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 athletic challenges.
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 win.
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 play-by-play.
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 another down.
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 ground.
Here is the view from above.
Of course, Beckham was the star in this event, finishing first.
The quarterbacks then did the “precision passing” event in which they got various points for hitting different targets.
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 event.
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.