2023 Pro Bowl features flag football, skills competition and fun

ByStephen Holder ESPN logo
Thursday, February 2, 2023

LAS VEGAS --Denver Broncos cornerbackPat Surtain IIis about to become a second-generation Pro Bowl participant, following in the footsteps of his father and namesake who went to three Pro Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.

But when the father and son compare notes on their respective experiences, they will have notably different takeaways.

"Compared to now, the Pro Bowl then was way different," Surtain II said. "I mean, they were out there going full speed, competing, tackling, hitting. They were actually trying to, like, win."

Now, as the NFL kicks off its reimagined Pro Bowl Games, the contrast couldn't be starker. No, this is not your father's Pro Bowl.

After years of harsh criticism over a lack of competitive play in the traditional Pro Bowl game, the NFL this year is moving to a dramatically different format. The actual game will be replaced by a flag football game on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN+), with the various skills competitions tied to the overall points tally that will determine a winner in the AFC vs. NFC matchup.

The changes are bold and, perhaps, risky. But the status quo was no longer cutting it, the league and players agreed.

"The thing that didn't feel great for the players, and for us, was the game didn't feel on par with the rest of the games and the events that we do," said Peter O'Reilly, NFL executive vice president for club business and league events. "The week had always felt good. The player experience, the skills events, the camaraderie. ... This is changing the thing that didn't feel great and didn't feel up to an NFL standard or our player standard."

It is no secret that today's players, who have become increasingly aware of their earning potential and who prioritize staying healthy, were particularly concerned about the injury risk in playing an additional tackle football game in the name of fun.

In fact, it's not even that recent of a concept. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2012 ripped the effort of his fellow Pro Bowlers, saying, "I was a little bit disappointed. I felt like some of the guys on the NFC side embarrassed themselves."

The NFL, players and the players' union started drilling down on the issue in the past year. The sentiments expressed and ideas generated through a series of meetings led to the new format.

O'Reilly recalled one conversation in which Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson said, "This should be a flag game. We should evolve it into that." It wasn't the first time the notion of a flag game had been broached, but it was one of many examples of players helping to shape the event into its current format.

Washington Commanders receiver Terry McLaurin, who will be making his Pro Bowl debut, understands why the traditional game began to lose its luster. He struggled to get his mind around the idea of playing a legitimate tackle game several weeks after the conclusion of his season, when he would not be in midseason form.

"It'd be a challenge right now," he said. "I've been doing some yoga and Pilates and just making sure I still get a good sweat going, but that's it."

Because players use the weeks following the season to allow their bodies to recover and recharge, they aren't following the kind of intense routines they do during the season.

"You're either going to be rusty or you're going to be susceptible to get hurt because your body is so used to working out or practicing every single day," McLaurin added. "Your body is so regimented. For you to not do anything for ... close to a month, yeah, I think it'd be hard to go out there and have success."

Said New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley: "When guys have a whole month off, guys aren't working out and taking care of their bodies. There's always the chance of injuries when you play another game."

While the NFL expects the format to be well received, it's very much an experiment. Reaction from fans and players will be closely monitored.

"We're definitely going to learn and it's going to be a fantastic opportunity to see how it all comes to life," O'Reilly said. "That said, we think the format's great. And we think it's going to be a really great experience. But different. Absolutely different. We get that it may not pull the same [television] rating as a traditional game. It's just a different experience, but that's what we're going for."

For this reason, nothing in the current format should be considered permanent, as the NFL and its players will continue conversations on the back end to share feedback.

The skills-competition aspect isn't new, but the NFL has expanded that part of the week. Some of the new offerings this year: A longest tee shot contest and a lightning round that consists of a three-part elimination challenge are among the nine separate skills competitions players will participate in. The dodgeball event returns this year (10-time Pro Bowl selection Joe Thomas once broached that idea in a meeting with league officials), as does the best-catch competition.

The biggest change, however, will be the elimination of the traditional game. It will be replaced by three flag football games pitting the AFC vs. the NFC, with the teams coached by Peyton and Eli Manning, respectively.Points from the skills competitions and first two flag games will be added together and will be the score at the beginning of the third and final flag game, which will determine the winning conference.

By removing the high-impact collisions that are fundamental in tackle games, there is an increased chance players will play with more effort and aggressiveness than we've seen in recent Pro Bowls. Will it be as exciting? Who knows? But it certainly could address one of the biggest problems the Pro Bowl has suffered from.

"I think guys are going to get after it," Surtain said. "I think it's going to be a level up competition-wise. It's the best of the best. I just think with everybody going -- I wouldn't say full speed, of course -- but up-tempo, you can have fun with it."

Said McLaurin: "As a competitor, you're going to get my best whether we're throwing bean bags or we were playing a real football game. You want to represent yourself well while also have a good time with your peers. ... So, I'm looking forward to whatever they have us do. I'm definitely going to have fun with it, but also, I'm not just going out there [messing] around."

ESPN New York Jets reporter Rich Cimini contributed to this report.