One thing is clear: Nothing is going to get people to love the Pro Bowl.
All-star games across all sports have cratered in popularity over the past 20 or so years, a trend that has made leagues desperate to try any change that will get people to tune in. Last year, the NBA ditched the Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format it had used since 1951 and instead chose to feature teams selected by captains LeBron James and Steph Curry. The NHL All-Star Game is no longer a single five-on-five game, but rather a series of three-on-three games between teams from each of the league’s four divisions. In 2003, MLB made perhaps the worst change of all—unsure how to get people to watch a game with no stakes, the league simply added stakes, putting home-field advantage for the World Series on the line. But that didn’t stop the game’s steady ratings decline, causing the league to abandon the change in 2016. Really, all that the modification did was make MLB’s most important games slightly less fair.
But the NFL has instituted more changes than anybody else. The league has changed the location of the Pro Bowl (from its original permanent home in Hawaii, to the annually varied location of the Super Bowl, to a new permanent home in less-tropical Orlando), the date of the Pro Bowl (from the week after the Super Bowl to the week before), the format of the Pro Bowl (from AFC vs. NFC to fantasy-drafted rosters and back again), and the rules of the Pro Bowl (too many changes to count). None of this has made a difference.
The simple fact is that half-assed football is dull. The Pro Bowl is an exhibition game played between thrown-together rosters comprised of players who would prefer to be on vacation. We’re lucky if we even get half an ass. The last time a player gave 100 percent effort on a play in the Pro Bowl was when Sean Taylor realized a punter was running with the ball and wasn’t expecting to get hit very hard.
(Sean Taylor’s no. 1 passion was correcting people who mistakenly thought they weren’t going to get hit very hard.)
But what if there was a football game played during this week that wasn’t between hastily thrown-together teams? What if there was a game this week that wasn’t an exhibition game? I have a proposal: The week before the Super Bowl, the two teams that lost their conference championship games should play against each other in an official NFL third-place game.
Third-place games exist across the world of sports. The World Cup has a third-place game. If you need Pro Bowl counterprogramming, the title game of the IHF World Men’s Handball Championship is this Sunday, and the third-place game will be held directly beforehand. There are third-place games in many Olympic events—they’re called bronze medal games, and it’s a pretty big deal if you win them.
But America has been resistant to third-place games. The last American mainstream third-place game was played during March Madness. The NCAA tournament held third-place games for teams that lost in the Final Four until 1981, and held third-place games at each regional for teams that lost in the Sweet 16 until 1975.
Believe it or not, the NFL has had a third-place game before. From 1961 until the merger in 1970, the league had a game called the Playoff Bowl. It was a modestly big deal—at the time, it was one of just a few nationally televised pro football games, and the event raised money for the players’ pension fund. But most participants hated it. After losing the 1965 Playoff Bowl, Vince Lombardi called the game “the Shit Bowl,” describing it as “a losers’ bowl for losers,” and “a hinky-dink football game, held in a hinky-dink town, played by hinky-dink players.” (I guess we’ll never know how Lombardi really felt about the game.) In 2011, The New York Times interviewed Roger Brown, who won more Playoff Bowls than anybody else. He said the game gave him “the worst inferiority complex” and that “to have played in it in five of the 10 years it was in existence is pitiful.”
It’s entirely possible that this line of thinking would continue for a modern-day consolation game. Last week, the Saints lost the NFC championship game on the highest-profile blown call in football history, and the Chiefs lost the AFC championship game in an overtime in which their offense didn’t get to take the field. After two intensely demoralizing losses, it’s tough to imagine that either squad would be able to care about a third-place game even a little bit. But what if these teams used the game as an opportunity to reclaim a little bit of dignity after devastating defeats?
There’s a lot of pushback against the idea of giving out trophies to sports teams that did not win championships. “Participation trophies” have, somehow, turned into a culture war of extremely outsized importance in the United States. As Ricky Bobby said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” But as Ricky Bobby’s dad told him, “Son, that doesn’t make any sense at all. You can be second … third ... fourth … Hell, you can even be fifth!”
Nobody will mistake winning third place for winning the Super Bowl. They give out bronze medals at the Olympics, and nobody who wins one thinks they’ve won a gold medal. They make the podium lower for the third-place person and everything. Finishing third is an achievement that allows us to recognize the quality of a team while simultaneously explaining its eventual disappointment.
Can you think of any better way to describe the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars than “third-place-game winner?” Let them have this. It’s not like Jacksonville is going to win an actual Super Bowl anytime soon, and “Hey, remember when Blake Bortles got third place” would summarize the current era of Jagdom much better than “Hey, remember that one time Blake Bortles made the AFC championship game but lost?”
I know I’d watch the NFL third-place game. You know why? Because I’m a college football fan, and every year from roughly December 18 to roughly January 3, I hole up and watch 38 bowl games between teams that did not qualify for the College Football Playoff. These teams are not champions of anything besides the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl or the Cheez-It Bowl, but I watch, because competitive football between two teams is my favorite thing in the world.
Maybe this is a bad idea. It’s probable that participating teams wouldn’t care. And it would be kinda messed up to make athletes play an additional game of America’s most dangerous popular sport just to sort out third place. Even if teams did care, you have to imagine they’d bench their stars rather than risk injury to franchise players, so next week’s Saints-Chiefs game would probably feature Teddy Bridgewater and Chad Henne instead of Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes II.
But hey—it’s gotta be better than the Pro Bowl, right?