Dissing the Pro Bowl is sort of the thing for the casual football fan to do. The game is self-evidently awful, and the entire system makes it entirely too easy to earn the distinction of a “Pro Bowler” by sneaking in as the second- or third-alternate. Mitchell Trubisky and Jay Cutler both made the Pro Bowl as alternates, and that in and of itself should be all that is needed to call the honor into question.
Except that’s looking at the Pro Bowl in the wrong light. Calling a player a Pro Bowler is not declaring him elite at his position (that’s being an All-Pro), and a cursory look at the system would see that it doesn’t even pretend this is the case. Even before alternates are summoned, six quarterbacks are designated either starters or reserves, and that’s out of 32 teams in the NFL.
The Pro Bowl is actually just about right.
First, it really does help to designate the top tier of players. Let’s look at players with mature careers. Of the 766 players drafted between 2013 and 2015, only 74 have made the Pro Bowl at least once (call it 10% for the sake of simplicity). Likewise, roughly 100-110 players are alternates or better in a given year. That might seem high, but that’s out of 700-800 “starters” in the NFL at any given time (starters being a shaky term for nickelbacks, kickers, fullbacks, and the rest), or just under 1500 players who might be “active” across all rosters in a given week of football (call it 8%-16%).
That’s a pretty exclusive group. No, it’s not perfect. Obviously, there are players who sneak in who probably shouldn’t. However, chances are that if a player does make the Pro Bowl, he at least had a pretty good year. Moreover, repeat Pro Bowlers really are an elite bunch. Only 36 of the players drafted between 2013 and 2015 have earned repeat status.
This helps to establish another point, and that is that the selection process is actually pretty good.
Since 1995, one of the biggest complaints about the Pro Bowl was that it included fan voices. What’s interesting is that fans frequently grumble about media biases, coaches’ ignorance, and players’ inability to remain objective. However, the truth of the matter is that fan voices (collectively) don’t really hurt the process.
The biggest complaint could be that the fan Pro Bowl vote underestimates emerging players and focus on volume players. For example, in 2018, the top vote getters for tight end were Zach Ertz (NFC) and Travis Kelce (AFC). While both were in the top ten at their position by DYAR, they were not very efficient (per DVOA) and relied on volume to get their production. George Kittle was probably more deserving by most metrics than Ertz, but Kittle made it as a reserve, too, and let’s not pretend that Ertz was bad by any stretch of the imagination.
The reality is that having all three components (coach, player, and fan) factor into the selection process tends to eliminate the impact of one set of preferences or a single reason for a player to be given outlier status. Replace the fan vote with analytics and people would still complain.
The Pro Bowl is not perfect, but no system would be. The game itself is terrible. However, the actual assemblage of the rosters remains a useful convention for the NFL. Let’s just hope that the Bears end up being more relevant for this discussion on a consistent basis.