Panthers Pro Bowlers weigh in on change to flag football

Brian Burns

CHARLOTTE — The NFL changed the Pro Bowl Monday, converting the annual all-star game into a flag football game and a skills competition.

Or, in other words, turning it into what it sort of was already.

Panthers defensive end Brian Burns — one of four Panthers on the active roster who have played in the game, along with running back Christian McCaffrey, punter Johnny Hekker, and long snapper JJ Jansen — laughed when asked about the news and how it would change the game experience.

"Not a lot, honestly," Burns joked. "It was kind of like a jog-through. There were some plays it kicked up a little bit, but other than that, it stayed a little slow.

"Everybody's pretty much making deals."

Hekker also laughed when asked about the shift, saying: "Thoughts, I have none. It essentially was a flag football game before, so now they're making it what it is."

Hekker has been to four of them in his career, and said the difference in winning team's shares and losing team's shares (last year it was $80,000 and $75,000, but in previous years the gulf was wider) would occasionally motivate guys when it got closer to the time to settle up tabs for the weekend.

But the game absolutely has taken on a more relaxed tone lately, part of the reason for the change of format.

"It starts out like that," Hekker said. "And then something will happen that will set the tone, a thermostat that keeps getting cranked up a little bit at a time. And then at a certain point in the game, the money that's on the line for winning vs. losing, that kind of makes it a little more physical down the stretch."

Of course, the definitions of physical have changed over time.

Burns said he remembered "back in the day" when the late Washington safety Sean Taylor destroyed Bills punter Brian Moorman in 2007.

Hekker winced at the treatment of his fellow member of the punter's union.

"That will go down as one of the biggest Pro Bowl hits of all time," he said. "And now it will be forever the number one hit."

Sir Purr, Brian Burns

It's still an honor for players to be selected, and it often becomes one of the first lines in their career bios. But camaraderie is also a big part of the experience.

"Being around your peers, guys you compete with, compete against," Jansen said. "Everybody's in a good mood. It's a cool recognition of a good individual season, but also of a good team season too."

And the bragging rights aspect is real, as you could tell by the smile on Hekker's face when he recalled, "completing a pass on Richard Sherman" on a fake punt in the 2016 game.

But let's be honest, this hasn't been about the actual football in some time.

Asked how he'd spend the week if he's chosen again this year, Burns replied: "Celebrate. Party."

This year's event will be at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Feb. 5, 2023. And since it's Vegas, it'll still draw a crowd there to have fun. They've also taken the game to Orlando in the past, and that's a different demographic.

"Any time you get to go to Hawaii, that's always good," Hekker said. "Orlando's cool; with Disney, there's stuff to do with the kids. But Hawaii, that's a place where you feel good doing nothing."

Jansen had the advantage of going to Hawaii after the 2013 season, when the Panthers went 12-4 and were beginning the rise that would lead to the Super Bowl season in 2015. The Panthers coaching staff coached one side that year, but Jansen didn't get to work with Ron Rivera that week, as they had a rule that kept coaches from bringing their own long snappers.

"Ron kept yelling at me to intentionally misfire snaps so his team could win," Jansen said with a shake of his head. "Which wasn't necessarily the kindest thing that ever happened."

JJ Jansen

Hekker acknowledged that the need to keep players healthy was a good idea (since most of the guys participating are in offseason recovery mode already), so taking away the hits that did exist is probably smart. And with the league instituting skills competitions for players in the week leading up to the game, the move will allow for some creativity.

"It should be fun; it seems like something that might take a few years to tweak out and fix," Jansen said. "I'm a big baseball fan, and they changed the Home Run Derby and found something that's more interesting to the fans.

"I don't know. Certainly, people love their football, but hopefully, being able to see the Pro Bowlers in a different light could be fun."

Brian Burns strikes poses and meets some new fans on the Las Vegas strip before the Pro Bowl.

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