<
>

Inside Slant: The Pro Bowl 'draft'

There was some rich irony in the dud that was the NFL's first-ever Pro Bowl draft.

Players in this league are so well-trained in guarded speech that none of them could muster the kind of WWE-style trash-talking necessary to make this a watchable three-hour event. And because this draft was the centerpiece in the league's efforts to enliven the Pro Bowl spectacle, I fear it will be back to the drawing board this offseason.

We got an early glimpse of how it would go when an NFL Network reporter prodded Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to riff on some mild comments by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Luck shrugged his shoulders, said that Newton was a better speaker than him and added: "So, what he said."

Later, two rookies -- Green Bay Packers tailback Eddie Lacy and Minnesota Vikings returner Cordarrelle Patterson -- were asked who should be drafted first.

"I should go first," Lacy said, "because I'm better."

Patterson agreed.

Hulk Hogan versus King Kong Bundy, this was not.

In all sincerity, I tuned in with an open mind. (Really. I even tweeted it.) The Pro Bowl's credibility has been declining for years. Players have found less and less incentive to show up, let alone play hard, and frankly, I don't blame them. So I was happy to see the league office take notice and work to improve what should be a genuine show of appreciation for the league's top performers.

But it was probably too much to ask a group of 88 NFL players to morph into pro wrestlers and create enough mock drama to spice up Sunday's game. Even "team captain" Deion Sanders, one of the most loquacious and entertaining players in league history, struggled to keep up his act. Speaking to counterpart Jerry Rice, Sanders sputtered: "I want to beat the brakes off Jerry Rice like I used to." Rice eventually responded: "Thank you for so many years and so many touchdowns."

(And the crowd went, "Ohhhhhhhh." Sort of. Not really.)

The best laughs were mostly unintentional. Sitting in a reality-show style "confessional" booth, Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson boasted: "Throw us a 1-yard pass and watch us go 100." (Don't worry, DeSean. Math isn't my strong suit, either.)

And I got a kick out of seeing the NFL Network's Marshall Faulk and Steve Mariucci attempting to analyze the teams and matchups FOR A GAME WHOSE RESULT IS MEANINGLESS. Several times, Mariucci -- his famously styled hair looking full-on scruffy from the ocean breeze -- couldn't bite back a giggling fit at the absurdity of it all.

(I myself will follow a personal rule of waiting three years to judge a draft.)

Again, I appreciate that the NFL is trying to improve the Pro Bowl event, and a few of the secondary changes have yet to be seen. There will be no kickoffs in the game, a quicker pace due to different game clocks and an automatic change of possession after each quarter. And yes, I could envision future Pro Bowls as a petri dish for future league-wide rule changes.

To this point, however, I'm not sure we've seen much progress in resuscitating the event. Dropping the conference affiliations made an incremental impact on roster integrity, but there were still far too many whiffs to consider the original roster a true representative of the NFL's best players.

By my count, 16 players have withdrawn due to injury and another 11 are out because they're playing in Super Bowl XLVIII. The draft was a dud, and it's questionable at best whether the difference of $27,000 in prize money and the promise of a new truck will be enough incentive for players to raise their intensity and win the actual game.

Personally, I'd like to see the NFL scrap the game portion entirely. Rather than try to put the proverbial lipstick on a pig, why not invite the league's best players to Hawaii for a week of fun, charity events and non-contact skill competitions? Games are the best marketing agent for the NFL, but staging something that falls short of its standard probably has the opposite effect.

As Wednesday evening closed, it appeared that most everyone knew there is more work to be done. Prompted to make an argument for why he should be drafted, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said: "Pick me." The other draft-eligible player, the Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles, offered this nugget: "I think he said it all. That was great." Indeed, what more needed to be said?