The NFL Pro Bowl has become a joke of a game. Many of the players who participate in it don't care enough to break a sweat – witness last year's 100-point debacle. Many others concoct flimsy injury excuses in order to decline the invitation to the NFL's annual All-Star game. The NFL is the most dominant sports brand in the world, but it has the worst showcase for its stars. It has gotten so bad that commissioner Roger Goodell actually admitted last spring that doing away with the game was an option.
Expunging the Pro Bowl still remains a possibility, but it lives for at least another year -- and with it the annual debate over who made it, didn't make it and who should have made it blazes anew.
For a game everyone loathes, it sure stirs up a blizzard of controversy each year. Why? Because as much as the game itself doesn't matter one iota, the honor of being elected to the Pro Bowl still does. It's still supposed to reward those who are among the elite at what they do.
Pro Bowl recognition is a convenient and powerful short-hand for gauging a player's career. Adrian Peterson is now a five-time Pro-Bowl player. Those are among the words that will be etched on his plaque when he is enshrined in the Hall of Fame someday… only it will likely be anywhere from seven-to-nine Pro Bowls by then. The point is: in terms of how history values a player's career for the ages, Pro Bowl honors really do matter.
That Peterson was among the four Minnesota Vikings invited to play in this year's Pro Bowl was hardly surprising. He's been a lock for the game for a couple months now and currently would have my vote (if I had one) for NFL Most Valuable Player.
The Vikings other three Pro Bowlers this year are defensive end Jared Allen, fullback Jerome Felton, and rookie kicker Blair Walsh.
Felton's inclusion was a pleasant and well-deserved surprise. Fullbacks that actually produce some offensive stats generally get the nod, but the NFC doesn't really have any Mike Alstott types that catch a lot of passes or score a half-dozen touchdowns. Felton is being rewarded for blasting open holes for the game's best running back. That's precisely what he has been asked to do this season, and he has done so with aplomb. This will be Felton's first Pro Bowl.
Like Peterson, Allen will be going to his fifth Pro Bowl. Unlike Peterson, Allen might not deserve to be going to Honolulu this winter. Let's be honest, he made it on reputation more than merit for once. He's probably earned this mulligan, though. There's no denying Allen's credentials over his career. He has been the most prolific quarterback sack artist in the NFL since he entered the league. He's also very solid against the run and usually finds a way to make a handful of interceptions, defensive touchdowns or safeties each season. He was robbed of the Defensive Player of the Year award last year when he racked up 22.0 sacks, falling 0.5 sacks shy of the single-season record. I'm guessing Allen himself might admit that he didn't envision falling off to "only" 10.0 sacks this season.
Don't get me wrong, Jared has still had a good season -- a better one than you might think considering the injuries he's been playing through. Based purely on statistical merit, however, the Panthers Charles Johnson or Falcons John Abraham would have been more worthy selections this season. That being said, Allen will probably notch 3.0 sacks and a forced fumble on Sunday against the Packers, making his statistical differences with Johnson, Abraham and others look negligible.
That brings us to Walsh, who absolutely deserves to be making the trip to Hawaii as a rookie after the season he's had. Earlier today I was all set to rip the process, assuming Walsh would be omitted, but thankfully I get to save the rant for a different Viking who was robbed (more on that in a moment). Walsh is currently tied for second in the NFL with 32 field goals. His 91.4 field goal percentage ranks fifth among all kickers (second in the NFC) with at least 20 attempts this season. He set an NFL record last week with his ninth field goal from at least 50 yards out this season (missing none). Oh, and he also ranks fourth in the NFL in touchbacks with 49.
Compelling arguments for Matt Kalil, Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield could be made.
Kalil stepped in and played very well as a rookie starter from Week 1, but he plays at a position loaded with blue-chip talent so it may take a year or two for him to get his turn as a Pro Bowler.
Greenway currently ranks second in the NFL in tackles (145) and was named as a replacement to the Pro Bowl team last year, but I can't say he deserved the Pro Bowl more than those linebackers who made it ahead of him from the NFC: namely DeMarcus Ware, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Clay Matthews. Heck, Panthers rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has more tackles, passes defensed, interceptions and fumble recoveries than Greenway does, and he didn't make it.
Over at ProFootballFocus.com, where they do highly-regarded NFL scouting and grading work on every single play from scrimmage, they have Winfield ranked as the NFL's No. 1 cornerback this season. However, much of that ranking is predicated on his 14.6 mark against the run. Only two other corners have more than a 7.0 grade against the run. That's dominance. Winfield is the league's premier tackling cornerback which is nothing new. But without the splash plays like interceptions, touchdowns or suffocating coverage skills, you usually don't make the Pro Bowl as a cornerback.
Winfield, Greenway or even Kalil could eventually be named as replacement Pro Bowl players when others pull out for injuries or Super Bowl obligations.
However, the one Vikings player who was completely jobbed is center John Sullivan. Most scouts will tell you he's been one of the two or three best centers in the NFL this season. The aforementioned ProFootballFocus has Sullivan ranked No. 1 among all centers. Max Unger of the Seattle Seahawks will start for the NFC at center in the Pro Bowl. He's a deserving Pro Bowler. No argument there. The backup for the NFC, however, is Green Bay Packers center Jeff Saturday. Not only is he a backup for the NFC, he's a backup for his own team. Yes, you read that right: Sullivan – the center with the best grade in the NFL per PFF.com was beaten out for the Pro Bowl by Saturday, who was benched by head coach Mike McCarthy last week. And it's not like the Packers have an embarrassment of riches on their offensive line. Their line has been severely thinned by injuries all season. Ironically, the Packers' best lineman is guard Josh Sitton, and he was snubbed by the Pro Bowl process as well.
There you go, Vikings fans -- just another reason to detest your rivals from the East in advance of Sunday's big showdown at Mall of America Field, right? But to take your venom out on Saturday or the Packers for the Sullivan snub would be misguided. He probably wouldn't have voted for himself either – and you know coach McCarthy wouldn't have.
Alas, the Pro Bowl voting process will never be perfect. Congrats to the four Vikings who made it and here's hoping Sullivan – one of the biggest Vikings Pro Bowl snubs in my memory – gets the nod as a replacement between now and Jan. 27 when they suit up for this sham of a game in Hawaii.