Why Does the Pro Bowl Still Exist?

Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The Pro Bowl may be the one exhibition game in professional sports that the players have no desire to participate in.

This has probably always been the case, but the players’ attitude toward this year’s game seems even more apathetic than in years past.

In actuality, think about the Pro Bowl as opposed to all other all-star games.  It’s the only one that takes place after the regular season, after sixteen games and seventeen weeks of the most grueling sport on the planet, one that causes most former players to have CTE, the disease that slowly but surely destroys the brain in those who sustain multiple concussions and sub-concussive impacts.  It also makes most players, especially those who made the playoffs, feel worn out and in need of a break from the game.  This was never more evident than in the amount of withdrawals from this year’s Pro Bowl.

This year, 133 players were invited to Hawaii to play in the game.  By my count, only 94 are actually making the trip, and the 133 invites set a new record for the amount of players who were asked to play.  The NFL has taken numerous measures to attempt to make the Pro Bowl more appealing to viewers, but it’s kind of hard to appeal to a viewing audience when you can’t even appeal to your own employees.

Among these measures is having Hall of Famers pick the teams for the game.  Instead of having an AFC vs. NFC format, the league decided to have legends such as Michael Irvin, Cris Carter, Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders pick the teams.  This practice began in 2013, after years of Pro Bowl irrelevance.  Unsurprisingly, the presence of the former players changed approximately nothing in terms of the relevance of the contest.

What exactly is the problem with the game?  All you have to do is watch it for five minutes and you’ll see.  It just isn’t played like a regular game; it isn’t physical in the least and the players who are playing in the game really don’t give it much of an effort.  If you want one sequence to serve as a microcosm for what the game has become, you need to look no further than this play in the 2013 game, when referee Ed Hochuli set the record straight on how the game was being played:

“Yes, there are penalties in the Pro Bowl.”  Truer words have never been spoken.  I hate to say it, but the game has become soft, which is certainly a far cry from when the late great Sean Taylor temporarily ended the life of Bills punter Brian Moorman.

Football is the last sport in the world that can be described as soft, so watching the Pro Bowl is essentially not like watching real football. However, the MLB All-Star Game is not exactly like a real baseball game; the same is true with the NBA All-Star Game.  So why is the Pro Bowl so much more irrelevant than the exhibitions of other sports?

It’s simple; the players aren’t interested.  Eli Manning is starting the game for Team Rice, and while he is one of the best quarterbacks in football (don’t get me started on that one), he isn’t one of the two best available quarterbacks for the game.  The fact that players competing in the Super Bowl cannot play thins the talent pool some, but you can still find two quarterbacks better than Eli Manning.  This is a byproduct of the withdrawals of Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer and others.

The other reason why the Pro Bowl struggles is because the game just isn’t that fun.  While you can tell that LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant don’t care all that much about the NBA All-Star Game, they actually make the game more fun by attempting more entertaining plays, like some of these from last year’s contest:

The NBA players do not take the game seriously, but that is part of what makes it an enjoyable watch.  The other enjoyable part of the NBA and MLB All-Star proceedings has nothing to do with the games themselves; rather, the most enjoyable things about these games have to be the skills contests.  Baseball has the Home Run Derby, which is one of the best events on the sport’s calendar.  It gets all of the great players of the game in one place and creates another night of fun for fans of the sport during the All-Star break.  And, the NBA, of course, has Saturday Night of All-Star weekend all to itself.  The Three-Point Contest, Skills Contest and Slam Dunk Contest have the same effect as the Home Run Derby; they give the players a stage all to themselves to do things we wouldn’t see during games.  All-Star Saturday night is one of the great events in sports, and it’s something that the NFL could have… if the league wanted it.

The NFL could have the players engage in some type of skills contest before the game.  The idea of holding some type of punt, pass, and kick contest with professional players could be a good idea.  Moving the NFL Honors show, which presently occurs the night before the Super Bowl, to the night before the Pro Bowl, would make more players go to the game the next day; however, holding an awards show in Hawaii might be a challenge.

Or, the NFL could do what I think is the best idea of all, which would be to just get rid of the game altogether.  This is what Greg Bedard wrote for Sports Illustrated in a roundtable about improving the game:

Get rid of it. No one cares and it stinks. Look, football isn’t baseball, basketball or hockey, where you can have an all-star break in the middle of the season and the game might loosely resemble the real product. The injury risk is too high. Combine that with the fact that the true stars of the game never actually go, and exactly what are we trying to accomplish here? The lone possible alternative would be some sort of combination of Battle of the Network Stars, MTV’s The Challenge and a skills competition. All-star games are cool for one reason: All the best players are in the same place at the same time. I don’t care if it’s for a dinner party at midfield at Aloha Stadium—find something that can do that for NFL players.

He’s right.  The NFL needs to find a way to get all of its players together in the same place.  Until they do, we as fans will continue to be wholly disinterested in the Pro Bowl.

And we’ll be wondering why it even exists at all.

How Much of the Cavaliers’ Problems Actually Should Fall on David Blatt?

Photo Credit: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt was improbably fired on Friday, despite winning 68% of his games in a year and a half and taking the team to Game 6 of the NBA Finals in his first year on the job. However, General Manager David Griffin made the move on Friday, reportedly not consulting any Cavalier players in the process, and using this reasoning for his decision. These are his words:

I have never seen a locker room not be as connected after wins as they need to be. We’ve only been galvanized when expectations were not high.

This is the General Manager speaking, not any of the players or assistant coaches. And no, despite popular opinion, LeBron James is not the coach or General Manager of the team. So why on this planet would Griffin be making a decision on firing his (very successful) head coach based on things he’s seen in the locker room?

Maybe this is part of the problem, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst writes. Here, he relays a story from last season about how players really didn’t think all that much of Blatt:

That didn’t stay a secret. James’ and other players’ complaints about Blatt’s style got out quickly. During games, Cavs players complained about the coach to opposing players. Once, while on the road, an injured Cavs player used the home team’s therapy pool and complained about Blatt, with his thoughts literally echoing throughout the home locker room.

First of all, that’s a really low maneuver to resort to; using the home team’s therapy pool just so you could complain about how bad your coach is? Come on, there’s got to be a better way.

But, besides that, the coaching move would seem to make sense. Blatt did not really seem to have the pulse of the locker room, and while it’s easy to look straight to the Cavs’ record and wonder why the organization could make this move, there is more to the decision than wins and losses. Also, the people questioning the change probably did not watch the team play the Warriors and, subsequently, trail by 43 late in the third quarter. Something had to be done, but was this it? If the therapy pool story and the others that Windhorst told in his piece are true, then the right move was made. If the players actually respected Blatt, then maybe the firing is a mistake.

All this being said, we really need to toss locker room dynamics to the side here. This is the problem with the Cavaliers: maybe they just aren’t good enough to win an NBA title. Maybe the issues go far beyond coaching.

Think about it this way: the Cavs are a big fish in a little pond. With all due respect to the Eastern Conference (which has improved mightily from top to bottom this season), the team is easily the best in the East. Realistically, can the Heat, Hawks, or Raptors beat them in a seven-game series if Cleveland is fully healthy? The answer to that question would have to be no.

Remember the analogy about the fish and the pond? Well, the Western Conference is a very big pond, with two enormous fish filling it. The Spurs and Warriors are clearly the two best teams in the NBA right now, and it’s really not close. To make matters worse for Cleveland, they haven’t beaten either team this year; with one more game against San Antonio and having already finished their slate against the Warriors, they are running the serious risk of not getting a win against the two teams they will have to realistically go through to win an NBA championship. That really doesn’t bode well for them if they want to finally bring a title back to the city of Cleveland.

Here is the other problem for the Cavaliers: Kevin Love. If you know what Love accomplished in his early days with the Minnesota Timberwolves and you see what he has been relegated to in Cleveland, you can probably understand why the team may look to move on from him. After the Blatt firing, ESPN’s Cavaliers reporter (yes, really), Dave McMenamin, sent out this cryptic tweet:

So, let’s see who that could be. The player who hasn’t found his way offensively since arriving in Cleveland. The player who was really great on many really bad teams early in his career. The player who is posting the worst numbers of his career since his second season in the NBA. Add everything up, and you get one result: Kevin Love.

Another player that could be out in Cleveland after Blatt’s firing is center Timofey Mozgov. Rumors have circulated around the league that this is a possibility, and my intuition says that a Mozgov deal would be common sense for the team. Think about it: let’s say the Cavaliers play Golden State in the Finals again like they did last year. With Mozgov at center, how can he defend Draymond Green when the Warriors go to their Uh-Oh lineup? This was the Cavaliers’ main problem after Game 3 of the Finals last season when the Warriors started Andre Iguodala and moved Green to center. Cleveland tried to counter by putting Tristan Thompson at center for most of Game 5. It didn’t quite work.

Do I believe going to Tyronn Lue is the right move for the Cavaliers? Yes, I do, because the players respond to and identify with him more than they did with Blatt. The NBA is a players’ league, and while coaching isn’t always the most important thing in the league, the players’ identification with a head coach’s philosophy and personality is. That being said, why did Griffin stay with Blatt last year, with the team at 19-20 in the middle of January? This year, the team was 30-11 at the time of Blatt’s firing and leading the Eastern Conference.

This is not a question about whether or not the Cavs can come out of the East. That question has been answered. However, Cleveland will have serious issues if they are matched up with the Spurs or Warriors in the Finals, and they may get beaten handily by either team.

Which is a fact that neither David Blatt, David Griffin nor Tyronn Lue can do anything about.

And Then There Were Four: Conference Championship Weekend Preview

Photo Credit: Charlotte Observer
Photo Credit: Charlotte Observer

Four teams remain in the NFL playoffs after last week’s Divisional Round saw all four games decided by seven or fewer points.  The New England Patriots, synthetic weed, left behind K-Balls and all,  defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 27-20, en route to their fifth-straight AFC title game.  In the other half of the conference, the Denver Broncos defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-13, but in particularly ugly fashion, as this play shows:

Nonetheless, the Broncos won, setting up Brady-Manning XVII, likely the final meeting between the two Hall of Famers.

On the NFC side, the Arizona Cardinals struggled their way to a 20-13 lead over the Green Bay Packers, but due to horrid clock (mis)management, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense had one last chance to tie the game and send it into overtime.  What happened next is nothing short of indescribable:

Then, of course, there was the coin that didn’t flip, and the Cardinals got the ball first in overtime. That’s when Larry Fitzgerald got to work, in a big way, catching two passes, one for 75 yards and the winner from five yards out:

In the other NFC game, the Carolina Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead over the Seattle Seahawks.  Seattle would come back to bring the game within seven, but would not get any closer.  Was it an entertaining game? Sure, but nothing like the spectacle that was Packers-Cardinals.

In any event, here is a preview of the two conference title games.

AFC Championship: Patriots at Broncos

Photo Credit: Denver Post
Photo Credit: Denver Post

The clear undercard to the NFC Championship Game, this game still features intriguing storylines.  However, the biggest question in this one will be if Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense can keep pace with the high-flying, and now fully healthy, Patriots offense.  If the answer is, by some bizarre revelation, yes, then we are in for an outstanding game.  If this answer is the more likely solution, no, then things could get out of hand, and quickly.

Manning’s health and his steep decline have been well-documented, and the latter was fully on display against the Steelers.  His lack of arm strength and his inability to fit the ball into tight windows has been his, and the Broncos offense’s, downfall all season long, and at this point, the team should seriously consider turning to Brock Osweiler.  It’s a shame, but Denver’s offense is limited by Manning at this point.  The rest of the team is good enough to win a Super Bowl, but the most important position on the field is in flux.

On the other hand, the Patriots offense is far from being in flux.  With the greatest quarterback in the history of football and his full assemblage of weapons fully healthy, the team and the offensive unit are looking more and more dangerous as time goes on.

Also, the most important Patriot offensive player not named Brady or Gronkowski is back, too.  Julian Edelman, who missed seven games due to a foot injury suffered in November, announced his presence in a big way against the Chiefs, racking up 111 total yards and ten catches.  He’s Brady’s favorite target, too: he’s averaged over ten targets per game, more than any other New England receiver (including Gronk).

Here are some stats to show just why Edelman is the second-most important player in the Patriots offense:

  WITH EDELMAN WITHOUT EDELMAN
PASS YARDS PER GAME 323.5 236.3
TOTAL YARDS PER GAME 410.8 317.6
POINTS PER GAME 33 23.1

(Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference)

It will be the task of the Broncos defense to stop the Patriots.  It’s something they were able to do in the first meeting of the teams in week 12, but in that game, the Patriots were missing Edelman and Danny Amendola; also, Gronkowski left the game in the fourth quarter with what looked to be a serious knee injury.  Luckily, it wasn’t.

And for the Patriots, they’ll have their full cast of offensive characters this Sunday.  Look out.

The Pick: Patriots 31, Broncos 13

NFC Championship: Cardinals at Panthers

Photo Credit: Bob Donnan/USA Today
Photo Credit: Bob Donnan/USA Today

I have been torn on this game since about Monday.  While both teams are as good as any in football, they both showed their flaws last weekend.  For example, the Panthers’ flaw has to be allowing teams back into games, while the Cardinals’ flaw is offensive inconsistency, especially when quarterback Carson Palmer struggles.  However, the one I’d have to be much more concerned with is that of Carolina.

Did you know that the Panthers have almost blown five fourth-quarter leads this season?  Granted, that’s out of fifteen wins, and the team still has the best point differential in the NFL (+192; the Cardinals are second at +176), this is staggering and very concerning, especially when you consider that Carolina nearly blew a 31-point halftime lead to the Seahawks a week ago.  The team has a tendency to start strong and then tail off, but that strategy isn’t going to cut it against Arizona this week.

Statistically, the Cardinals have the best offense in football, but the more impressive and important statistic is that their defense was the fifth-best in football during the regular season.  Just as importantly, their defense is top ten in both rushing and passing yards allowed, which is going to be very important as the team tries to defend dual-threat quarterback and soon-to-be-MVP Cam Newton.

However, the most important thing of all for the Cardinals will be to get running back David Johnson going.  Johnson has started every game at running back for the Cardinals since primary, lucky-to-be-alive running back Chris Johnson suffered a fractured tibia in week 12 against the 49ers.  The team has won every game in which David has accumulated over 100 all-purpose yards.  He hasn’t reached that mark since playing the Packers in week 16, and he was mostly held in check against the Packers in the Divisional Round.  If the Cardinals want to go to the Super Bowl, they’ll need their running back to have a big day.

Another thing to watch with this one is the weather.  While the actual weather for Sunday will be favorable, a storm is hitting the Carolinas Friday and Saturday.  The reason why I’m mentioning this is that the field for Sunday’s game may be glorified mud, which probably means advantage Panthers.

However, despite the weather and Newton, I’m going with the upset and taking the Cardinals.  This game will hopefully be a classic, and the gap between the teams really is not wide.  I’m most concerned about the Panthers’ fourth-quarter habit, but especially if they start slowly and don’t pull out to their usual lead.

This one really could go either way, but the Cardinals will win in a close one.

The Pick: Cardinals 23, Panthers 20

Enjoy the games, and for those on the east coast, stay safe in the upcoming blizzard.

You Like That: NFL Wild Card Round Preview

Well, I hope you like it, anyway.  The NFL Playoffs are finally upon us, and that means two of the best weekends on the sports calendar are upon us as well.  Wild Card Weekend and Divisional Playoff Weekend are coming, and with those come eight NFL playoff games.  Those eight start with four this weekend, each providing unique intrigue and scintillating storylines.

This post will only examine the Wild Card games.  Other playoff game previews will be potentially saved for other entries.  So let’s get right to it.  Here are previews for each Wild Card Game.

Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans

The Kansas City Chiefs enter January as the NFL’s hottest team, having won their last nine games after a disappointing 1-5 start. Against what team did the only win in their first six games come?  The Houston Texans, the same team they have to play on Saturday.

Both teams, however, are far different than they were in that September 13 meeting, one that resulted in a 27-20 Chiefs victory. Different in the sense that they both lost their star running backs to season-ending injuries and both started their seasons in sub-par fashion before figuring things out toward a run to the second season.

While the Chiefs started 1-5 and looked done with ten games to play, the Texans started 2-6 and looked buried after a 44-26 loss to the Dolphins (Houston was down 41-0 at halftime).  Now, they’re unbelievably matching up in a playoff game.

The matchup to watch this time around would definitely have to be the Chiefs’ altered running game against the defensive line of the Texans.  Can some combination of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware make strides against a Texan defense that ranked top 10 in the league in rushing yards allowed?  More importantly, can the Chiefs’ offensive line find a way to handle J.J. Watt and his disruptive ability to get to the quarterback?  And can Watt and the Houston defense make vastly underrated Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith look like a Red Ryder BB Gun?

While the Chiefs are on a ten-game winning streak and the Law of Averages says that this must end eventually, they’re still as hot as any team in the NFL.  The Texans used four quarterbacks over the course of the season, but they have theirs healthy.  However, Brian Hoyer doesn’t make the same impact on the game as Smith.  The Texans need a lot of different things to happen to win this game, too many to put faith in them to win it.

The Pick: Chiefs 24, Texans 14

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals

Speaking of quarterback problems, the Bengals have their own quasi-quarterback issue brought about by injury.  Andy Dalton went down with a broken thumb in the team’s December 13 game against- you guessed it- the Steelers.  In his place stepped notoriously arrogant but wildly efficient backup A.J. McCarron, and the team has won two games under his leadership, and a third in Denver went to overtime. McCarron still has yet to throw an interception in any of his starts, and his ability to protect the ball will be huge, especially considering the offensive firepower the Steelers possess.

Pittsburgh, however, comes into January decimated.  Arguably the team’s best player, running back Le’Veon Bell tore his MCL against the Bengals on November 1 (parallels, again).  Backup running back DeAngelo Williams has been effective in his stead but he suffered an ankle injury in last week’s game against the Browns.  He was ruled out for this game, and the Steelers will lean on the combination of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman on Saturday night.  We all know about the greatness of Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger, but the task of stopping the Pittsburgh offense will undoubtedly be easier without Bell or Williams.

Sure, the Bengals are using a backup quarterback.  But the Steelers secondary is… not that good.  Ranking 30th in the league in pass defense, the Cincinnati offense can move the ball against it if they don’t commit turnovers and have a balanced attack.  The Pittsburgh rush defense is much better (5th in the league) but the story here will be the passing game. If McCarron can move the ball (and I think he will), it could spell death for the Steelers.

So while Pittsburgh boasts an amazing, albeit decimated, offense and a solid defense in areas, this will be the upset of Wild Card Weekend.

The Pick: Bengals 26, Steelers 21

This game might be the most interesting one of the weekend.  The Seattle Seahawks are coming off of their usual second-half run to end the regular season, while the Minnesota Vikings just won their first NFC North championship since 2009.  Oh, and its going to be really cold.  Like, zero degree cold.

In any event, task number one, two, three, four, and five for the Minnesota Viking defense will be stopping Russell Wilson.  The Seahawks’ quarterback is coming off the best season of his young career and was playing about as well as any quarterback in the league (even Cam Newton) to end the season.  The Vikings are going to have to contain his running and passing, a tall task for a defense that is middle of the road in both categories.

As for the Vikings’ offense, it’s going to have to run through Adrian Peterson.  Also, a good, mistake-free game from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater wouldn’t hurt, either.  But, they’ll be going against a Seahawks defense that ranked second in passing and first in rushing this year.  Good luck.

Even though there will be no Beast Mode for the Seahawks on Sunday, I still like them to win.

The Pick: Seahawks 20, Vikings 12

Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins

The Green Bay Packers are broken.  After a 6-0 start, the team finished 4-6 and lost out on a division crown last week in a frustrating loss to the Vikings.  Aaron Rodgers hasn’t had a 300-yard game since mid-November.  Since then, the team has had losses at home to the Bears, last week’s game and a road thrashing at the hands of the Cardinals in week 16.  They’re actually pretty good on the road, with an even record at home as on the road.

But they’re going to need to have a great game on Sunday to beat the Washington Redskins, and that team is going in the opposite direction.  Since an excruciating week 13 loss to the Cowboys, Washington has won four games in a row and come into the playoffs at 9-7 and hot.  Kirk Cousins has played exceptionally well since week 7.  That game against Tampa Bay is now known for this:

Since “You like that”, Cousins has thrown for 23 touchdowns and three interceptions.  He’s also made us forget about Robert Griffin III.

If the Packers are going to beat the Redskins on Sunday, they need more from Rodgers against a defense that can be had.  The Skins’ defense ranks 28th in yards this season, while the Packers are 15th.  If the Packers can move the ball consistently through the air, they can and probably will win this one.  If not, take the Redskins.  That’s what I’m doing, and I like that.

The Pick: Redskins 28, Packers 17

As always, enjoy the games and have a great Wild Card Weekend!