The game starts at 7 ET (NBC), if one can call it a game at all. Supposedly, this year the NFL Pro Bowl will feature tougher competition rather than the defense-free patty-cake of the last several contests.  In fact, the games that usually take place in Honolulu seem more to Barack Obama’s taste:

“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” says the president of the United States, the father of two young girls. “And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

Obama, who is known more of a basketball player than a football enthusiast, continues, “I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they’re grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies. You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about.”

I don’t disagree with Obama on this, but I think the problem is the helmets.  The helmets allow defensive players to use their heads as battering rams, with the sense of invincibility they appear to provide.  Even running backs dip their heads when attempting to run through a defender; we saw that play in the AFC championship, where the Patriots running back fumbled the ball after sustaining a concussion, a turnover that all but ensured the Ravens’ victory.  Maybe it’s time to go back to leather helmets, perhaps in the NCAA especially, in order to remind players that they aren’t guided missiles.  Rugby players don’t use helmets, and I don’t think they sustain nearly the kind of head injuries seen in the NFL.

My son had zero interest in playing football anyway, even as a pick-up game.  If I had a grandson, I’d think long and hard before encouraging him to play the game in an organized league.

Back to the Pro Bowl, though.  The game has become so lame that a lot of people wonder why they even bother to play it.  ESPN has two perspectives on the issue, with Bill Williamson saying it can be fixed:

I also think the league needs to put the game at the end of the season again. I know the game has gotten some good television ratings in this current format, and that is vital to the league. But the product will be better if players from the Super Bowl get a chance to play.

It was always a cool tradition when the players from the winning team showed up every Wednesday to a ton of island fanfare. Without the Super Bowl players available, it dilutes the talent base even more. Every year, players bail out because of injuries, whether they are big or small. Why build in another way to lose talent?

I agree — it’s a bad start to an all-star game when players from the two best teams can’t show up.  But even those who do show up in person aren’t showing up in spirit:

Of course, one of the biggest issues for why the Pro Bowl has lost interest is the quality of play. The action isn’t exactly fierce. Green Bay quarterbackAaron Rodgers has complained about the effort level of some players in the game.

This week, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning gave a speech to the Pro Bowl players to play hard during the game to ensure they all get the opportunity to go to future Pro Bowls.

Kevin Seifert writes that the audience to which Manning gave his homily points out why the game should be dumped:

Of course, the audience Manning spoke to included only one of the five other quarterbacks originally elected to play. Both of the NFC’s starting receivers,Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall, were missing after opting out of the game. All five of the NFC’s original linebackers were missing, as well. One player who was in attendance, Green Bay Packers center Jeff Saturday, had such a poor season that he was benched with two games remaining in the regular season.

It’s just like the game itself — no one “shows up.” Maybe the competition shouldn’t be in football, Seifert suggests:

Instead of a game, why not gather players for a tropical week of (safe) skill and physical challenges that benefit the charity? How about mirroring a reality show to appeal to a broad audience? I would watch Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady compete, “Top Chef” style. And I wouldn’t mind finding out whether Justin Smith or Ray Lewis would eat, say, more cockroaches for charity.

Ugh.  I doubt that will get the ratings or the ad revenue the NFL needs, or at least I hope not.  And I’m talking about watching Rodgers and Brady cook food.

This time, it’s really different, the NFL assures us.  This time, we’ll see the NFL’s best (except for the players who managed to actually get to the Super Bowl) seriously compete for the honor of their conferences.  My prediction, which isn’t going to count for my season tally: AFC 58, NFC 49.

You don’t really need that ESPN widget for this one, do you?  Didn’t think so.  Instead, let’s put up this poll: