They are all in sunny Florida and you can watch the NFL Network and see Donovan McNabb being interviewed by Chad Ocho Cinco and Asante Samuel clowning for the cameras as the light practice behind them moves on. The Pro Bowl is played on Sunday night, 7:25 p.m. on ESPN, and you might very well tune in because you just love the game of football, no matter who is playing.
As the critics line up to take their shots at the new Pro Bowl format -- and it a long, long line -- the players are having a ball. And in a very real way, seeing how excited Jon Dorenbos was to be picked as a Pro Bowl "need" player, and to see Quintin Mikell's reaction when the call came that he was going to Miami, well, it changed a little bit. The game itself is a yawner, truly an "exhibition" and nobody wants to come close to an injury. If the score is anything less than 42-30, the league is disappointed.
But, hey, don't get the idea that fans don't pay attention to the game. In the most recent three years, the game aired on the network that broadcast the Super Bowl -- and after the Super Bowl, of course -- and it drew an average of 8.6 million viewers. In the three years before that, ESPN aired the game and attracted an average of 6.2 million viewers. The Pro Bowl certainly does not compare to the Super Bowl, which averages between 80 and 90 million viewers every year, but the audience is still large enough to sell, so ESPN is glad to have it on.
For the first time, Sunday's game is a prime-time kickoff and maybe ESPN will see some big numbers despite the large number of alternate players suiting up. It is still football and, I admit this, I still have memories as a little kid watching the game just to see my favorite Eagles wearing their Eagles helmets in the game.
I had a conversation with former Eagles receiver Harold Carmichael the other day. Carmichael, now the director of player programs for the Eagles, played in four Pro Bowls and the event was not nearly the extravaganza it is now. Maybe you don't appreciate it, but players who go to the Pro Bowl, no matter whether it is in Hawaii or in Miami, as it is this year, are treated like kings. It wasn't that way for Carmichael back in the day. Tickets were hard to sell. The locations were far from glamorous.
Carmichael's first Pro Bowl game was set at Arrowhead Stadium, in Kansas City. Nice place, great fans and a wonderful place to raise kids, but not a garden spot for NFL all-stars. His second Pro Bowl game was played at the Los Angeles Coliseum and then the league moved the game to Hawaii for good -- until this year -- to Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.
"It was always an honor and it was fun to see other players and to get to know them, but it was nothing like it is today," said Carmichael. "Today, it is, for a player, a huge event. Go to Hawaii and bring all of your family. It wasn't like that back then."
The Pro Bowl isn't going to go away because, despite what the miserables in the media have to say, the fans still care. Maybe not to the tune of 80 to 90 million of them care, but enough fans care to watch the game and make the Pro Bowl at least marginally relevant.
And for the players, no matter how jaded they become, no matter how many of them beg out because of injuries, the appeal remains.
"It never gets old," Samuel told Mr. Cinco (or is that Mr. Ocho Cinco). "We'd rather be playing next week in the Super Bowl, but the Pro Bowl is a fun experience for everyone who takes part."
Everyone has a remedy for what to do to make the game more important, but it is really hard to do. Who wants to get hurt playing in a fun game? Who has the intensity after such a long season?
I've watched bits and pieces of the NFL Network coverage and I see the stands filled with fans. I see the players having fun. I see the newcomers like Mikell and Dorenbos enjoying the honor of playing for the NFC team.
The Pro Bowl can stay as long as the league wants. Hawaii is probably the best place, and the week after the Super Bowl makes more sense to me, but I'll probably tune in with a curious eye on Sunday night and take a look. Why not? It's football, and wherever there is a game, I'm going to try to be there.
* NEWS, NOTES AND THIS AND THAT*
Here is one to file away (not sure how much it means, but it is *that* time of the year) from NewEraScouting.com, which is covering the Senior Bowl practices: "I saw Eagles Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott following this unit around the field as if he were a kid looking for an autograph. He had to like what he saw in AJ Edds (Iowa). He displayed some quick feet in the bag drills and showed outstanding coverage ability. He flows to the ball and just has a nice feel for the game. Physical tackler that uses nice technique too."
- You want to know why Brent Celek is the player he has become? Because he is still around the NovaCare Complex on a daily basis working out and improving his body. Celek took a week or so off and is right back at it. If every player had his approach, the league would have one superstar after another ...
- Spoke to Cornelius Ingram the other day (you can watch the interview on In The Studio on Saturday) and looks great. Ingram has been running full speed straight ahead for about a month and is just now starting to run and cut. "I feel great, and now I just have to continue to be diligent and stay patient and hopefully I'll be ready to go for the camp after the draft. I think my speed is already just about where it was before I got hurt."
- Merrill Reese's take on needs for the off-season? "I think this team needs a safety. I think, to me, safety is the No. 1 priority on this team. They need somebody who can step in and be a talented safety," said Reese. "Quintin Mikell needs a big-play guy with him. He has done a very, very good job, but he needs another exceptional safety with him." Reese also listed cornerback depth as a need and his third need was offensive line. There you go ...
- Sheldon Brown turned down the opportunity to play in the Pro Bowl so he can allow his hamstring injury to heal, and that is an admirable thing. Knowing Brown as I do, I think he would not be all that interested in the game unless he was actually voted into the game on his own merits, rather than having players in front of him drop out of the game.
- The team's off-season conditioning program begins in mid-March, so there is still a long time to go before the majority of the players return to the NovaCare Complex.
- Kurt Warner is reportedly close to announcing his retirement, and assuming he is not going to pull a Brett Favre and recant (and assuming that the reports are true, in fact), it would appear the Arizona Cardinals have a very important question to answer: Is Matt Leinart the future for that football team? You know what kind of ripple effect Warner's news is going to have, right? Let the rumor mongering heat up!