The NFL’s silly season begins a week from Sunday in Canton, Ohio, home of the annual exhibition scheduled to coincide with the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This year’s Hall of Fame Game will pit the Miami Dolphins against the Dallas Cowboys.
Reasonably authentic versions of those teams will play for 15 minutes or so, after which it’ll just be a bunch of guys in Dolphins uniforms auditioning for jobs, facing a bunch of guys in Cowboys uniforms hoping to survive the first roster cut.
But it’s football, and many football fans are craving for what Damon Runyon used to refer to as action: Dallas opened as a one-point favorite. (Putting money down on the exhibition opener is dumber than dumb. I’d sooner bet the over/under time on Phil Mickelson’s next victory hug with his family.)
The Hall of Fame Game draws visitors to the museum that serves as pro football’s shrine, but the NFL would like to see more of them. According to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, the league is considering using Canton as a neutral site for a second game – a regular-season game nationally televised in prime time – to sustain the flow of tourists.
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Here’s another idea: Replace the Hall of Fame Game with an exhibition in dire need of retooling.
Replace it with the Pro Bowl.
The 2013 Hall of Fame Game’s appeal is limited to those following the roster constructions of the Dolphins and Cowboys, and gamblers who’ll bet on anything. The Pro Bowl’s appeal is a bit more comprehensive. It’s watched
by those whose appetite for football is bottomless, along with gamblers who’ll bet on anything.
Rescheduling the Pro Bowl from the end of the season to the start of the season would give the stale game a flavor of anticipation. The Pro Bowl in its present condition – players selected either opt out, or invest half a heart in exchange for a trip to Hawaii – borders on depressing.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, pained to endure a 2012 Pro Bowl an Associated Press writer described as “pillow fight,” was on the verge of scrapping the game. If the players don’t care, Goodell reasoned, we’re wasting their time, and ours.
Goodell was persuaded to give the Pro Bowl a stay of execution, and apparently saw enough effort on Jan. 27 to determine it worthy of continuing.
Whatever Goodell saw required battlefield binoculars. The NFC beat the AFC, 62-35, on a day that found the competitive level of a pillow fight elevated into a contest resembling a touch football game between frat houses.
Tweaks to the Pro Bowl could be forthcoming, the NFL Network’s Albert Breer reported in May. Among the proposals: awarding players with the sort of cash inducements associated with TV game shows.
I’m not sure there’s any way to fix the Pro Bowl, but rescheduling the event as part of the Hall of Fame induction weekend revives two birds with one stone: It gives Canton, birthplace of the NFL, a center-stage presence beyond some acceptance speeches and a forgettable exhibition. And it infuses energy and enthusiasm into the Pro Bowl, which has been doddering for decades.
The premise of beginning a football season with an all-star game, by the way, has some precedence. Between 1934 and 1976, an elite team of pro-eligible players out of college challenged the defending NFL champions at Soldier Field in Chicago. Even though the college all-stars were consistently outclassed, the mood of those midsummer nights was electric.
Chicago’s College All-Star Game couldn’t survive the burgeoning business side of the sport. Putting top draft choices under the authority of a coach they’d never deal with again, for the purpose of participating in a game against the best football team in the world, was seen, accurately, as lunacy.
Injuries were an obvious concern, and the potential of injuries is the most compelling case against a preseason Pro Bowl. So keep the Pro Bowl rules as they are – no blitzing, no exotic formations on either offense or defense – and expand the rosters, to ensure nobody plays more than, say, two quarters.
The sheer hype preceding a Pro Bowl held on the Hall of Fame weekend in Canton would be worth the experiment. Toward that, the Pro Bowl might want to borrow from the NHL, which has abandoned conference-affiliation All-Star teams for those assembled by a process beginning with a fan vote and concluding with two captains selecting their teams in the tradition of a playground pickup game.
Feelings are hurt, and personal rivalries are intensified, but it makes for some great theater. Put that theater in the hands of Twitter-addicted NFL players, allow it to simmer during the summer, and all the sudden the tiresome Pro Bowl evolves into a grudge match.
As for the allure of a hot and humid Ohio town in August versus the tropical paradise that is Honolulu in January, I’ve got no case, your honor. Honolulu prevails. It’s possible there would be a no-show list of invitees to a Canton Pro Bowl who’d rather not be bothered.
Then again, it’s also possible an August Pro Bowl incites the best of the best to take the field for the first game of the football season, and to take it with something approximating an interest.
A ho-hum, post-season vacation week in Honolulu replaced by a preseason-kickoff game in Canton, where a collection of the most talented players who ever lived will be studying you in the stands?
I keep thinking of the word that best described the Chicago College All-Star Game, before the pragmatics of sports business made it defunct.
And if the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman isn’t a captain’s first choice at cornerback, the electricity turns nuclear.
This game’s for you, Canton.