The Pro Bowl is silly. A Pro Bowl "fantasy draft" is sillier. A three-hour live broadcast of the Pro Bowl fantasy draft is not silly at all, but a punishment for loving football too much.
But at least the three-hour live broadcast of a Pro Bowl Draft promised spontaneity, as well as a grueling reward for the kind of Tough Mudder fans who might be curious about how Deion Sanders, Jerry Rice, and the team of broadcasting/promotional experts making the actual decisions for Sanders and Rice might divide up and sequence this year's All Pros. Would the NFL's Pro Bowl fantasy draft follow fantasy football logic? (Three straight running backs to start the draft, kickers last, pizza after eight rounds.) Just how would the NFL Network create drama and entertainment out of the selection of a long snapper?
The NFL wisely got around the first problem the same way the Academy Awards folks get around all those messy technical awards: specialists were shunted to their own pre-selection ceremony a day before the broadcast. The fact that everyone from the punters through popular fullbacks Marcel Reece and Mike Tolbert would be delegated to Team Cornerback Vampire and Team Receiver Werewolf a day early was not well-publicized. Here in Mobile, Ala., where a huge percentage of the NFL media is headquartered for the week, there was a mad Wednesday breakfast scramble to determine just how and why players like Ndamukong Suh had already been allocated to teams. Most reporters didn't really care, mind you, as only professional smart-alecks and low-rung bottom feeders (hi) are assigned to not-on-location Pro Bowl coverage, but our sense of professionalism tears its ACL when we are not even informed about how the heck the all-star process works anymore.
There was a method to the NFL's madness. The league's least-recognizable Pro Bowl participants quickly strolled an outdoor Hawaiian red carpet to start the broadcast. Suh, the first player announced, gave the broadcast an initial jolt of star-power; to continue the Academy Awards metaphor, he was Best Supporting Actress. Reece strutted down the red carpet with his tongue protruding, Gene Simmons-style. Logan Mankins, older and chubbier, sheepishly waddled like a husband dragged onto a cruise-ship stage to dance the Macarena after three all-you-can-eat buffet trips. Everyone wore a fetching jersey-and-tan-khaki combination, like patrons at the worst outdoor sports bar on earth. Players also wore color-coded team leis, a rack of which hung behind the stage like the high-pressure hoses at DayGlo Fire Company #3.
But I am ahead of myself. Having taken the only opiates (linemen, specialists, and the element of unscripted surprise) out of the junkie fix of a three-hour NFL-flavored broadcast, what was left? If you guessed a mixture of Battle of the Network Stars and the filler in a WWE pay-per-view, executed with all the lilt and lighthearted panache you would expect from a league that assigns harsh penalties for "excessive celebration," you are correct, Great Carnac.
Even before the broadcast, the NFL Network picked up the heavy double yoke of justifying the Pro Bowl Draft's existence and pretending they were previewing a simultaneously significant and jolly-good-fun sporting event. NFLPA executive Dominique Foxworth, a diligent and likeable union leader, explained the fantasy draft's origins and rationale gravely, his deer-in-headlights stare making him look like he was justifying the union's approval of a decision to grind up injured employees and feed them to the healthy ones, not the logic behind letting Deion Sanders mug, vamp, and announce names for 180 minutes. Willie McGinest and other dedicated professionals discussed draft strategies and philosophies as if it were possible for someone to come away with a poor team: the draft's bylaws came pre-equipped with training wheels that prevented Rice from surprising Sanders by, say, selecting both kickers.
Poor Sanders had to play the part of wrasslin' manager. Ol' Prime Time, whose gray goatee and designer sunglasses made him look like Kanye West's estranged uncle, kept referring to himself as "president and CEO" of his team and threatening to actually play in the game, a kind of Captain Lou Jerry Jones. Sanders performed shtick while host Chris Rose threw segments to fetching sideline reporters Stacey Dales and Michelle Beisner in the "green room" (a hut full of bored players), and to Marshall Faulk and Steve Mariucci, marooned to perform a version of ESPN's First Take Touring Company Presents Camus' "The Stranger" on a gorgeous-but-windswept Honolulu beach.
Twenty-five minutes elapsed before the first actual pick: that's right, there was pre-show hype for an event which was essentially pre-game hype for an event no one watches, hence the need for the hype. Finally, Sanders selected Andrew Luck after much mugging. Luck took the stage wearing a Gilligan hat. This show is supposed to be a three-hour tour. A three-hour tour. J.J. Watt, one of Sanders' two captains, shook Luck's hand, and Watt's Top Gun crewcut and shades provided us with a strange Goose-'n'-Gilligan crossover moment.
Rice, flanked by dignity totem Drew Brees, selected Brees' broheim Jimmy Graham, and the interminable event was underway. Sanders explained each selection in tedious and silly detail as Rice selected a tight end first: it was what fantasy football drafts are like in ironic hell. Still, early picks like Cam Newton and Shady McCoy provided some energy to the live broadcast. The audience cheered heartily for these charismatic stars, and the combination of dynamic young athletes, Hawaiian locales, some imported cheerleaders, and not-completely-forced conviviality was fun to watch for a few minutes.
The reality of 180 broadcast minutes soon swept in, however. Throws to Marshall and Mooch on the beach became increasingly desperate. NFL Network provided strange, fuzzy microphone covers to protect its equipment from sand; Mooch appeared to be speaking into a Tribble, Marshall into an ice cream cone that had fallen on a barbershop floor. An uncomfortable Mariucci was clearly getting sandblasted by the high winds, and their attempts to generate faux-controversy about selections and snubs felt like a Saturday Night Live skit that ran too long.
Sanders' routine aged quickly as well; he had prepped three minutes of material when he needed sixty times that amount. Shots of the Green Room showed players lounging in profound boredom, as if waiting overnight at a bus terminal. The crowd's enthusiasm tapered as defenders like Brent Grimes and Eric Reid took the stage. The applause became polite; crowd shots showed impatient people who looked trapped at a timeshare hard-sell. The broadcast was not yet half-finished, but already everyone was laboring to push it forward.
Was anyone watching? Dedicated nitwit that I am, I tweeted jokes and observations earnestly, but my responses were crickets and echoes. I tweet Jacksonville Jaguars games, Senior Bowl practice reports, observations from New York Jets training camp and insights into the annual Christmas broadcast of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Little of the material is gold, but most of it finds a few dozen kindred spirits willing to chit-chat or re-tweet. Tweeting the Pro Bowl fantasy draft was like tweeting junior varsity field hockey. At one point, my follower totals started racing backward like an odometer at that crooked used car lot under the freeway overpass, so I stopped tweeting in professional self-defense.
The NFL may have faced similar problems. Throughout the telecast NFL Network displayed a three-tiered informational crawl of the kind usually reserved for important events like presidential elections and the NCAA tournament selection show: Players Available, Rules of the Fantasy Draft, Players Already Selected, Things You Could Be Doing Instead of Watching This, and so on.
The third tier was reserved for social media polls and other fun. Midway through the broadcast, the third-tier crawl read: "Who is the best undrafted player? Tweet your response to @nflnetwork." The announcement flashed again. And again. It flashed beneath multiple selections and commercials, never changing, never offering a hint that even a dozen or so social networkers -- enough to post results that looked realistic and did not contain votes for "Seymour Butts" -- had mustered enough of an opinion to take part in the poll. I pictured the poor graphics producer responsible for Twitter polls dangling from the ceiling, his feet nearly brushing his production console, the strain of trying to coax interaction from an unengaged (possibly imaginary) audience proving too much to bear.
Eventually, the flopsweat became too much for this veteran goofball to bear. The NFL gang was bombing, and I know how that feels. Winds kicked up both on and off the beach; the skeletal outline of Mooch's cheekbones became visible through the flesh, while the Sanders/Rice entourage needed to use cell phones, paperweights, sunglasses, and what appeared to be paving stones to hold down their cheat sheets/cue cards. The NFL did not anticipate steady winds next to a tropical beach. The foot of snow surrounding the Super Bowl venue is no doubt a real shocker. Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and meteorology is hell.
Players like Mario Williams come to the stage visibly annoyed about having to sit and do nothing for two hours; host Rose snapped at them to put on a brave face and pretend to be having fun. Tom Brady can say he is not watching the Super Bowl, kid, but you ain't Tom Brady. Tony Gonzalez was left hanging in the Green Room until late in the telecast; the network may have hoped that Gonzo would die there so Sanders could pout toward the camera and say "that poor tight end had just three days until retirement."
Calling the Pro Bowl Draft "empty spectacle" would be an insult to emptiness. But jokes aside, people besides me did watch. The draft got more attention in the sports bar I watched it in than the Red Wings/Blackhawks game, an NBA game, and some other sporting events. A curiosity seeker here, a football junkie there, a confused waitress thinking she is watching a nearby Senior Bowl event in downtown Mobile, and next thing you know Roger Goodell has Wednesday night cable ratings just encouraging enough to turn the Pro Bowl Draft into an institution.
Pop the champagne, fellas: you are one-fifth as compelling as Duck Dynasty. Now someone fetch Coach Mariucci some aloe with lanolin.