Dodgeball reinvigorates tired Pro Bowl formula

After a seven-year hiatus, the NFL Pro Bowl skills competition–contested between the best players in the AFC and NFC–returned on Jan. 26 with a new and improved format. While the event started slow and I debated turning on Netflix to binge-watch more episodes of “Trailer Park Boys,” the promise of a dodgeball-laden magnum opus finale was enough to pique my interest.

The night kicked off with the “Best Hands” contest, a competition that Miami Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry narrowly won for the AFC. His expert navigation of the course and series of acrobatic, one-handed, and over-the-shoulder catches were enough to surpass college teammate and Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. by 0.2 seconds.

The next competition was a series of strength-oriented challenges showing off their brute strength called the “Power Relay.” After players lifted, pulled, and dragged around an assortment of ridiculously heavy items, the final contestant on each team completed a 40-yard sprint before smashing through a large wall of foam blocks. The end of the event was exciting, but the rest of the challenge was considerably less impressive. Watching these large men lug around heavy objects was boring—The Celebrity Apprentice could have easily been more riveting.

The “Drone Drop” challenge involved players catching footballs dropped from drones over 100 feet in the air. With no real football relevance, it was nonetheless comical watching players flopping and diving while trying to makes catches that would never happen in a real game. The next event was the “Precision Passing” contest, requiring quarterbacks to hit a series of moving and stationary targets with varying point values. Again, it was incredible to watch NFL players with rocket-launcher arms balancing power and accuracy in such a show of both force and skill.

After the long wait, the teams got set for the dodgeball final, each heading over to their respective sides, gearing up for an all-out sprint to the midline to collect the necessary weapons. The action began immediately as the balls began flying at the supersized linemen, not quite fast enough to get back from the midline with their ball. Both teams called their respective timeouts early, and the competition escalated in excitement from there. As the match came to a close, 5’9” 180lb Indianapolis Colts’ receiver T.Y. Hilton was left alone against most of the NFC team, all of whom were heavily armed. Despite a valiant effort and some impressive catches from the AFC’s lone wolf, the NFC took the dodgeball showdown.

It was clear that the other events preceding the dodgeball event were merely a tease. The superhuman feats of those events fit together like puzzle pieces as these separate skills began to come together, ultimately mustering a glorious showdown that was just as intense as it was fun to watch. The NFL’s new Pro Bowl skills competition was a great watch for even the most casual football fans. Those who were unimpressed with the early events just need to have patience and take solace in the fact that dodgeball, an entertaining game in its own right, can only be made better when played by 20 professional athletes of varying shapes and sizes.

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