LAS VEGAS — Denver Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II is poised to become a second-generation Pro Bowler, following in the footsteps of his father and namesake, who went to three Pro Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.
But when father and son compare notes on their experiences, they will have significantly different suggestions.
“Compared to now, the Pro Bowl was a lot different back then,” Surtain II said. “I mean, they were going full speed, racing, tackling, hitting. They were actually trying to, like, win.”
Now, as the NFL begins its reimagined Pro Bowl Games, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. No, this isn’t your dad’s Pro Bowl.
After years of harsh criticism for the lack of competitive play in the traditional Pro Bowl game, the NFL is moving to a drastically different format this year. The actual game will be replaced by Sunday’s flag football game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN+), with various skill contests tied to the point total that will determine the winner of the AFC. vs. an NFC game.
Changes are bold and, perhaps, risky. But the status quo wasn’t cutting it anymore, the league and players agreed.
“The thing that wasn’t great for the players and for us was that the game didn’t fit in with the rest of the games and the events that we do,” NFL executive vice president Peter O’Reilly said. for club business and league events. “Saturday always felt good. Player experience, skill events, friendships…
It’s no secret that today’s players, increasingly aware of their earning potential and prioritizing staying healthy, were particularly concerned about risking injury to play an extra game of football in the name of fun.
In fact, it’s not even a very recent concept. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers interrupted the efforts of his fellow Pro Bowlers in 2012, saying,
The NFL, the players and the players’ union began looking into the issue over the past year. Sentiments and ideas expressed in a series of meetings led to the new format.
O’Reilly recalled a conversation in which Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson said, “This should be a flag game. It wasn’t the first time the concept of a flag game had been floated, but it was one of many examples of players helping shape the event into its current format.
Washington Commanders receiver Terry McLaurin, who will make his Pro Bowl debut, understands why the traditional game started to lose its luster. He struggled to wrap his mind around the idea of playing a legitimate game a few weeks after his season ended, when he wouldn’t be in midseason form.
“It’s going to be a challenge right now,” he said. “I’ve been doing yoga and pilates and just making sure I’m still working up a good sweat, but that’s it.”
Because players use the weeks following the season to allow their bodies to recover and recharge, they don’t follow the intense routines they do during the season.
“You’re either going to be rusty or you’re going to get injured because your body is used to training or practicing every day,” McLaurin added. “Your body is so tuned. For you to not do anything … for about a month, yeah, I think it’s going to be hard to go out there and be successful.”
“When guys take a month off, guys don’t train and take care of their bodies. There’s always a chance of injury when you play another game.”
While the NFL expects the format to be well-received, it’s very much an experiment. Fan and player reaction will be closely watched.
“We’re definitely going to learn, and it’s going to be a fantastic opportunity to see it all come to life,” O’Reilly said. “So we think the format is great. And we think it’s going to be a really cool experience. But different. Absolutely different. We understand that it may not deliver the same. [television] rating as a traditional game. It’s just a different experience, but we’re going for it.”
For that reason, nothing should be considered permanent in the current format, as the NFL and its players will continue to have conversations in the backfield for feedback.
The skills-competition aspect isn’t new, but the NFL has expanded that part of the week. Some of the new offers this year: The Longest Rowing Competition and the Lightning Round, a three-part elimination challenge, are among the nine separate skills competitions that players will compete in. Dodgeball event returns this year (10-time Pro Bowl). Joe Thomas once floated the idea in a meeting with league officials) as well as the best catcher contest.
The biggest change, however, will be the elimination of the traditional game. It will be replaced by three pennant football games pitting the AFC and NFC, with teams coached by Peyton and Eli Manning, respectively. The scores from the skills competition and the first two pennant games will be added together and will be at the start of the third and final pennant game which will determine the winning conference.
By removing the high-impact tackles that are fundamental to tackle games, it increases the likelihood that players will play with more effort and aggression than we’ve seen in recent Pro Bowls. Will it be as exciting? Who knows? But it certainly could solve one of the biggest problems that has plagued the Pro Bowl.
“I think guys will follow it,” Surtain said. “I think it will be an increase in the level of competition. It’s the best of the best. I just think that with everyone, of course, I won’t say at full speed, but at high speed, you can have fun. with that.”
“As a competitor, you’ll get the best of me, whether we’re throwing bean bags or playing real football. You want to represent yourself well as well as have a good time with your peers… So I’m looking forward to whatever they throw at us. I’m definitely going to have fun with it, but also, I’m not just going to go out there. [messing] around.”
ESPN New York Jets reporter Rich Cimini contributed to this report.