Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nine By Forty-Nine

Rather than further exacerbate the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied Sunday night's Nightmare on Rain Street, let's pass around a little holiday cheer by saluting the nine (nine!) 49ers who made the Pro Bowl squad for 2013.

Navorro Bowman, Dashon Goldson, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Aldon ("Defensive Player of the Year") Smith, Justin ("Without You, We're Sunk") Smith, Joe Staley, Donte Whitner, and Patrick Willis all are going to Hawaii, representing the best of the best. Four of these fine fellows-- Messrs. Bowman, Iupati, Aldon Smith, and Whitner-- are first-time selections. Patrick Willis is going for the sixth time in his six seasons, the first 49er to achieve such an honor. Gore and Justin Smith also are 'Bowl veterans, four times each, with Staley and Goldson making their second consecutive appearances.

No less than five 49ers-- Willis, Bowman, Goldson, and the Smith "twins"-- will be among the eleven starters on the defensive squad. Two of the five starting offensive linemen also are ours-- the veteran Staley and the newcomer Iupati. Defense and the running game-- ain't that what we're all about? Whoops, let's not get a controversy going, that's for another day.

Iupati's 2010 first-round draft mate on the OL-- Anthony Davis-- himself landed an alternate spot, as did Alex Boone, Ahmad Brooks (see you on the starting squad next year, hoss), Vernon Davis, Jonathan Goodwin (that accounts for all five of our offensive linemen, for those of you scoring at home), Carlos Rogers, C.J. Spillman, and punter Andy Lee. One of the most rewarding things a franchise can see is its high draft picks paying off. With Iupati and Aldon Smith starting and Davis an alternate, that means we expect Michael Crabtree to join the gang next year and A.J. Jenkins to start making some noise.

Though Pro Bowl selection remains the game's highest yearly honor, the 'Bowl itself seems an endangered species these days. First of all, to play in the game means failure-- your team didn't make the Super Bowl. And second, word is the game itself is in danger of extinction, as several influential owners are terrified at the prospect of their best player being seriously injured in an exhibition game.

We confess ourselves we don't watch the Pro Bowl, we just follow the selection process. Heaven knows there is little to actually play for-- any AFC-NFC "rivalry" is largely the creation of media types.  The Hawaii-themed workouts and events are more entertaining than the game itself, increasingly encumbered as it is by "pleeeeeeeeease don't let 'em get hurt" rules. Is there a way to retain the honor of Pro Bowl selection without risking players in a meaningless game?

Back when the Pro Bowl began, the old "blackout" rule was in effect. If your team was playing at home that Sunday, not only did you not get to see them on TV, you didn't get to see nobody on TV. When you did get to see a game or two, it was whatever CBS (and, later, NBC) decided to show during the "off" time slot. There was no ESPN, just newspapers and Pro Football Weekly. There was no "postseason", just the league championship game. As a result, most red-blooded American football fans might go an entire season without once seeing Lem Barney or Larry Wilson or Charlie Joiner or Russ Francis. The only time everyone got to see the greats was at the Pro Bowl.  Well, that's no longer the case; in that sense the game is a relic, a victim of general overexposure.

Perhaps the Pro Bowl might be converted into a week-long football "superstar training camp" for underprivileged kids, with the Pro Bowl players serving as coaches and advisors (and, of course, drawing all kinds of camera time). Then, at the conclusion of the week, let the kids play the game, with the players on the sideline coaching, cheering them on, and trolling for colorful interviews. It could be the capstone of the league's "Play 60" program, and it could let the fans see the players having some old-fashioned fun.  The honorifics, the selection process, the award banquets, all that would still go on-- but nobody's million-dollar-baby would be risking his spleen in an exhibition game.

Lately the NFL has shown a tendency to throw babies out with bathwater when making rule changes. Let's hope they don't blow this one by dismissing the game's highest honor in the name of risk avoidance.

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