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NFL Pro Bowl 2014: A new spin on an old game

For many years, the Pro Bowl has been about the top players from each conference playing against each other for the pride of the AFC and NFC.  Once upon a time, this was a game taken very seriously.  However, in recent years, viewership and on-field effort was slipping, so the NFL tried something new.  The NFL decided that instead of the AFC playing against the NFC, they would cash in on the fantasy football craze by having two of the best players in NFL history draft teams and mix the leagues.  The NFL decided to pair Jerry Rice against Deion Sanders as the two legendary captains.

As both Team Sander and Team Rice drafted their rosters, the players were able to relive their time as rookies by receiving the call that let them know which team picked them.  Some players were assigned due to being the last available at their position, but this new type of buzz intrigued the fans.  With this new fantasy style team, teammates could square off against each other.  As we saw during the game, just because two players are teammates during the season, they didn’t hold back at the Pro Bowl.  If anything, it fueled the fire.

There were a couple of flat out good hits between teammates and three come to my mind:  Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles vs Derrick Johnson, Carolina’s Mike Tolbert vs Luke Kuechly and Cleveland’s Josh Gordon vs TJ Ward.  In all three cases, they were hard hits that remind us why the Pro Bowl needed a shot in the arm with this new level of intrigue.  It was a big gamble due to the perception that the game lost its edge, but over 11 million people tuned in to the game, which made it the highest viewed all-star game over this past year.  The hit on Gordon by Ward sent Gordon into a mid-air flip that makes for an excellent highlight and internet GIF file.  Johnson tweeted that it felt good to deliver a little friendly fire.  Well played, NFL.

The game was so well played, it was decided on a 2pt conversion in the closing seconds as Carolina’s Mike Tolbert burst through to give Team Rice the 22-21 win.  It was a rough game with a lot of turnovers.  Team Rice coughed up the ball 5 times with each quarterback throwing at least one interception and Team Sanders giving up 3 turnovers.  Team Sanders and Philadelphia QB Nick Foles was the only quarterback out of six to not throw an interception and he was named MVP of the game.  Foles finished 7-10 for 89 yards and a touchdown.  While the defensive backs were being ballhawks, the quarterbacks were on the run as the two teams combined for 9 sacks.  Carolina, Cam Newtown was sacked 4 times himself while playing for Team Sanders.  Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy and Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus each had 2 sacks while Dallas’ Jason Hatcher, St Louis’ Robert Quinn, New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan, Carolina’s Greg Hardy and Houston’s JJ Watt each had one.  Carolina’s Luke Kuechly was everywhere, recording 11 tackles.

As expected, JJ Watt continues to be a nightmare to block, no matter which team he is on or all-star dares to guard him.  Watt was constantly causing problems and while the stat line might not show it, he definitely played a role in all those sacks.  Derrick Johnson also had a monster game to go with his monster hit.  He led Team Rice in tackles and also had a pass deflection.

While some might accuse me of wearing the hometown goggles, it is a fair argument to say that the Cleveland Browns organization had the best play from top to bottom.  Looking at the skilled positions, Josh Gordon led Team Rice with 6 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown while Jordan Cameron caught 3 passes for 27 yards and a touchdown.  Joe Haden and TJ Ward each had an interception with Haden adding a tackle and Ward adding two.  Add in Alex Mack and Joe Thomas on the offensive line.  Another team that had a lot of stellar play was the Carolina Panthers, who were led by Kuechly, Hardy, and Tolbert.  Also there was Newton at quarterback, along with JJ Jansen, and Ryan Kalil on the offensive line.

The NFL made a strong gamble by redefining the Pro Bowl.  It worked to perfection and has renewed interest in a game that is now being used as an appetizer for the Super Bowl.  Thank you, NFL, for giving us something tasty while we wait for the main course.  We all got tired of the stale bread.

Host of the OT with Andrew G for the Sports Chronicles Radio Network

Host of The College Cram, NFL and NCAA writer on the National Gridiron Network

Contributing writer for Pro Player Insiders

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