Redskins’ Pro Bowl campaign raises questions

ASHBURN, Va. – In the pantheon of democracy, Jason Taylor seeks brutal honesty. And he prefers to practice it, too.

“I always appreciate the support,” Taylor said earlier this week, when told the fan vote would plug him in as a starting outside linebacker in February’s Pro Bowl. “But let’s be honest. Everybody knows I have no business going to the Pro Bowl this year.”

Photo Just like at times this season, Taylor figures to be an observer during the Pro Bowl.
(US Presswire/Geoff Burke)

After struggling through injuries for 10 games this season and notching one sack, the player who has been to six Pro Bowls certainly knows when he isn’t All-Star material. As for the Washington Redskins fans, well, they don’t share that perspective. Thanks to arguably one of the most intensive voting campaigns in sports history, Washington fans tabbed 12 Redskins for 26 starting spots in the NFC and pushed a staggering 25 Redskins players (nearly half of the active roster) into the top five in voting at various positions. Those numbers will diminish greatly next week, when the fan ballots – which account for a third of the voting total – are tallied with those from players and coaches.

That means twelve Redskins starters will be whittled into maybe three or four, with players like Taylor getting bumped.

“Oh hell yeah, mine will be overridden,” Taylor said with a chuckle. “I’ve had a rough year. I’ve been hurt. I’m not playing very well. I’m not going to Hawaii. Trust me.”

While several other teams were in double digits – including division leaders Pittsburgh (19), the Giants (17) and Tennessee (16) – no other team had 20 players finish in the top five.

Still, Washington’s voting onslaught raised an undeniable buzz around the Pro Bowl balloting this season. And it wasn’t just the case of a few popular but down-on-their-luck superstars coasting in with a “reputation” vote. From cornerback Shawn Springs (who has played six games this season) to defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin (a good but not elite player) to rookie strong safety Chris Horton (ditto) and others, the Redskins showed an aggressive media campaign can trump any circumstance. Even Redskins punter Ryan Plackemeier finished second in voting at his position – despite being cut by the Seattle Seahawks after the first week of the season and not playing again until Week 7.

All of which raised an interesting reality: portions of the NFL’s voting democracy can be swayed – massively. That makes the league part of a larger fraternity. Whether it’s the China vote in the NBA, the Rory Fitzpatrick scandal in the NHL, or MLB’s 1957 All-Star game (in which Cincinnati fans stuffed the ballot box for seven Reds starters), every league has had its interesting twists with fan voting.

Yet some players raised the question of whether the Redskins’ campaign was a positive form of manipulation. Should “Vote the Redskins ticket” equate to “Vote the Redskins ticket even if some of the players aren’t worthy”? Certainly it rubbed some opposing NFC players the wrong way – guys who said the Redskins have proven why the NFL is right to keep the balloting power largely in the hands of coaches and players.

“I don’t think it’s done right [even now],” said the Chicago BearsLance Briggs, who finished behind a couple of Redskins at outside linebacker. “I think each fan should be entitled to only one vote. I look at it like I have to count on the coaches and players to get in. That’s why it’s a two-thirds vote [for coaches and players].”

Added Atlanta Falcons defensive end Jon Abraham, who finished third at his position ahead of Washington’s Andre Carter: “At the end of the day the coaches and the people who watch the film – the players – they see it. We watch the film on people. We know what’s going on. We see a lot more than the fans do.”

That’s not to take away from what the Redskins accomplished. Using a campaign that relied on the Internet, media influence, advertising and various forms of marketing (even including yard signs, buttons and bumper stickers), the Redskins mounted one of the most successful voting campaigns in modern sports history.

Photo Carter has recorded just 3 sacks this season.
(US Presswire/Geoff Burke)

And they did it while advocating players by the very letter of the law, and in an aggressive way that thrilled the NFL’s promotional hierarchy. To the point where George Scott, the general manager of the league’s club sites, sent out a Nov. 13 email to all 32 teams, praising Washington’s campaign and asking teams to reach out “If you need any ideas or support from the league [or the Redskins:)] in this important initiative.”

In a league where fan involvement can be paramount and “manipulation” calls up a defensive posture, the NFL couldn’t have been happier.

“We’re completely fine with it,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said of Washington’s ballot-stuffing initiative. “We wanted to give our fans a voice, but understand the players and coaches themselves are the most qualified to select the team. That’s why players and coaches represent two-thirds of the vote.

“Where’s the harm in letting fans vote for who they want?”

None – for now. But even Redskins players acknowledge that on the off chance that an overwhelmingly unqualified player squeaks in (and in fairness, that’s unlikely), it could jeopardize the voting process – particularly with players who all have Pro Bowl bonuses and escalators written into their contracts.

“It’s possible it could happen,” Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “If it did, who knows what would happen? &hellip No matter what, it definitely says a lot about [owner] Dan Snyder and the organization. Dan’s a first-class guy in everything he does, and this just gives you another example to look at about how he feels about his players. It is definitely attractive to players when you see an owner lay out the money to do something like this.”

Next week, the Redskins and the NFL at large will know what all the effort was for – whether it was a legitimate push that lands a strong Pro Bowl presence, or merely proof that the league’s voting process is in the right hands.

“At the end of the day, I think it will just show our democratic process is better,” Taylor said. “The fans have a voice, and in turn the coaches and players have a little greater voice. Everybody can be happy.”

Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Dec 11, 2008