Pro Bowl charade a necessity for NFL

MIAMI – The Pro Bowl is to football what balsa wood is to a two-by-four. There is a faint resemblance, but they are hardly the same thing.

That’s why it’s hard to take any of the controversies that surround this game seriously. Should it be played in Hawaii? Should it be played before or after the Super Bowl? Should Bryant McKinnie(notes) ever be allowed near the game again?

LaMarr Woodley's disallowed TD underscores the game's lack of seriousness.
(Doug Genc/Getty Images)

These are questions that simply don’t elicit strong visceral responses, just as the contest never seems to be played with much passion. The game Sunday, which featured the AFC holding on for a 41-34 victory over the NFC at Sun Life Stadium, was more of the same.

As usual, the lack of ferocity begged the question: should this game even be played?

“Yeah, I think it’s important for guys who are voted to the game,” said veteran Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae(notes), one of many players who complained about having to play in South Florida. “You want to come out here and be honored, play in the game, enjoy it.”

Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) echoed those sentiments.

“These are the moments that 10 years down the line after I’m done I’ll look back and remember,” said Asomugha, who playfully used this week to recruit New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) to play opposite of him in Oakland. “In a league where man-to-man coverage has kind of died out, that would really bring it back, I think.”

Nice thought, Nnamdi. Unfortunately, hold your breath waiting for the Jets to allow that to happen. In fact, it has about as much chance to happen as a big hit in the Pro Bowl. Or how about even a real block or something faintly resembling a full-throttle pass rush move.

The truth is that the Pro Bowl is never going to be a serious game. Football doesn’t work this way. When the games don’t count, it’s hard for anybody to get geeked up about it.

“My contract is up, so I’m not going to do anything to get hurt,” Mawae said. “[New England Patriots nose tackle] Vince Wilfork’s(notes) contract is up, he’s not going to do anything to get hurt. That’s just the way it is. What can you do about that?”

The problem is that when you watch offensive and defensive linemen go at it as if they were at a ballroom dance class, it drives the football lover inside you batty. No wonder several reporters left this game early, one of them going so far as to call it “unwatchable.”

Likewise, many fans were headed to the exits by halftime. As the final two minutes counted down, the stadium was less than a quarter filled.

This year’s all-star game hit a comical new low in lack of effort. One of the best plays of the game was when Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes) returned a Donovan McNabb(notes) interception for a touchdown. Sadly, the play was called back by offsetting penalties, but the play might have set a record for slowest touchdown return in NFL history and Woodley wanted it that way.

“I said, ‘This is my only time to shine.’ ” Woodley explained. “I only ran slow because I wanted to get some camera time. I could have gotten down there in a matter of seconds. I slowed up to get a little camera time for the people back at home.”

The hardest hitting in this game was done by the team mascots during the timeout for the two-minute warning in the first half. There are seven-on-seven drills more vicious than what was on display Sunday night.

The most interesting action of the game was the halftime interview ESPN scored with Super Bowl quarterbacks Peyton Manning(notes) and Drew Brees(notes), who aren’t going to play until next Sunday.

Not that the players can be blamed. Let’s not get heavy-handed and call this a disgrace. It’s just the reality of the sport. Football that doesn’t count is counterintuitive. Exhibition games in training camp are barely worth watching, but at least they have value in analyzing young players and going through the motions of a real game.

In this contest, most of the tackles were whistled before anybody hit the ground. Most players took a knee faster than at a Catholic service.

“A lot of guys are running, playing hard,” Cleveland Browns kick returner Josh Cribbs said. “At the same time, we’re keeping everybody healthy. We all know what we’re playing for. We’re playing for a bigger check than the other team. We always keep that in mind. But health is the No. 1 priority.”

And ultimately, this game does help with the overall health of the product. For the first time, the Pro Bowl had a title sponsor as McDonald’s puts its name on the game, which didn’t go unnoticed by Mawae.

This cap was one of the many Pro Bowl items on sale at Sun Life Stadium.
(Matthew Emmons/US Presswire)

“This is the first Pro Bowl with a corporate sponsor and we didn’t see a chicken nugget all week,” Mawae said. “We’re paying $30 for chicken fingers for our kids. You think they could have given us some chicken nuggets, some fries, even a few coupons, something.”

Beyond the corporate element, there was plenty of merchandise to be sold and the tickets sold out.

“You see that red windbreaker,” Mawae said, pointing to the official rain jacket for the AFC Pro Bowl squad. “They sell that for $125. All it is is a rain jacket with the NFL emblem on it.”

But that’s the beauty of the NFL. Even when it’s bad, it’s still worth something.

And sometimes that’s all the reason you need to play.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Feb 1, 2010