toews left mid-game Thursday with an illness. Both players could easily participate this weekend, but prefer to take the rest (and suspension) over attending.
This simple rule more often than not keeps the true All Stars in the All Star game, as opposed to all of the ‘stars’ bailing, only to be replaced with average players, thus diluting the product on the ice and diminishing what tends to be a great event (for NHL fans like myself at least).
Seeing the end result for the NHL, why wouldn’t the NFL adopt this rule, or at least some variation of this rule?
Clearly for the NFL, you can’t threaten to suspend players for 1 game, as a 16 game NFL schedule is much shorter than a 82 game NHL schedule, where the impact is felt much less. But perhaps the league should consider a fine or a cumulative absence leading to a suspension for those who opt out of the Pro Bowl on a continual basis.
For a prime example, let’s knock on NFL-poster boy, Tom Brady.
Tom Brady has been selected to the Pro Bowl NINE TIMES since 2004…. and has skipped every single one. Clearly the fans want to see him participate, as he is one of the better quarterbacks in the league. And yet, Brady disappoints those fans that voted him in by opting out. This season in particular the excuse has been provided that he’s sore from all of the hits he took in Denver, but let’s be honest- NOBODY gets hit in the Pro Bowl. Brady would simple be an arm in the game and nothing more, and yet he bails out yet again.
So if a variation of this NHL rule were to be put in place, how would the league approach a player like Brady?
The league could approach the Pro Bowl bail out with a standard fine of $50k, however most players at the Pro Bowl are sitting on a lucrative contract that makes a $50k hit pennies on the dollar, and likely wouldn’t change the current bail out rate. I think the more effective policy would be taking a fine that accumulates for every additional missed Pro Bowl, and potentially a ‘3 strikes, you’re out!’ policy that leads to that 1 game suspension.
So going back to Brady (because he’s an easy target) if the league put the policy in effect this year, perhaps he’d be hit with a $50k fine. He skips again next year it jumps to $100k, and a 3rd year $150k where it would level off, coupled with a one game suspension.
I’d assume the NFL’s injury policy around a rule like this would be very similar to the NHL’s where being on the DL is the only legit excuse and players can’t cry ‘sore’ or ‘ill’ as an excuse to jump ship. Of course, the NFL would be a bit different. One, because they don’t have a running disabled list, only injured reserve and the weekly inactives. The other factor that would need to be considered is that it’s a post-season All Star game, not a mid-season game, which would require more discernment with playoff and late-season injuries.
Again, that may seem steep, but not much else seems to work when it comes to convincing players to participate in the game these days. E, how do minor injuries really effect a players ability to play in the Pro Bowl? Players hardly get hit in this glorified flag football game that minimizes any contact.
Would a rule similar to the NHL’s ultimately salvage the NFL’s Pro Bowl? Of course not. But it would surely be a step in the right direction by generating a true Pro Bowl turnout as opposed to a fair share of average to below-average players making the game as a 4th or 5th backup.