LAS VEGAS (AP) — The NFL finally stopped pretending its all-star game was an actual game, and is breathing life into the exhibition with Sunday’s Pro Bowl Games.
There will be no tackle football played for the first time — not that there was much tackling in recent years, more like two-hand touch. Flag football is now the marquee event.
Will the dramatically different format work? The league desperately hopes so. Rather than a winner-take-all game, a series of events — each of which accumulates three points — lead up to three flag football contests to determine the winning conference.
Two AFC players from the hometown Las Vegas Raiders weren’t completely sold on the format. Running back Josh Jacobs even called it “stupid.”
“They need to figure out a way for it to actually make sense because I don’t enjoy this,” Jacobs said. “Send everybody’s family on vacation and call it a day.”
Defensive end Maxx Crosby was one of the few who treated last year’s Pro Bowl as an actual game. He had two sacks, three tackles for loss and three batted passes to win defensive MVP in the AFC’s 41-35 victory.
“It’s just about being around the guys,” Crosby said. “The Pro Bowl is a blessing and a dream come true, so I’m not taking it for granted. … We’ll see what happens next year. I hope we can play some football.”
Two NFC players offered more favorable reviews.
“I think the format’s cool because it’s less taxing on the body.” Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander said. “A lot of guys finished the season injured and come out here and run around with some flags. Who wouldn’t like that?”
“It’s fun,” New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley said. “For a guy like me, especially, to participate in a flag football game and the skills challenge, I’m competitive. It makes you feel like a little kid again. And hopefully, it puts smiles on fans’ and little kids’ faces.”
Four skills events took place Thursday, and the AFC will try to extend its five-game winning streak after taking a 9-3 lead by winning the precision passing competition, the three-event lightning round and the long drive. The NFC won in dodgeball.
Sunday brings the end of the skills portion: the finals of the best catch, an obstacle race, a special teams game called kick-tac-toe and a strength contest. Then the two conferences will play each other in two flag football games, each worth six points.
The total points from all the contests will be the score entering the third and final flag football game.
Got all that?
A clear scoring system during the competition would help. Those watching ESPN on Thursday were able to keep up because the network regularly updated viewers, but inside the Raiders’ facility, there was no scoreboard nor any announcements of which events were about to begin — nor any results afterward.
That shouldn’t be a problem Sunday. The score already was on the scoreboard during Saturday’s media day.
This isn’t the first time the NFL has tried to figure out what to do with the Pro Bowl. It was successful in the early years after moving to Honolulu in 1980 and providing players a working vacation many actually looked forward to.
The game remained there until 2009, when public and player interest began to wane. Then the NFL began to move it around — it has been in six cities, including a return to Aloha Stadium five times during one six-year stretch.
Las Vegas is hosting for the second year in a row, and there has been no announcement about the Pro Bowl’s future after this season. Because the Super Bowl will be at Allegiant Stadium next year, it’s unlikely the NFL will want to play both in the same venue so close together.
Sunday will go a long way in dictating the longer-term direction.
No matter the location or the format, lots of top stars usually opt out. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen cited an elbow injury as his reason to skip this year’s event, but he played golf in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
The AFC had to go deep into the alternate quarterback list to fill out its roster with Tyler Huntley and Derek Carr. Huntley played in five games this season for the Baltimore Ravens, and Carr was benched by the Raiders with two weeks remaining.
Not that the Pro Bowl is devoid of talent. The AFC’s receiving corps of Ja’Marr Chase, Stefon Diggs and Tyreek Hill is the definition of an all-star group. There also are recognizable names throughout both rosters, such as Barkley, Derrick Henry, Justin Jefferson, Christian McCaffrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Roquan Smith, Micah Parsons and Fred Warner.
But the biggest stars might be the two coaches — brothers Peyton and Eli Manning.