LAS VEGAS — Denver Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II is set to become a second-generation Pro Bowl entrant, following in the footsteps of his father and namesake who appeared in three Pro Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.
But when father and son compare notes on their respective experiences, they will have noticeably different takeaways.
“Compared to now, the Pro Bowl was very different then,” Surtain II said. “I mean, they were out there at full speed, competing, tackling, punching. They were actually trying to win.”
Now, as the NFL kicks off its reimagined Pro Bowl Games, the contrast couldn’t be starker. No, it’s not your father’s Pro Bowl.
After years of harsh criticism over the lack of competitive play in traditional Pro Bowl play, the NFL is moving to a radically different format this year. The actual game will be replaced by a flag football game on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN+), with the various skills competitions tied to the overall point tally that will determine a winner in the ‘AFC vs. NFC game.
The changes are bold and, perhaps, risky. But the status quo no longer cut him, the league and the players agreed.
“What didn’t sit well with the players, and us, was that the game didn’t live up to the rest of the games and events that we put on,” said Peter O’Reilly, Vice President NFL executive. for club business and league events. “The week had always gone well. The player experience, the skill trials, the camaraderie. … It changes what didn’t feel right and didn’t feel up to a standard of the game. NFL or our player standard.”
It’s no secret that today’s players, who have become increasingly aware of their earning potential and who put health first, were particularly concerned about the risk of injury while playing a soccer game with extra tackle in the name of fun.
In fact, it’s not even that new of a concept. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2012 tore up his fellow Pro Bowlers effort, saying, “I was a little disappointed. I felt like some of the guys on the NFC side were getting are embarrassed.”
The NFL, the players and the players’ union have begun to dig deeper into the issue over the past year. Sentiments expressed and ideas generated through a series of meetings led to the new format.
O’Reilly recalled a conversation in which Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson said, “It should be a flag game. We should turn it into this.” It wasn’t the first time the notion of a flag game had been discussed, but it was one of many examples of players helping to shape the event into its current format.
Washington Commanders wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who will make his Pro Bowl debut, understands why the traditional game has begun to fade. He struggled with the idea of playing a legitimate tackling game several weeks after his season was over when he wouldn’t be fit mid-season.
“It would be a challenge right now,” he said. “I did yoga and Pilates and made sure to sweat a lot, but that’s it.”
Because players use the weeks following the season to allow their bodies to recover and recharge, they don’t follow the kind of intense routines they do during the season.
“Either you’re going to be rusty or you’re going to be susceptible to injury because your body is so used to working out or training every day,” McLaurin added. “Your body is so regimented. For you to do nothing for…almost a month, yeah, I think it would be tough to go out there and be successful.”
New York Jets linebacker CJ Mosley said: “When guys have a whole month off, guys don’t practice and take care of their bodies. There’s always a risk of injury when you’re playing another game.”
Although the NFL expects the format to be well received, it is actually an experiment. Fan and player reaction will be closely watched.
“We will definitely learn and it will be a fantastic opportunity to see how it all comes to life,” O’Reilly said. “Having said that, we think the format is great. And we think it’s going to be a really good experience. But different. Absolutely different. We understand it might not pull the same thing. [television] ranking like a traditional game. It’s just a different experience, but that’s what we’re looking for.”
For this reason, nothing in the current format should be considered permanent, as the NFL and its players will continue conversations in the background to share feedback.
The skills competition aspect isn’t new, but the NFL has expanded this part of the week. Some of this year’s new offerings: a longest drive contest and a lightning round that consists of a three-part elimination challenge are among the nine distinct skills competitions players will participate in. The dodgeball event returns this year (10-time Pro Bowl selection Joe Thomas once broached the idea during a meeting with league officials), as does the best-catch competition.
The biggest change, however, will be the elimination of the traditional game. It will be replaced by three flag football matches between the AFC and the NFC, with the teams coached by Peyton and Eli Manning respectively. The points from the skills competitions and the first two flag games will be added together and will be the score at the start of the third and final flag game, which will determine the winning conference.
By removing the high-impact collisions that are fundamental in tackling games, there’s a greater chance players will play with more effort and aggression than we’ve seen in recent Pro Bowls. Will it be as exciting? Who knows? But it could certainly solve one of the biggest problems the Pro Bowl has suffered from.
“I think the guys are going to go after it,” Surtain said. “I think it’s going to be next level in terms of competition. It’s the best of the best. I just think with everybody – I wouldn’t say full speed, of course – but in rhythm you can have fun with it.”
McLaurin said: “As a competitor, you’re going to do my best whether we’re throwing beanbags or playing a real game of football. You want to represent yourself well while having a good time with your peers. … So I can’t wait to do what they’ll make us do. I’m definitely going to have fun with it, but also, I’m not just going to hang out there [messing] around.”
ESPN New York Jets reporter Rich Cimini contributed to this report.