KAPOLEI, Hawaii – The Carolina Panthers had a different bowl in mind, but this is one heck of a consolation prize.
The Panthers had hoped to be preparing for the Super Bowl this week. Those hopes were dashed a little over a week ago in the NFC Divisional Playoff round, but the fact that Carolina was one of eight teams to get that far certainly spoke to the quality of the roster.
The successful season is being rewarded this week at the Pro Bowl, with seven players and the entire coaching staff descending on the island paradise that annually serves as gracious host to the NFL's all-star game.
Quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive end Greg Hardy, center Ryan Kalil and fullback Mike Tolbert were initially selected to represent the Panthers. Long snapper J.J. Jansen was chosen last week by the Indianapolis Colts coaching staff, and on Monday veteran left tackle Jordan Gross was added when San Francisco 49ers tackle Joe Staley bowed out because of injury.
In the past, they'd all be suiting up for head coach Ron Rivera and his staff, which was selected by virtue of Carolina's postseason finish. But the presence of former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders on my flight from Dallas signaled that this year is going to be different: For the first time, the game is "unconferenced," with Sanders set to draft players for the Colts coaching staff Wednesday and legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice ready to pick players for the Panthers coaching staff.
Once the rosters are set, Newton could find himself taking the snap from Kalil and handing it off to Tolbert. He also could find himself trying to dodge an oncoming Hardy, a man known for eating quarterbacks for breakfast – and dominating them. But how will Hardy react if he has a clean shot on his quarterback? Finding out is kind of the point.
The level of play at the Pro Bowl has been a concern in some corners, and this is the latest attempt to add some spice. No matter what format changes are made, the reality is the game is never going to match the intensity of regular season football.
And should that be considered a bad thing? I say not.
Is there a major outcry when the squads in the NBA All-Star game push 150 points, or when an NHL All-Star team scores double-digit goals?
The Pro Bowl is about seeing the NFL's brightest stars all together in one place, but given the nature of how the game of football is played, it's never going to be truly at full-speed. The idea of drafting players onto teams seems to acknowledge the schoolyard feel of the game while trying to take advantage of the fact that backyard games can get a little heated at times.
Between now and the game on Sunday, the only heat on many of the players' minds will be the kind beaming down from the beautiful blue skies onto the crystal-clear waters of the Pacific. They're gathered at a place where the big news of the week – besides the Pro Bowl, of course – are the projected 40-plus-foot waves forecast to slam the North Shore on Wednesday.
This is a coveted trip for NFL players for so many reasons. Being a Pro Bowler is a status symbol among players, and it's also a perk that allows Panthers players and coaches to thank their families for the sacrifices they made during the grueling season.
No matter the clever changes cooked up for the Pro Bowl, it's always going to have a leisurely feel about it. It will be a fun week for the fortunate few that are invited, and they'll try to cap the week by bringing the fun to football's faithful fans.
UPDATE: Kalil and Tolbert were drafted by "Team Rice" in the preliminary part of the draft Tuesday and will play for the Panthers' coaching staff. Jansen is on "Team Sanders." Newton, Kuechly, Hardy and Gross will be among the 60 players drafted Wednesday to set the rosters.