Aaron Rodgers leaned over the microphone and let it fly.

Speaking two days after the 2011 Pro Bowl, the Green Bay Packers quarterback said, “I’ll be honest with you. I was a little disappointed. I felt that some NFC guys were disgraced.”

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The game caused an uproar at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium due to lack of intensity, and Rodgers, who was still a few years away from forming a securely opposite opinion, added, “I was just surprised that some of the guys didn’t want to play or when they were there, they didn’t put any effort into it.”

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It was an embarrassing issue that plagued the game for years. A decade after Rogers’ comments, the sharpest criticism the Pro Bowl had received to that point from an active player, the NFL finally took the inevitable next step. The league announced Monday that it will replace the traditional Pro Bowl game with a series of events leading up to the February 5, 2023 NFC-AFC football game, which will air on ABC and Sportzshala television.

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If you instinctively scoff at the idea of ​​playing flag football, then you haven’t paid enough attention to the soccer ball on display at the Pro Bowl for the last 10-15 years. Players have long decided, understandably, to minimize the risk of injury in a mindless game. They ran at half speed, mostly missed big shot opportunities, and increasingly avoided the simple act of tackling the ball.

The games will include as many whistles to mark the end of the advance—i.e., when the players stop running after the defenders carefully wrap their arms around them—than there were actual tackles.

And even when they avoided hard contact, there were still serious injuries. Tyler of the Cincinnati Bengals Tyler Eifert broke his ankle in the fourth quarter of a 2016 game after jumping to catch a pass. After that, his career never got back on track.

Prominent players made no secret of their concerns, and the NFL heard them all. Speaking in 2012, New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said, “Guys play all season, they play physically all season, and you get rewarded. The last thing you want to do is get out in a game like this and get hurt. myself. This is not good for the individual or the organization.”

Why has the NFL been inactive for so long? My reports over the years have made this clear. The NFL built a solid audience for football content either the week after or the week before the Super Bowl. He wasn’t about to give it up unless that audience dwindled and the league had something comparable to replace it.

This meant, to put it mildly, going through years of insincere games. By 2016, when the game was moved to Orlando, the NFL was struggling to get players to play it at all. For this game, he had to bring in a league-record 135 players to fill a roster of 88 players.

In 2017 there were 125.

Several events helped push the NFL’s decision to the finish line. The league began experimenting with dodgeball and other agility competitions starting in 2016, and these events soon became the most exciting part of the Pro Bowl week. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 Pro Bowl, and when it returned after the 2021 season, it had the highest TV ratings on ABC and Sportzshala. lowest in 15 years.

Those numbers lowered the standard for a reliable replacement, and by coincidence, the NFL was simultaneously working on an initiative that fit the bill.

Flag football is one of the league’s most recent yet intense programs, which it believes can maintain and eventually expand the participation of boys and girls who would otherwise shun youth football. It’s also a relatively inexpensive way to introduce the game to an international audience, which is why the NFL partnered with the International Federation of American Football to lobby for it as an Olympic sport.

Troy Vincent, the NFL’s EVP of Football Operations, recently told The Associated Press, “When we talk about the future of football, it’s without a doubt the flag.”

Flag football and professional skill competitions are not a reliable way to avoid injury. Longtime Pro Bowl watchers will remember that in 1999, running back Robert Edwards of the New England Patriots suffered a catastrophic knee injury at the Pro Bowl while playing an NFL-sanctioned football game on the beach. He missed the next three seasons, returning in 2002 and then retiring.

It also remains to be seen if the game’s biggest stars will be more inclined to participate in flag football. But for years it was clear that the regular Pro Bowl would never return to a reasonable level of intensity, and finally the NFL did something about it. Consider this a win for everyone.