Pro Bowl serves as Super Bowl warmup in Miami
MIAMI – For 86 of the NFL’s best players, the season is ending where they wanted: in Miami.
Their timing’s off, though.
With a new venue and new slot on the league calendar, the Pro Bowl will be played Sunday as a preliminary to next week’s Super Bowl on the same field.
It definitely feels like a warmup act.
“There’s a bittersweet taste,” said quarterback Tony Romo, a late addition to the NFC roster after his Dallas Cowboys came up two wins shy of a Super Bowl berth. “You’re always hoping to play in the big game.”
The NFL is trying to transform the Pro Bowl into a bigger game by playing it before the Super Bowl for the first time. In a one-year experiment, the league also moved the game from Honolulu, its home since 1980.
The results: increased media coverage and the best attendance in 51 years, with a sellout crowd of more than 70,000 expected.
The changes haven’t helped participation, though. Seven Colts and seven Saints are missing because they’re preparing for the Super Bowl, a drawback to playing the Pro Bowl first.
Defections by players citing injuries were high, as usual. More than a dozen pulled out, leaving the all-star teams with only some stars.
“That has been historic,” said Frank Supovitz, the NFL’s senior vice president for events. “That’s nothing new.”
And that’s not what the league sought to fix by changing the date and site of the game, Supovitz said.
“The changes were meant to look at two things: Whether we could create more excitement with the Pro Bowl being the first event of Super Bowl week, and whether it would have an impact on TV ratings,” he said.
Ticket sales show the excitement level is up, Supovitz said. And he’s optimistic about the television audience for the game.
“It’s being shown on a weekend when there’s usually no football and interest in the NFL is at its highest,” he said.
Those tuning in will see established stars such as Ray Lewis, Antonio Gates and DeMarcus Ware, as well as first-time Pro Bowlers such as DeAngelo Williams, Clay Matthews and Matt Schaub. The TV audience they attract will help the NFL decide where and when to play future Pro Bowls.
The game will return to Honolulu in 2011 and 2012, but the league hasn’t decided whether to hold those games before or after the Super Bowl. The Pro Bowl site for 2013 and beyond hasn’t been determined.
Players had mixed reactions to this year’s changes. Many said they preferred the old schedule so those in the Super Bowl could also be available for the Pro Bowl.
“I’d rather have it after the Super Bowl,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. “I truly believe next year we’re going to be in the Super Bowl, and I want to play in the Pro Bowl too.”
But Romo said he could see the appeal of putting the Pro Bowl first.
“There’s something to be said for playing the game during the season,” he said. “I think more people are interested.”
By moving the game to the Super Bowl site, the NFL created a bigger spotlight for the Pro Bowl. There are 1,076 credentialed media members this week, compared with 334 in Honolulu a year ago.
That’s good for the league, and maybe not so good for the all-stars.
“There’s a lot more media here, that’s for sure,” said eight-time Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae, addressing a throng of reporters after an AFC practice. “It’s not as relaxed here. There’s a little more hustle and bustle here than there would be at the resort where we stay in Hawaii.”
Still, practices this week were pretty laid back. AFC offensive linemen ran pass patterns. Browns kick returner Joshua Cribbs took a wildcat snap. Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson threw a pass on an end-around. Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco practiced punting and kicking and said he may boot one in the game.
The primary goal seemed to be having a few laughs, which at the end of a long season was understandable. For players who came up short of the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl can be a consolation prize worth accepting.
Running back Adrian Peterson decided not to play, then changed his mind two days after his Vikings lost in the NFC championship game.
“I was beating myself up, and then I realized that really wasn’t the right route to go,” Peterson said. “I’m here, and I’m going to enjoy myself.”