Buffalo Bills fans, the NFL offseason is upon those of us who don’t much care to see how things play out for the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs. But we’re not here to talk about the Super Bowl. Instead, let’s discuss this past weekend’s 2023 NFL Pro Bowl Games.
Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was Him, and he faced off against his brother — cornerback Trevon Diggs. Dawson Knox continued catching touchdowns, while Jordan Poyer annihilated golf balls, and Dion Dawkins gave a celebratory interview for the ages after the AFC’s intelligent victory in the sled drill. The Bills were well-represented at the inaugural Games, including of course Matt Milano, Mitch Morse, and Rodger Saffold. Though absent was Josh Allen, who instead chose to hit different golf balls with other athletes.
Like most recent editions, you’d be forgiven for failing to tune in to the reimagined Pro Bowl. Derisive commentary leading up to the event was both frequent and unforgiving once the league announced it would no longer ask participants to play a traditional tackle game of all-star football. Flag football, seriously? Where’s the integrity for the history of the game? It’s alive and well, if my opinion counts for anything here.
If you watched any of the skill competitions and flag football games between Thursday and Sunday, you’d have seen a fully engaged group of talented NFL players enjoying themselves in Las Vegas. It’s clear that players were more motivated to play harder with a reduced risk of injury, and the trio of flag games felt far more competitive than any Pro Bowl in recent memory.
During those seven-on-seven matchups, color commentator Kirk Herbstreit (alongside the lightning rod known as Pat McAfee) made a point to say how cool it was for fans to have access to the dialogue between coaches and players on the field. While bits of such things were done during the final years of the traditional (and sometimes goofy) Pro Bowl, his comment isn’t without merit. There was a real sense of personality in radio dialogue fans were given access to, and the players appeared far looser and more connected to the event than memory serves over the last few decades.
Time and again I found myself saying: “That right there is an NFL play, minus the contact.” To think the players were going to be uninterested or lacking outlets to show their talent now seems silly. Times change, certainly.
It’s worth wondering how unstoppable Josh Allen might be on a flag football field, but we may never know given his pull toward offseason golf. Perhaps concerning to Bills Mafia was Stefon Diggs’ reticence or inability to make much happen with the trampoline. Unfortunately for Diggs, his best opportunity of winning the greatest catch against Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown involved a mask, some smoke, and two footballs — while St. Brown looked like he was auditioning for Cirque du Soleil.
Thankfully, Diggs is far more comfortable on the gridiron, and flag football perhaps enhances his ability to take the top off a defense. As the AFC’s leading receiver, Diggs caught 4 passes for 99 yards and a score. That touchdown, one of the game’s biggest moments, went 45 yards and ended with Diggs borrowing a photographer’s camera in celebration. (As a photographer, I couldn’t help but laugh as he tried to snap a photo using a 1200mm prime lens on a subject two feet away.)
Certainly, many tuned in to see the Diggs brothers showdown, and the matchup didn’t disappoint. Things began poorly for the elder Diggs, who made an ill-advised attempt at a no-look pass to the endzone, which Trevon Diggs picked off and took to the house. Fully aware of the lifelong reminders awaiting Stefon by his brother, head coach Peyton Manning decided to go right back to his All-Pro wideout, and Diggs rewarded the elder Manning with a highlight-reel score.
The Games weren’t without controversy, most notably how things ended in the third and final deciding match of flag football. Eli Manning instructed Kirk Cousins to kneel out the win for the NFC, while a clearly beside himself Peyton Manning stormed the field contesting the ethics of such a move in the context of the rules. But once coach Eli had been doused with water, it was all over for Peyton and the AFC. While the AFC took a commanding lead early with victories in Thursday’s skill competitions, the NFC proved too much to handle in winning two of three flag games — aided by Eli’s decision to save Kirk Cousins for some fourth-quarter magic.
If you’re of a certain age, you may recall The Battle of the Network Stars, and the often-ridiculous events celebrities would be asked to do in the name of entertainment. Or perhaps you grew up watching American Gladiators. This year’s Pro Bowl felt like a mix of both with the vibe of an NBA or NHL All-Star game.
To me, the NFL has begun to take on the feel of the current NBA, with some fans following a player more closely than they do a team. Of course, allegiances to team over all else will never die, but the Pro Bowl Games perhaps represents a changing of the guard. It’s okay to have fun within the confines of a very serious sport, and cheer on players from teams you’re supposed to despise. That is, of course, until game day.
It’ll be interesting to see if Nevada becomes the new permanent home for the Pro Bowl Games, taking up the mantle once held by Hawaii. I’d venture a guess that Las Vegas has already earned that honor, with its unique blend of nightlife, culture, and ideal weather in February. While it’s hard to beat the beaches of Hawaii (or so I’m told), that may not be what today’s NFL players and NFL fans are looking for in the Pro Bowl — and that’s without even considering the cost to get to and from Hawaii.
Besides all that, it feels like the NFL has found a new winning formula to recognize and reward Pro Bowl players, with many players and fans quick to point out how much fun they had at 2023 Pro Bowl Games (aside from Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs).
Hope springs eternal that one of these seasons, the Buffalo Bills won’t be available to attend.