These phrases are heard every year at this time when the Pro Bowl teams are announced by the NFL, “So and so gut snubbed” or “The Pro Bowl is a joke”. Another favorite is “The Pro Bowl is nothing but a popularity contest.”
If by “joke” they mean the game itself, then there is not much debate there was never much value in that, especially recently. The Pro Bowl game and thankfully has been abolished and replaced with flag football games and a handful of football skills competitions.
But leaving that aside, the negative statements about the voting that selects those to be honored are often the reaction by the media and fans if a player someone is covering or someone’s favorite player got the so-called snubbing.
It is certainly fair to say that the voting system is an inexact science and due to that sometimes a deserving player does not get selected or an undeserving player does and that triggers the lamentations so often heard.
There are only so many slots allotted per position and if there are, say, six really good tackles in a conference (like this year in the NFC) and just three are selected to the Pro Bowl then three will be snubbed by definition. It just cannot be helped.
Among some of the valid questions about the selection process is why the voting is so early. This year there are three games yet to be played so the season is only four-fifths over. What if a position is close and a front-runner fades and someone who is a would-be alternate dominates the final three weeks? Historically the NFL released the teams with a week or two left, but in the last two seasons, the announcement has come right after the completion of Week 15 so that is a legitimate concern.
It is not just the media or fans voicing criticisms about the Pro Bowl, either.
Sometimes it’s the players.
In 1969 Packer great Herb Adderley was miffed when he missed the Pro Bowl that season. His teammate Bob Jeter went instead and it bothered him that he was not selected. Phil Bengston had given Jeter the word, prior to the Packers final game that he’d been chosen for the Pro Bowl. Adderley was in close proximity and heard the conversation. Adderley later told the Associated Press that he thought he’d had his best year and that he told Bengston that not making the Pro Bowl was a “blow to my pride.”
In 1976 Bengals cornerback Ken Riley had a fine season picking off nine passes and was voted second-team All-Pro by the AP. But he didn’t make the Pro Bowl. Riley admitted to Marty Williams of the Dayton Daily News that missing the Pro Bowl bothered him. “Man, I really wanted it. I was only beaten for one touchdown all year. The snubs continued for Riley, never being voted to the team by the players and coaches.
In Isaac Bruce’s second season he caught 119 passes for 1781 and 13 scores but since the voting took place prior to the final week when he caught 15 passes for 210 yards in the Rams last game those numbers were not seen and he was not going to Hawaii that year. Imagine, he had the second-most yards in a single season and no Pro Bowl for him.
Falcons tackle Mike Kenn was a first-team AP All-pro in 1991 but missed the trip to Hawaii. That has happened more recently to Eagles center Jason Kelce and tackle Jack Conklin twice each.
Chuck Smith was a fine defensive end in the 1990s and even made second-team All-Pro in 1997 when he recorded twelve sacks and forced four fumbles but he never made a Pro Bowl. He’d often mention that he’d been an alternate “forever” because of how many times he was passed over.
In 1999 Simeon Rice felt snubbed when he was an alternate to Michael Strahan who had 5.5 sacks that season.
In 2015, Rice explained on JRSportsBrief, an Internet webcast, “I didn’t get an invite. And you have a guy here (In New York) that had four (sic) sacks. Four. New York supports its own. . . When the Pro Bowl gets called and my name’s not called and Tony Dungy has to bring me as a reserve to do the right thing . . . There’s a lot of fans here.”
In 2020, likely among some others, Jordan Poyer and Garett Bolles were reported to be “disappointed by Pro Bowl snub” because they both thought they'd played well enough to go.
This year, over Dre Greenlaw's "snub" (also reported to be disappointed) 49er head coach Kyle Shanahan said he didn't like to address the team with the list of Pro Bowlers because he didn't like to have to address "all the guys who got screwed."
The list could go on but it’s clear that to some players and coaches Pro Bowls did and still matter.
Undeserving Pro Bowl Selections
There are also some examples of some players who didn’t have a Pro Bowl-quality season but did get to make the trip to the Pro Bowl city. There is reasonable evidence that sometimes a player does make the game based on reputation.
Simeon Rice’s feelings about Strahan’s 1999 selection point out what may be one example of reputation or popularity but there are others.
Here are a few.
In 1979 Oilers defensive end Elvin Bethea had just 1.5 sacks but made his eighth Pro Bowl. At that time sacks were not official but they were known to the media and others who had access to pre-game releases issued by NFL teams. Now they are available online or are emailed to media and fans and in that era, those releases were mailed to writers and others who were on the mailing list.
For most teams, those releases almost always contained individual defensive statistics and had for several years so Bethea’s sack total would not be some mystery. As good as a career as he had, 1979 was just not one of his best.
But turnabout is fair play. Three years prior he had 14.5 sacks and he got the old snubbing. That year L.C. Greenwood was hobbled some and while playing one of the best single-season defenses ever just got to the quarterback 4.5 times. But Bethea played for the 6-8 Oilers than had fallen from their 10-4 season in 1975. Maybe that made a difference.
A.J. Duhe made a transition from defensive end to inside linebacker in 1980 and was a unique hybrid player for Don Shula and defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger. He played well in that role, especially in the 1982 AFC Playoffs when in four games he picked off four passes and three sacks. Perhaps he was deserving of a Pro Bowl nod in 1982 or 1983.
However, he made the Pro Bowl after the 1984 season. That happened to be a year he was hurt early in the year and got benched by Shula even after he returned to health.
In a 1988 interview with Roy Firestone on ESPN’s "Up Close" broadcast, Howie Long bristled when Firestone asked Long if his 1987 Pro Bowl selection was deserved. Long agreed that he didn’t have his best season due to injuries but even so he was still one of the best three defensive ends in the AFC.
Clearly, the Pro Bowl mattered to Long.
It mattered even more so a bit later in his career when Art Shell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. Long saw that Shell had eight Pro Bowls in his career and that struck Long as a number to shoot for if he were to achieve his goal of making the Hall of Fame some day. In the early 1990s Long was listed by the Raiders as a defensive end, even though he spend most of his time inside, as a defensive tackle.
Long asked Al LoCasale to have him listed on the ballot as a tackle but his request was not accommodated. LoCasale told him, "Howie, someone has to be an end, the guy at the end of the defensive line and that's you." However, it didn't matter much, Long was able to meet his goal of eight Pro Bowls, even listed in his view wrongly because he went to his final two as an injury replacement - for nicked AFC defensive ends.
A recent example of a player being undeservedly honored, one pointed out by plenty of fans on social media, is Chiefs edge player Frank Clark. He’s been to the last three Pro Bowls, one was as an alternate, even though he’s averaged about six sacks per season and didn’t have a slew of pressures, either. He simply didn’t have the kind of production that is expected by a Pro Bowler. In the three years prior to that, with Seattle, he averaged almost 11 sacks a year and had more pressures as well, and never got close to the game.
Especially perplexing is Giants center Shaun O'Hara’s being voted to the NFC team in 2010. Why it is odd is the fact that he played in only six games. Six. This year T.J. Watt has hissed half the season (to date) and yet made the Pro Bowl.
There are at least 40 players who went to the Pro Bowl in seasons they played ten games or less so in at least some of those cases it’s likely that that reputation played a part in those selections.
Do these examples make the Pro Bowl a joke with players making it on reputation or popularity?
The answer has to be “sometimes” - especially since fan voting began to be included in the mid-1990s.
But were any of Anthony Munoz’s eleven consecutive Pro Bowls based on rep? Or Lawrence Taylor’s ten straight beginning with his rookie season?
What about Ronnie Lott or Peyton Manning? Is the Pro Bowl a joke in these instances? The answer to those questions is “possibly” but in general Pro Bowls are part of their legacy and appear in their bios.
When Jeremy Reaves was told he'd made the Pro Bowl he was grateful and broke down into tears. Here is part of a video the Commanders released—
One could peruse Twitter or Instagram and find many examples of players who are “grateful” or “blessed” at their selection to go to Las Vegas so Reaves is not the only one who'd rather have been included rather than be excluded.
So again it seems Pro Bowls do matter, at least to some degree, to players.
Hall of Fame
When a case is made for a player that is up for discussion for the Hall of Fame post-season honors are one of the “boxes” that usually need to be checked and Pro Bowls are among those post-season honors along with others such as the All-Pro and All-Conference teams. They are not the only thing considered, of course, but the number of Pro Bowl selections is usually not ignored by voters with some notable exceptions.
So again, to some degree, Pro Bowls do matter to Hall of Fame voters since they are part of the criteria considered. How much of the criteria are Pro Bowls? Not much. It is part of the narrative of a player's case, but a small part so in that narrow usage there is a bit of value.
Without a doubt, there are flaws in Pro Bowl voting just as there are in the All-Pro voting system which also has shortcomings. However, when past Pro Bowl rosters are studied the vast majority of the time the top few players at each position in each conference were rightly selected.
It’s just that many times there were too many good players at a particular position and too few slots to include everyone and is what that causes consternation and that is expressed in - cliché alert - folks griping and using sweeping generalizations like, the Pro Bowl is a joke and/or it is a popularity contest and is useless.
This may be a case of “The lady doth protest too much, methinks ”. If the Pro Bowl is all those things then why the weeping an wailing and gnashing of teeth? It's great that Fred Warner made it, he deserved it but it's a joke that Greenlaw didn't, In Buffalo fans (and likely Bills coaches) think it's great that Jordan Poyer was voted in after being snubbed in previous years but again, a joke because Matt Milano wasn't.
That kind of sentiment goes on from city to city Tweet after Tweet and it is understandable. Fans like their guys to be recognized in the Pro Bowl, on the All-Pro team, and in the Hall of Fame. But is does appear that some people want it both ways - it's great when our guy gets it and it stinks when our other guy does not get it.
Ultimately, Pro Bowls have some value even if the system is imperfect. It can be accepted as one piece of a puzzle that notes who had a particularly good year but it is not, nor has it ever been nor will it ever be, a be-all, end-all. It's just not. However, this should not be a case of - cliché alert - throwing the baby out of the bathwater.
Unless the baby is the actual game. That has been thrown out and that is a good thing.
It was a joke.