KAPOLEI, Hawaii Peyton Manning tried to save the Pro Bowl last year.
But with the Denver Broncos quarterback preparing for the Super Bowl, the task of keeping the NFL’s annual all-star game compelling and competitive this year falls on Hall-of-Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders.
Rice and Sanders, who combined for 21 Pro Bowl nods, are serving as team captains as the event switches to an unconferenced, fantasy football-style draft that began Tuesday night with the selection of interior offensive and defensive linemen, fullbacks and special teams players.
It’s one of several changes designed to restore competitiveness to a game that drew boos from the Aloha Stadium crowd and the ire of commissioner Roger Goodell two years ago for the quality of play and what most observers viewed as lackadaisical effort.
Manning gave a pep talk last year imploring players to make the game more competitive.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees took up the torch Tuesday during a Pro Bowl press conference at the JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort & Spa.
“I think what it comes down to is pride,” said Brees, who played in the 2012 game won by the AFC 59-41. “I don’t want to sit here and say this game has completely deteriorated. I don’t believe that. I think that we had maybe one year two years ago where early on there were some things that kind of happened in the game where you just sat back and said, ‘That’s not what we’re looking for here and that’s not what the fans deserve.’
“I think that last year’s effort was great. I thought it was an extremely competitive game. I thought guys came in there with the mentality to win and to do whatever it took to win.”
Sanders, the NFL Network analyst known as “Prime Time” for his big plays and showmanship when he played, and the more understated Rice tried to spice up Tuesday’s proceedings with jokes and trash talking befitting a boxing weigh-in.
Sanders made fun of Rice’s age – at 51, Rice is five years older than Sanders – and his physique, among other things. Sanders also hinted there could be a couple of late additions to the rosters, which for the first time are not split by conference.
“This is going to be great. It’s going to be entertaining. And we’re going to bring the true, real competitive spirit back to the game,” Sanders said. “And do no rule out that Jerry and I will play in the game.”
Rice, captain of the team coached by the Panthers’ Ron Rivera, won Tuesday’s coin toss and selected the NFC tandem of Brees and St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn as his player captains.
Rice said he would try to stock his team with older players in an effort to bring energy to the game and “turn this around.”
“When I played it back in the day, I remember every practice I was going 100 percent because I felt like I owed the fans my best performance on that given day,” Rice said. “I felt like I was letting them down if I didn’t go out there and give it 100 percent.”
Besides the format switch, the league implemented several rules changes in hopes to improve the game.
Two-minute warnings have been added to the first and third quarters, and the ball will change hands after each quarter, increasing the opportunity for fan-friendly, two-minute drills.
Defensive backs now can play press coverage at any time during the game. Previously, press coverage was allowed only in goal-line situations.
“That kicks things up a notch,” said Brees, who believes having teammates on opposite sides also will make for some interesting matchups.
Brees mentioned the possibility of Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald facing off against Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson – or Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan coming after Brees.
“I think Cam would love to take a shot at me because he doesn’t get to” in practice, Brees said.
Organizers also said they believe players who get passed over in the draft could play Sunday’s game with something to prove.
“I told (quarterback) Cam (Newton) don’t take it personally if you’re not the first quarterback taken,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “Like in a pickup game, don’t worry if you’re not the earliest one taken. Don’t get your feelings hurt.”
Players’ concerns over getting more than just feelings hurt has led many to pull out of the game, or take it easy to minimize the risk of injury.
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who had his finger ripped open in last year’s Pro Bowl, echoed Brees in saying playing hard is about personal pride.
“You don’t want to go out there and represent your team and your family and your name that way,” Watt said.
Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles sustained a concussion in the Chiefs’ playoff loss to Indianapolis, but never considered skipping the trip to Hawaii.
“I come every year if I make it. Sometimes you get injured. People do get hurt. That’s part of the game,” Charles said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got fans that look up to you and little kids admire you, as well.”
League and union officials agreed on the format and rules changes, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stick with the setup – or the game – in the future.
“Obviously this year is a bit of an experiment,” Brees said. “I think this is a great platform to build from in regards to how we handle this game.”
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