Pro Bowl Was Living on Borrowed Time

When the NFL owners moved the Pro Bowl from the week after the Super Bowl to the week before it in 2010, they in effect put the game on life support, because it essentially meant that none of the players from the two teams that would play in the Super Bowl one week later would henceforth participate.

Yesterday, the owners pulled the plug.

The game, first played in 1951 (five games between the NFL champions and an all-star team from the rest of the league were played in consecutive years starting in 1938), will be replaced by a kind of Football Olympics. Even its name suggests as much: the Pro Bowl Games. Whether gold, silver, and bronze medals will be presented to the top three finishers in each "event," however, is in doubt. The featured "event" will be a flag football game, presumably played observing an AFC vs. NFC format.

From 1951 through 1969, the game matched up all-stars from the Eastern Conference against all-stars from the Western Conference, although the Eastern Conference was officially known as the American Conference, and the Western Conference was officially known as the National Conference, from 1950 through 1952 (prior to that the terms "Eastern Division" and "Western Division" were used, as George Preston Marshall had suggested when he persuaded his fellow owners — Marshall founded the Boston Braves in 1932, only to change the team's name to the Boston Redskins just a year later and then moved them to Washington in 1937, and are now, of course, known as the Washington Commanders after two seasons as the "Washington Football Team" — to realign the NFL into divisions in 1933).

The AFL also held its own all-star game following every year except its inaugural season of 1960; the game that followed the 1965 season was between the AFL champion Buffalo Bills and an all-star team consisting of players from the other seven franchises that the league had at the time (the all-stars won 30-19). All eight of the other games in the series were played under the same East-West format as its NFL counterpart (the West won six of the games).

With the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the game assumed its familiar AFC vs. NFC format. For five years in a row — the years following the 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, and 1978 seasons — the game was played on Monday night. The games following the 2001 and 2006 seasons were played on Saturday. All other Pro Bowls in the post-merger era were played on Sunday.

Starting with the 1979 game, 30 consecutive Pro Bowls were contested at Hawaii's Aloha Stadium (it was played at the Los Angeles Coliseum 23 times in the first 29 years of its existence, including all of the first 22) — a streak that was broken when the game following the 2009 season was played at what is now Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. The game then returned to Hawaii for four years before the 2014 game at Glendale, Arizona, one more game in Hawaii, then four at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, fueling speculation about that city as prime timber for a future NFL expansion team (the city already has a professional sports franchise, the NBA's Orlando Magic — strongly suggesting that Central Florida can support an NFL team).

What will now go down as the last Pro Bowl was held this past February 6 at Allegiant Stadium — site of this coming February's "Pro Bowl Games."

Soon after the game was moved to the week between the conference title games and the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl was in obvious trouble: the NFL tried a gimmick that involved retired players picking their teams, Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders doing the honors in the game that followed the 2012 season (with Team Rice winning 22-21), Michael Irvin and Cris Carter doing so in 2013 (Team Irvin won 32-28) and Irvin and Rice each making their second appearance in the miniseries in 2014 (with Team Irvin winning again, 49-27).

Not counting these three games, the AFC won 26 of the games, including the last five in a row, with the NFC winning 22.

The 2020 Pro Bowl was actually played on Madden (!) because of the COVID pandemic. The NFC lost the interconference season series 35-28-1 that year — yet somehow managed to easily win the simulated game, 32-12.

Of course the owners could kill two proverbial birds with one stone by bringing the Pro Bowl back and move it back to its original date of the weekend after the Super Bowl, while concomitantly eliminating the totally useless off week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl.

And as The Trammps sang in Disco Inferno, satisfaction could come in a chain reaction: the long-sought (by the owners anyway) lengthening of the regular season to 18 games, and the equally long-sought goal of playing the Super Bowl on the Presidents' Day weekend, making "Super Bowl Monday" a national holiday without creating another such holiday.

With this in mind, at least some of the owners will be secretly rooting for the inaugural "Pro Bowl Games," which will take place on February 5, to be the biggest flop since the Edsel.

Then it will be back to business as usual — with a twist. Actually several twists.

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