The Pro Bowl was perhaps never the most noble tradition in the world, but it’s certainly safe to say that it once meant a lot more on a personal level for players to be recognized as a Pro Bowler and to participate in the actual game than what we see today. Annually, in fact, we see renewed calls for ending the game altogether.
In recent years, the league has debated on ending the game, choosing instead to tweak it, no longer dividing it between conferences, installing a ‘draft’ system for choosing teams between two team captains of players past, and augmenting the rules of the game aimed toward making it more exciting.
It hasn’t exactly worked, and players are still not all that interested in actually making the trip and playing in a fully meaningless game. Of the 86 named Pro Bowlers, in fact, only 50 of the original group remain, with a couple of more days for players to drop out.
A full 36 players that were elected as Pro Bowlers officially have dropped out of the game for one reason or another, although that admittedly includes 14 players who will be participating in the Super Bowl the following week. Of course, the league’s decision to move the Pro Bowl up to the week before the Super Bowl has been a talent drain on the game.
But 22 other players have dropped out of the game citing injuries, many surely legitimate, of course, but others certainly of minor significance that would not keep them out of a game that actually meant anything in the standings.
There are some startling results among position groups that help illustrate the issue. For example, among the six quarterbacks who initially made the Pro Bowl, only one from that group remains scheduled to play, with three dropping out due to injury, including Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Among the six outside linebackers who were a part of the initial Pro Bowl class, five will not be participating in the game as well, although three of them will be participating in the Super Bowl the following week.
Of the eight cornerbacks who made the Pro Bowl, five has been replaced, with three of them heading to the Super Bowl the following week. Four of the six safeties to make the Pro Bowl have also dropped out, including both Seahawks safeties, and none who dropped out will be in the Super Bowl.
All six Patriots players to make the game have backed out, with only two of them having known injuries issues that would explain their absence. Five out of seven Cardinals players have also backed out of the game, meaning that 11 of the 13 Pro Bowlers from the Conference Championship losers have chosen not to participate in the Pro Bowl. Of the 27 Pro Bowlers from the Conference Championship teams, only two will play in the game—for now.
And there may be more to come yet. For example, among the Steelers alone, Antonio Brown has not yet been officially replaced even though it has been previously reported that he would not play after suffering a concussion during the Wildcard game. Guard David DeCastro is scheduled for offseason surgery, but he may be putting it off to participate in his first Pro Bowl.
If the NFL wants to try to make this game a spectacle that people actually want to watch again, then it has to find a way to keep some of its best players from backing out of the game. When the top four teams in the league drop 25 of their 27 participants, there will be a clear talent deficiency. The game started with 86 Pro Bowlers, and now, because of replacements, is now up to 122, or 7.2 percent of the league.