Pro Bowl is just flight of fantasy for Asomugha

When a league official phoned Nnamdi Asomugha late Friday to offer a last-minute invitation to the Pro Bowl, the Oakland Raiders' standout cornerback thought there might be some sort of catch.

Actually, it was more like a no-catch. As in, there was no flight that Asomugha could catch that would get him to Honolulu in time for Saturday evening's annual all-star matchup between the AFC and NFC conferences.

Seems that the AFC needed a replacement for Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis, who suffered an undisclosed injury on Friday that could keep him out of the game. Seems like Asomugha, whom most Oakland teammates felt should have earned a Pro Bowl berth anyway, will have to wait another year to realize a longtime dream.

"To be recognized by your [peers], to have them say, like, 'You're one of the best,' that's the ultimate compliment," Asomugha said. "Just getting the phone call from the league, it was a big deal. Not being able to go, while disappointing, gives me more incentive now for [2007]."

Asomugha, 25, was chosen as an alternate for the AFC squad, thus the phone call from the league when Mathis was injured. But there are those in the NFL who felt that the former University of California star deserved to be selected outright for the game, as a reward for a breakthrough 2006 season.

In addition to Mathis, the AFC team included cornerbacks Champ Bailey of Denver and Baltimore's Chris McAlister. If he does not participate, Mathis, whose leg injury is not considered very serious, will become the 17th player to bow out of the Pro Bowl.

Before the 2007 season, it might have been difficult to include Asomugha in such elite company, but that is no longer the case. After amassing zero interceptions in his first three seasons, Asomugha authored eight pickoffs in 2006, and only Bailey and Asante Samuel of New England, with 10 each, had more. Asomugha also had 50 tackles, one forced fumble and 11 passes defensed.

Asomugha was the Raiders' first-round choice in the 2003 draft but alternated between safety and cornerback his first couple seasons, as Oakland coaches tried to define his best position. There is no doubt now that Asomugha, the leader of a young Raiders' secondary which statistically led the NFL in pass defense in 2006, is a cornerback.

There also seems little doubt that the aggressive Asomugha, who combines great size and strength with top-end speed, will soon earn a trip to Hawaii for a Pro Bowl appearance. And it likely won't come in an 11th-hour phone call.

"He's a deserving guy," said Oakland teammate and pass-rushing defensive end Derrick Burgess. "He'll be here on his own merits soon enough."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.