New venue, date for this week’s Pro Bowl
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Chad Ochocinco took a snap and tested his punting leg, then later tried out as TV commentator while his opponents practiced.
The NFC all-star defense lined up with three No. 90s side by side – Julius Peppers, Darnell Dockett and Jay Ratliff.
Donovan McNabb pumped his fist in mock celebration when he completed a short pass to an unguarded receiver.
“Ah, that was awesome right there! Woo!” McNabb shouted.
The Pro Bowl’s always a little different, even at practice. And this year’s game is different from other Pro Bowls.
NFL all-stars held their first workouts Wednesday in preparation for Sunday’s showcase, which has a new venue and a new place on the league calendar.
As a one-year experiment, the game has been moved to Miami from Honolulu, its home since 1980. And for the first time, it’s being played the week before the Super Bowl instead of in its customary slot the week after the NFL’s title game.
The switches paid off in ticket sales. The league expects a sellout, and the crowd of more than 70,000 will be the largest for a Pro Bowl since 1959 in Los Angeles.
One thing hasn’t changed: Enthusiasm for participating remains lukewarm. More than a dozen players turned down the chance to play, citing injury. In addition, the Colts and Saints won’t be represented because they’re preparing for next week’s Super Bowl, also in Miami.
As a result, 31 of the 87 Pro Bowl players are replacing those selected earlier, and the defections keep coming. On Wednesday, Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter replaced the Chargers’ Nate Kaeding.
“We still have a lot of good players,” the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said. “I don’t think it waters down the game.”
Rodgers is only quarterback playing among the six originally chosen. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, who were selected to start, are preparing instead for the Super Bowl.
That’s the drawback to scheduling the Pro Bowl as a lead-in to the title game.
“It’s unfortunate it has to be before the Super Bowl,” McNabb said. “It doesn’t do any justice for the guys who are playing in the Super Bowl game. But all of us who are here would love to be playing next week.”
Along with seven Colts and seven Saints, absent players include Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Brett Favre, Steven Jackson, Sidney Rice and Brian Cushing.
That still leaves a lot of talent on hand, including Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Andre Johnson, Antonio Gates, DeMarcus Ware and Ray Lewis.
It’s old hat to Lewis, chosen for the 11th time, the most of any player in this year’s game. He said he decided without hesitation to take part.
“I love it too much,” Lewis said. “It’s one of the greatest accomplishments you can have outside of the Super Bowl. Whether it’s your first time or your 11th time, it’s the same reward. You understand these times will never be again.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, the league’s most prolific tackler over the past decade. He made the Pro Bowl for the first time as a replacement for the Saints’ Jonathan Vilma.
“Once I knew I was going to the Pro Bowl, I was so excited about it,” Fletcher said. “It has been a long time coming, but I’m here now.”
Fletcher would have been just as happy playing in Honolulu, where the game will return in 2011 and 2012. The site for 2013 is undecided.
Several Pro Bowlers said they liked the change in venue.
“It’s a good idea to have it here in Miami,” Ware said. “It’s a little bit different.”
“I love Miami,” the Titans’ Chris Johnson said. “It’s a quick flight down here for me.”
And then there are the six former Miami Hurricanes in the game, including Lewis and Andre Johnson.
“You can’t argue with being at home,” Johnson said.
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