- Ross Tucker, NFL
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It's Pro Bowl voting and selection week in the NFL. That typically means a plethora of columns touting which players are most deserving before the official announcements are made next Tuesday, then the requisite lists of most noteworthy snubs afterward.
You won't find that here.
This is more about the selection process. The honor of playing in the Pro Bowl already has been marginalized somewhat by the decision to play it the Sunday before the Super Bowl, thus eliminating all of the players from the two best teams -- not to mention the fact that pretty much anyone with any type of ailment now finds a way to get out of playing in the game.
But all of that still doesn't mean the selection process can't be improved, especially the player voting.
Right now, the voting varies greatly from team to team and often from position group to position group within a team. The hallmarks of the process are disorganization and apathy. That's because most teams do the voting after practice on a Wednesday, when most of the players are tired from the rigors of a long season and just want get home as soon as humanly possible.
Not only are they eager to leave but they often recognize that they don't really have any chance of being selected themselves -- most players don't -- and thus fail to give the selection process its due.
Some teams just have players fill out an entire ballot, which is asinine. A running back has no idea which punter is most deserving. Others do it by position, and thus the leaders of that group come to a consensus on whom they will select. The offensive line might pick the defensive line and middle linebacker positions while the tight ends pick the safety position and so on. In that instance, all of a team's 53 ballots will look the same after the various position groups are compiled. That's a better process, but the elder statesmen in any one position group have too much control and influence.
A lot of times it is just easier to vote for the "guy who goes every year" at a certain position even if that player is no longer deserving. The opposite dynamic also holds true -- most up-and-comers in the league having great years typically don't get in until the next season, after they have received a lot of offseason attention for their play and maybe even a new contract that legitimizes their performance.
The process should be much simpler. First of all, only players who care should vote. If you aren't invested in the process and want to go home, see ya later.
Second, the position groups should not have to come to a consensus. That gives a few of the veterans, some of whom might be Pro Bowlers themselves, way too much influence over the process. In fact, there has often been speculation among non-Pro Bowlers that the regulars out in Hawaii conspire to help each other so that the band can get back together again the next year.
Lastly, the players should vote only for players they study on a weekly basis on film. The offensive line, for example, should vote for front seven players on defense and for fellow offensive linemen only. Likewise, the receivers should vote only for the defensive backs and the other pass-catchers.
Come to think of it, to really perfect the process, the NFL should make every player's vote public. Why not? At a minimum, it could make for some very interesting Sundays going forward
From the inbox
Q: My question is regarding the fitness levels of NFL players as compared to soccer players who are running the length of the field the entire game except during substitutions or injuries. NFL players in contrast only take the field roughly half the game but still get worn down by the end of the game. Is the NFL game more physically draining on the human body than soccer, or are soccer players fitter than their NFL counterparts?
Shivanand in Owensboro, Ky.
A: I never played soccer at an elite level, but my sense is that in general those players are likely in much better cardiovascular conditioning because of the nature of their game. The sports are very different and thus require very different body types and types of conditioning. Playing football requires incredibly explosive five- to 10-second bursts every 35 to 45 seconds or so, often while carrying a tremendous amount of weight and absorbing physical punishment. As a side note, though, I know it will ruffle some feathers, but I watched a decent amount of the World Cup, and a lot of times those guys are pretty much standing around or very lightly jogging, almost in place or barely covering any ground. They are in great shape, to be sure, but it is not quite the 90 minutes of running that many claim.
Q: From the way Dan Connolly was carrying the ball when he returned the squib kick last Sunday, I was wondering if offensive linemen ever practice running with the ball? Do teams ever prepare for offensive linemen carrying the ball, or are offensive linemen just told to collapse on it when they get near it in fumble recovery situations?
Anil in Elmhurst, Ill.
A: This is something I can really speak to because I used to line up in the same spot as the Patriots' Connolly when I was the wedge setter in Buffalo and Washington. A decent amount of time, usually before practice, is devoted to those "up-backs" right in front of the returners practicing fielding squibs and catching short pops. Coaches harp on tucking the ball away anytime one of those players fields the ball, especially if it is a lineman who might be unfamiliar with handling the ball. They are told to get up the field immediately and get whatever they can out of it.
Q: Can you please explain some of the tells [indicators] that players have pre-snap. What do you look for on the O-line? And what might you do to trick the D-line pre-snap?
Stephen in Vancouver, British Columbia
A: Great question, and this is something I'll probably devote an entire column to this offseason. In general, you look at the stance, alignment, alignment in comparison to the linebackers, depth off the ball and weight on hands -- all while listening to the calls to see whether you can pick up on some kind of stunt or slant. You'd be amazed at how much information you can get pre-snap. To trick the defensive line, you might change up your splits for no reason, make "dummy" calls to your linemates and have a lot of weight forward on your hand even though it is a pass to throw them off the scent, so to speak.
Q: At this stage of the season, would/could a team that has been eliminated from playoff contention ever deliberately place a healthy player, who the franchise knew would be back the following year, on IR to give game time to a fringe prospect who was out of contract, so as to be able to assess that prospect in live NFL action?
Damian in London
A: Well, you can't put a healthy player on IR, but at this point in the season, everybody pretty much has something that is bothering them, so you certainly can open up a roster spot if you want. That can also allow you to bring up a practice squad player, which allows the team to secure his contractual rights for the offseason or the next season. Otherwise, practice squad players are free to sign wherever they'd like. As for assessing a fringe player for the next year, that is exactly what the Redskins are doing with Rex Grossman right now -- trying to see where he fits in, or whether he does indeed fit in, for next season.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.
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