Overhaul the NFL’s Pro Bowl selection process? Don’t count on it

Damien Woody says his “head literally exploded” when he saw Andrew Luck didn’t make the Pro Bowl for the AFC. (1:01)

There is less to ridicule about the NFL’s Pro Bowl these days, thanks to a series of ancillary events and innovations that bleed attention away from the game itself. But one (rather large) elephant remains in the room: the roster selection process.

The original 88 players elected to AFC and NFC teams this season only vaguely represent a credible list of the best players in the game. Of the 27 players named to the 2018 All-Pro team, an elite group that combines the NFC and AFC, six were missing from Pro Bowl rosters (more than 20 percent). The exclusions included Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, who led the league in tackles, as well as three of the All-Pro team’s five starting offensive linemen.

So does the league have any plans to overhaul the selection process in the same way it has enhanced other elements of the event? At the heart of the Pro Bowl, after all, is the presumption that it involves — or at least invites — the league’s best players.

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In a conversation this week, Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, said the league values its current practice of combining votes from coaches, players and fans in one-third increments. O’Reilly noted a tweak to this season’s approach, which pushed back fan voting until later in the season to provide a larger sample size, and said there were no plans to adopt something closer to the committee approach that determines the All-Pro team.

“The majority of the votes are coming from the players on the field and the coaches who coach those players,” O’Reilly said. “Having a fan component in there is important. Fans love that opportunity, and certainly fans and those who vote for the Pro Bowl are knowledgeable as well. That’s why we’ve struck that balance and weigh it that way. The fan piece is important.”

Fan participation makes sense from a marketing and engagement standpoint, but the league’s policy allows them to vote as often as they want on the NFL’s Pro Bowl website and also during a two-week stretch on Twitter. Anyone who watched the social media lobbying campaigns would have seen the incentive to vote often along team loyalties.

According to O’Reilly, 84 million fans voted for the Pro Bowl this season, a 33 percent increase from 2017. Their votes were tabulated into a composite fan team that represented one-third of the full ballot.

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Players on each team, meanwhile, were asked in 2018 to vote on Dec. 14. Their ballots were collected by team staffers and combined into a composite roster, reviewed by the team captain and then submitted to the league. Two teams voted using an electronic tablet this season, and the rest voted on paper. The composite player vote counts for one-third of the vote, as does the composite ballot of the 32 head coaches, who are encouraged to seek input from their assistants.

The final product annually produces angry debate about snubs, an exercise the NFL views more as an engagement opportunity than a pock on the event’s credibility.

“I think that’s a healthy part of it,” O’Reilly said. “It’s just part of sports. You’re going to have those sports discussions, you’re going to have those social media conversations out there. It’s part of the Pro Bowl. … That’s part of the dialogue that makes sports and the NFL great.”

But wouldn’t a better effort to comprise the list make the event healthier and more sound?

While the debate is fun, the consequence of Pro Bowl teams is a serious business. Many players have Pro Bowl contract bonuses that require being named to the initial team, not as a replacement. The game also helps drive legacies and is a part of Pro Football Hall of Fame discussions. In 2019, the NFL will celebrate its 100th season, and you can bet that Pro Bowl appearances will fairly or unfairly drive some of the “best-ever” lists that emerge.

One idea to improve the process within the current structure is to add a committee component, similar to the way the All-Pro team is compiled via 50 media members. The Pro Bowl could then be comprised from four elements, each with 25 percent weight: players, coaches, fans and a smaller group that uses an analytic standard agreed upon by all sides.

Would it avoid every obvious snub? Of course not. But adding a different set of voices would represent a fuller effort to compile a true All-Star team.

O’Reilly, however, said the NFL hasn’t considered an All-Pro style approach and reiterated the value the league sees in the current results.

“The beauty of all of this is the debate that goes around it,” he said. “The sometimes objective, sometimes subjective arguments and debates that go on there.”

Jamal Adams knocks out the Patriots mascot in front of cheering fans during Pro Bowl practice.

Otherwise, the league has resuscitated the Pro Bowl, and it no longer appears in danger of imminent demise. Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed concern in 2012 and again in 2016, the last season the game was held in Honolulu. Since moving to Orlando, Florida, the league has added a skills competition that includes dodgeball (and this year, a dunk tank) and a series of flag football games that will include a championship for 13- and 14-year-olds. There also will be a celebrity game that features teams led by entertainer Snoop Dogg and Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders.

Fewer players have declined invites in each of the three seasons in Orlando. And this Sunday’s game (3 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN) will include the league’s likely 2018 MVP, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Additionally, we will see some innovation this year. Efforts to quicken the pace will double as an experiment for potential NFL rule changes in the future. Officials will use a 35-second play clock, rather than 40 seconds, and the clock will run after incomplete passes except when there is less than two minutes remaining in either half. ESPN will use a “line to gain” camera placed at the first-down marker, both to provide a unique angle and potentially to help determine ball placement when subject to replay review. Players also will be allowed to test a new Prizm lens shield attached to their face masks.

The Pro Bowl has always made sense as a petri dish, especially if the game itself isn’t as competitive as fans are used to.

“It is a perfect lab to test a number of things on the football and media side,” O’Reilly said. “We recognize, and I think fans recognize, that the game on the field on Sunday is not as intense as the championships games — understatement of all understatements — and then the Super Bowl. But it is unique and special in terms of the opportunity for these guys to play together either with guys they have looked up to or never really met.”

There is little doubt that the NFL has breathed some life back into the Pro Bowl. But in the end, its single-most important function — recognizing the best players — still needs some work.