Pro Bowl Games swap out tackling for flags, but a hit among players

LAS VEGAS — This was something entirely new.

The Pro Bowl has moved in recent years from Hawaii to Orlando to Nevada, but the biggest change came Sunday as the NFL tested a new flag football format as part of its rebranded festivities “Pro Bowl Games” at Allegiant Stadium.

The carefree nature of what has come to be seen as entry-level football in recent years and the desire to reduce the risk of injury led to flag football, but the result was well received by the players involved. That was a bit of a circus, but then again, so is Vegas, right?

“You’ve got the best of the best here, and it’s fun to see guys get competitive,” said Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith, who thrived in the new format, going 14-for-16 for 239 yards and five touchdowns on the season . the first and best of the three 20-minute games: a 33-27 victory for the NFC on a Smith touchdown to Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb with 12 seconds left.

The game featured celebrity coaches in brothers Eli and Peyton Manning, a random touch of Las Vegas with the Blue Man Group roaming between games and Hollywood guests on the sidelines in Snoop Dogg and former “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson , who said The last NFL game he attended was one of the Patriots’ Super Bowl wins.

“So Snoop Dogg called me a week and a half ago and said, ‘Hey, nephew, would you like to coach the NFL Pro Bowl with me?'” Davidson said, sporting a New York Giants jersey. “I thought it was code for, like, let’s go smoke or something, and here I am. That was amazing. I had the best time of my life.”

There was another Snoop in attendance: Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley, an unlikely Pro Bowl pick to say the least as he threw two touchdown passes all year, but was called up with Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa all injured, Patrick. Mahomes is busy getting ready for a Super Bowl and Joe Burrow isn’t participating either.

Huntley played well, going 15-for-19 for 192 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions: In the other two games, three AFC quarterbacks combined for 187 yards and four scores on three picks. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins ​​threw three touchdowns in the final game to secure an NFC (and coach Eli) victory over the AFC.

“My favorite part was that we didn’t have to put on shoulders and helmets and tackle people,” said Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander, who intercepted a Trevor Lawrence pass and returned it for a touchdown . “That was my first pick-6. It’s going to be my first. Some of us have been out of our seasons two, three weeks and more, so we don’t want to come out here and tackle again. And then there some people put in the effort, some don’t. I don’t mind coping, but not everyone is on board.”

The teams only had one full practice, while a skills competition on Thursday drew mixed reviews from the players. Raiders Josh Jacobs’ “that’s stupid” comment went viral on Saturday, but he had a better appreciation for Sunday’s event.

“I didn’t like all the other stuff, with a lot of sitting in events that the fans can’t see, but today was great,” Jacobs said. “I think it’s more competitive that way with the flag, at least you make the guys try a little harder. I think it should stick.”

The NFL had a complicated scoring system that awarded points for wins in flag football games, but also in other competitions, ranging from a “Kick, Tac, Toe” contest with kicks and punts on a giant game board and “gridiron gauntlet” competitions with linemen pushing sleds through obstacle courses.

And while this was flag football, there was still some physicality: On a touchdown play, Raiders receiver Davante Adams threw the ball down the goal line to Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill, who got the score, but not before being turned over by Rams running back Jalen Ramsey, who inadvertently shouldered him as he tried to flag down Adams. Hill also made a cameo on defense and batted down a pass from Cousins.

In a slight preview of what next week will bring with brothers Travis and Jason Kelce facing off against the Chiefs and Eagles in Super Bowl LVII, Sunday’s game saw Cowboys fumble Trevon Diggs intercept a play-calling pass thrown by his brother, Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs. .

Sunday was a quiet day for the offensive and defensive linemen, but even they had events between games, and the lack of full physical contact was a welcome change for players in many cases weeks removed from their final moments. significant

“I thought it was great,” said Buccaneers tackle Tristan Wirfs, excited to switch jerseys with 49ers tackle Trent Williams after the game. “I couldn’t imagine blocking Dexter Lawrence today. I thought they did everything they could to make it fun for us as well and give us something to do.”

And while the hope is that the flag football look will limit the risk of injury, Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett managed to dislocate his toe during the game, even though it was not immediately clear how the injury occurred.

How did the new format register with fans? A Twitter poll had just 23% saying they enjoyed the new format, with 40% not enjoying it and another 37% choosing “indifferent”. The game was a hit with fans in Las Vegas, drawing an announced crowd of 58,331, up slightly from last year’s 56,206 for traditional ticket football in the first year of the Pro Bowl in Las Vegas.

Competitive juices flowed among the players as those on the winning team bagged $84,000 while the losing participants took home $42,000 each.

“It’s been great to see all these fans and to be able to play with some of the best in the league,” said Vikings tight end TJ Hockenson, who matched the longest play of the day with a 45-yard touchdown. “It’s been amazing. We went through it a little bit, especially at the end when you have money on the line.”

Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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