Note: This story originally ran on Dec. 19, 2017. The 2018 Pro Bowl is Sunday at 2:50 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN/WatchESPN.
The NFL will announce its 2018 Pro Bowl rosters on Tuesday night (8 ET), opening the annual debate over the value of an all-star game that no one wants to play in and increasingly fewer people want to watch.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has broached the possibility of eliminating the game in the past, as recently as 2012. But for as long as the league continues to stage it, perhaps there is a way to enhance the value of the Pro Bowl. What if the league used it as a petri dish to test the outcomes of various — and, in some cases, dramatic — tweaks to how the game is played?
There are few other opportunities to get a live but largely consequence-free look at new ideas. No one cares about the outcome of the game, naturally, and a fresh-looking game might actually be of more interest to watch.
The NFL has dabbled in Pro Bowl experimentation before, of course, most notably using narrower goalposts after the 2014 season to gauge the impact on some of its best kickers. (Adam Vinatieri missed two extra points and a 39-yard field goal!) After a season stacked with safety concerns and rule protests, how else could the NFL use the Pro Bowl? Here are a few ideas.
A new catch rule
I’m on record suggesting that any substantive alternative to the NFL catch rule, especially when the receiver goes to the ground, would open a new trove of objectionable side effects. But there’s no way to know for sure without trying, right?
What if, for the Pro Bowl only, the NFL eliminated the obligation to control the ball throughout the process when going to the ground? A pass would be complete if the receiver secured it and was in bounds. Anything that happened afterward would be irrelevant to whether it would be called a catch.
The concern is that officials would be asked to make a more subjective judgement call when asked to determine whether the ball was secure without having a time frame for reference. There might also be more catches ruled as fumbles, rather than incomplete. But who is to know for sure unless it’s tested?
Use technology to mark the ball
Referee Gene Steratore’s ridiculous index-card measurement on Sunday night was a reminder of the antiquated and arbitrary way the league marks the ball on the field. You want to think that, as 2017 bleeds into 2018, a $14 billion industry would have a more sophisticated way to make important on-field measurements.
The NFL already has RFID chips in every ball, and in the shoulder pads of every player, as part of its Next-Gen stats program. Tech experts I’ve spoken to don’t believe the technology is precise and reliable enough to use for spotting purposes in games. But what if we take a few series in the Pro Bowl to find out? Let’s see if the ball can tell us if it is out of bounds or over the goal line.
Maybe the NFL could throw some chips in the knee and elbow pads of players, too, and see whether it can triangulate the position of the ball when said players are down by contact.
Even a failure here would benefit the league; it would demonstrate to fans that there unfortunately are no better alternatives to the current system.
Widen the field
Would football be safer on a bigger field, with more room for today’s oversized players to run and avoid full-force contact?
Laugh if you like, but this theory has circulated among actual football people. In 2011, Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster John Madden said it was discussed as part of a player safety advisory council.
Really, there is no harm in seeing what an NFL game with NFL players would look like on a larger field. How much bigger, though? The field in the Canadian Football League offers a framework: It’s 12 yards wider and 10 yards longer than the NFL’s, which is 120 yards long and 53.33 yards wide.
Everybody in a two-point stance
As long as we’re on the issue of player safety, what about a radical change to how players are positioned on the line of scrimmage? What if offensive and defensive linemen were required to stand up, rather than put one or both hands in the dirt?
In addition to looking potentially silly, the change could minimize the headfirst sub-concussive hits that result from linemen slamming into each other when they fire from their stances. There could be all kinds of unintended consequences, most notably being a complete inability to run block. It also might not lower the number of hits to the head, but it would be nice to know for sure whether it could.
Targeting! (Oh, yes)
One experimental game wouldn’t be enough to know whether a targeting rule would act as a deterrent against hitting defenseless players above the shoulders. But it could help set expectations — and, frankly, provide practice — for NFL officials to make accurate and consistent calls to eject players. (We’ve seen that’s not always the case in college.)
It’s quite possible that we wouldn’t see enough aggressive play to create the opportunity for these types of hits. It is the Pro Bowl, after all. Which brings us to …
Ever watch baseball’s Futures Game, featuring the top minor league prospects in a you’ll-know-these-names-in-a-few-years event during MLB’s All-Star week? The NFL could do something similar. Fans, players and coaches could still elect a leaguewide Pro Bowl team. But if the league insists on having a game, why not focus it on rookies and first- and second-year players who would be more inclined to see value in the actual game?
Do you want to see Andy Dalton as a Pro Bowl quarterback, because none of the top eight veteran AFC quarterbacks wants to play? Or would it be more interesting to see Paxton Lynch, Patrick Mahomes II or Mitchell Trubisky?
Not only would they be more likely to commit to the game because it’s new to them, but younger players might see branding and other marketing opportunities as well. A win-win, right?
I advocated earlier this year for the abolition of kickoffs. What’s the point, after all, when through Week 15 they’ve resulted in touchbacks 58 percent of the time.
Not everyone thinks that’s such a hot idea, even though the league itself has already banned them for the Pro Bowl. So in future years, perhaps the NFL could test alternative possibilities that would meet its safety expectations while still providing a consistent level of entertainment.
In 2016, special-teams coaches proposed a new kickoff formation that would look more like a punt, with the majority of players lined up near the middle of the field in a way that would lower the possibility of full-speed collisions. That wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Stop the fumble/touchback madness
You saw it Sunday night in Oakland. There was Derek Carr, stretching for the pylon for what would be a game-winning touchdown over the Cowboys. But instead of scoring, Carr lost control of the ball before it crossed the plane. The fumble rolled out of the end zone.
NFL rules call for a touchback and loss of possession in those situations, an incredibly harsh outcome for an otherwise random event. No one is certain why the league hasn’t lightened the rule. But in the Pro Bowl, let’s just return any fumble out of the end zone to the spot where control was lost — or, at worst, the 20-yard line — and forgo the change of possession. Would the apocalypse ensue? I think not.