On Thursday night, ESPN aired the NFL’s first ever “Pro Bowl
Skills Challenge,” in which members of the AFC and NFC Pro Bowl
teams were pitted against each other in a series of unusual
The events included things like quarterbacks trying to hit moving
targets, receivers trying to catch footballs dropped by drones,
and culminated in an actual game of dodgeball.
If you are old enough to remember, it was a lot like the old
“Battle of the Network Stars” that aired in the
1970s, except with athletes instead of actors.
The show itself was a bit too pre-packaged at times, and it
wasn’t live. It also had a few rookie hiccups, like players not
knowing the rules and not wearing proper shoes for the artificial
turf. But in the end, there was a level of excitement that could
lead to more big-name players becoming involved and that would be
huge for the Pro Bowl itself.
The competition, in which the players compete for points for
their respective teams, started with a catch event. Receivers had
to complete a series of different catches (e.g. one-handed,
sideline, etc.) in the shortest time possible. Jarvis Landry of
the Miami Dolphins edged out Odell Beckham Jr. by 0.2 seconds for
The competition had two big things going for it: 1) Despite so
many big-name players often opting out of the Pro Bowl (Tom Brady
has not played in a Pro Bowl since 2004), the NFL was able to get
a bunch legit NFL stars for this event; and 2) the players seemed
really into it. If they had ho-hummed their way through this, it
probably would have been boring.
It also didn’t hurt that ESPN had Jon Gruden and Sean McDonough
calling the event. Hearing ESPN’s regular “Monday Night
Football” voices gave the event a sense of legitimacy that would
not have been matched if unfamiliar voices were doing the
The second event was an obstacle-course-relay thing in which one
player completed a task, and then he would join a second teammate
for a different task, and then they joined a third teammate for a
third task. Once those were done, a running back (Ezekiel Elliott
for the NFC and Jay Ajayi for the AFC) raced to a finish line.
It is not clear why the running back must jump through a wall of
foam blocks. It’s not exactly an obstacle for a 225-pound
running back, but OK.
This event did have a little drama.
During the NFC’s turn, their 700-pound sled got stuck on the
tracks. Amazingly, once some AFC players came over to give it a
shove, it started moving again.
It was also incredibly coincidental that ESPN just happened to
have Dean Blandino on hand, the NFL’s senior vice
president of officiating.
It would have been odd if they brought him all the way down
to Orlando, dressed him in zebra stripes, and not had any calls
that he needed to be on air for.
He was able to make an official ruling and give the NFC
The next event is where stuff started to get fun.
A drone — starting at 85 feet above the ground and
later raised to 100 feet and then 125 feet — dropped
footballs to receivers who could not let the ball hit the
Here is the view from above.
Of course, Beckham was the star in this event, finishing
The quarterbacks then did the “precision passing” event in
which they got various points for hitting different
Philip Rivers won this event for the AFC. When asked later
about his strategy, he gave a very Philip Rivers answer.
Of course, the most-anticipated contest was the dodgeball
A lot of people enjoyed the dodgeball event, but it felt
like it didn’t live up to the hype. It took up less than
seven minutes of the broadcast, so it was over quickly. Also,
dodgeball doesn’t translate to TV well, especially when you have
so many large men in a small area, with ten dodge balls flying
around. It is chaotic and hard to follow along.
And then there was Alex Smith’s form (No. 11 in red on
right side of screen). This is an NFL quarterback.
But in the end, Elliott got the winning throw, knocking out
TY Hilton, and clinching the title for the NFC.
It seems like the NFL has hit on something here. It was not
perfect, and it felt a little scripted at times, but the players
were really into it. That alone could lead to more big-name
players accepting trips to the Pro Bowl, just so they can
participate in this event.
If that happens, everybody wins.
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