Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A lighthearted lead-up to Pro Bowl's Orlando debut

LAKE BUENA VISTA — No helmets, no pads, no running, no worries.

Practices for the Pro Bowl are a seriously low-key affair, and the first three days at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex saw the NFL's biggest stars in bucket hats and T-shirts, jogging through routes and enjoying a light week of preparation for tonight's game at Camping World Stadium.

At one point Friday morning, Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott traded shirts with Vikings cornerback and former Florida State standout Xavier Rhodes, dropped into coverage on Dallas teammate Dez Bryant and was outleaped for a touchdown. Moments earlier, the NFC's top defensive linemen were practicing their own fade routes in the opposite end zone.

"Guys were asking, 'Do we have to wear cleats to practice?' No, just enjoy it," said Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, named to his fifth Pro Bowl in his seven seasons. "This is the best of the best, and the NFL is allowing us to do this. They're not going to do anything to risk us getting hurt."

The Pro Bowl, a fixture in Hawaii for 36 years, has seen its share of change in recent years — this is the first of three games in Orlando, and the format has shifted back to its traditional NFC vs. AFC showdown after three years with players "drafted" against each other.

Since 2010, the game has been played the weekend before the Super Bowl, rather than after, so the best players from the Falcons and Patriots aren't part of this year's game.

The Pro Bowl has been synonymous with Hawaii, its home in all but two games from 1980 to 2016, but it called Los Angeles home for most of its existence until 1970. It rotated around the country in the 1970s, stopping in Tampa in 1978.

This year's arrival in Orlando coincided with a new skills competition, shown as a one-hour program on ESPN — players trying to catch footballs dropped from drones 125 feet above them, quarterbacks trying to hit moving targets 40 yards downfield in an accuracy challenge and other events.

The Pro Bowl has been well-received in Orlando, as the NFL announced Friday that the game was sold out (the former Citrus Bowl seats 65,000) and $20 "standing room only" tickets were added and also sold out (those proceeds go to charity). Players took part in the afternoon parade at Disney World on Friday and took in other amusement parks.

Can the game avoid another drop in TV ratings? Last year's Pro Bowl drew a 5.0 overnight rating on ESPN, down for the fifth year in a row and down significantly from a 6.7 rating in 2014, its last year on NBC, and well below midseason all-star games for baseball (7.8) and basketball (5.5) in 2016.

As the game battles to show it still belongs as part of the NFL's annual calendar, picking up ground in the ratings game will go a long way.

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