The Pro Bowl will undergo radical changes this season in an attempt to add variety to a typically dull game. The league, based on their promotional spots for the game, would like us to highlight the fact that this game is “unconferenced.”
The NFL Network carried a live draft of the all-star pool to set the rosters for the game, rather than the stale AFC vs. NFC format. Team Rice and Team Sanders — named for the honorary captains, Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders — each have 44 players in the unconferenced format (just reminding you), wearing uniforms apparently bought from the United Football League’s bankruptcy sale.
There are several new rules to the game, some of which appear to be trials of new rules, and are likely on the Competition Committee agenda for further review.
- Drives end at end of quarter. Possession alternates at the beginning of each quarter.
- No kickoffs. The ball will be put in play from the 25-yard line at the beginning of each quarter and following all scoring plays. The league has discussed the possibility of removing the kickoff play from the game, and this will be the first practical execution of the plan.
- 35-second play clock. The play clock will reset to 35 seconds between downs, instead of 40. If there is an administrative stoppage, the play clock is reset to the usual 25 seconds. This is also likely up for review by the Competition Committee.
- Clock runs on quarterback sacks. The rule that stops the clock on a quarterback sack is dropped at all times during the game, not just near the end of the half.
- Timing inside of 2 minutes. At the two-minute warning of each quarter, the offense must gain at least one yard or the clock will stop. This prevents the offense from kneeling down when in the lead. An exception is the clock runs on a quarterback sack. This is an adaptation of an Arena Football League rule that may be evaluated for the NFL.
- Pass coverage. Typically, this exhibition game limits the defense to man coverage (one-on-one) with little zone coverage (3-deep with strong-safety rotating and no 5-deep zones). Now, the defense is also allowed press coverage (forcing passing routes to the outside) or Cover-2 zone.
In addition, these existing “ground rules” from previous Pro Bowls are still in effect for the — um — unconferenced game:
- The offensive formations must have a tight end and have no more than two receivers on either end. No motion or shifting is allowed.
- The defense must line up in the standard 3–4 formation, evenly spaced, with linebackers in a two-point stance (three-point stance permissible in goal-line situations). Outside linebackers can rush the quarterback in short yardage or inside the 5-yard line.
- Safeties must play man-for-man or with limited zone coverage (3-deep with strong-safety rotating and no 5-deep zones).
- Intentional grounding rules are relaxed when the quarterback throws to the line of scrimmage to avoid a sack.
- On punts, the defense can rush 6 players, 3 per side. On placekicks, the nose tackle can be the 7th rusher.
- The game will go into overtime if tied at the end of regulation.
- There are no replay reviews or coach’s challenges.
- “Yes, there are penalties in the Pro Bowl”
As much as the fans complain about the quality and lack of excitement in the Pro Bowl, it still draws large television audiences. Last year’s Pro Bowl had 12.5 million viewers, which was more sets of eyeballs than one of the World Series games. The only question for the NFL is, will the changes in this year’s (unconferenced!!) game promote a larger audience?