Joseph, one of three offensive guards selected for the NFC squad in the National Football League’s all-star game Sunday night in Honolulu, Hawaii, entered the game to start his team’s second possession. That came just moments after Larry Fitzgerald’s 10-yard touchdown catch put the NFC up 7-0 in the first quarter, and just moments before Fitzgerald’s 44-yard scoring grab made it 14-0. (The Arizona star later added a third TD in the game’s closing minutes.)
In between was a surprise onside kick by the San Francisco 49ers’ David Akers, which was recovered for the NFC by Chicago’s Charles Tillman. On the first play of the drive, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers dropped back and threw deep to Fitzgerald over the middle for the long score. Joseph, manning the right guard spot he handles so well for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, dropped into pass protection but actually had no one to block. That’s good work for an offensive lineman if you can get it – one snap, no contact, touchdown.
Of course, Joseph would go on to play extensively, as he rotated at the two guard spots throughout the night with Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks of the New Orleans Saints. For instance, Joseph played right guard again on the NFC’s next drive, which ended in a fumble, then sat out one possession, then played left guard on the next two. On the second of those two drives, the NFC went back on top, 28-21, on Greg Jennings’ short touchdown catch, though the AFC tied the game again just before halftime.
Joseph did eventually have to work harder than he did on that first drive, but his initial experience in the game wasn’t exactly out of character for the Pro Bowl. While the game is contested by the sports’ elite talent, it is played under rules designed to minimize the possibility of injury. The pass-rush is largely negated and the vanilla pass coverages lead to non-stop one-on-one situations between receivers and defensive backs, with a quarterback enjoying plenty of time in the pocket. Passing yards and points abound; this year’s game ended in a 59-41 AFC win and nearly 1,000 combined yards through the air.
Joseph, who also played in the Pro Bowl following the 2008 season, his third in the NFL, saw victory elude him this time around as the NFC’s offensive struggled under rookie Cam Newton in the second half. The AFC outscored the NFC 31-13 in the second half, and Newton was intercepted three times, one returned for a touchdown by Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson. Four touchdown catches by Miami wide receiver Brandon Marshall, including one he caught lying on his back after it was nearly intercepted by the NFC’s Tillman and Earl Thomas, helped the AFC pull away.
Joseph’s first Pro Bowl ended in a 30-21 NFC victory, and Fitzgerald scored twice in that game, as well. The NFC and AFC are now tied all-time in all-star play, 21-21 (that obviously includes only the 42 Pro Bowls since the AFL-NFL merger).
There is incentive to win the Pro Bowl, even if the players sometimes emphasize the fun aspects of the game, as was seen early on. The NFC might have forged an even bigger lead in the first quarter after Clay Matthews’ interception came shortly after Fitzgerald’s second touchdown, but a series of pitches on the return eventually led to a fumble that gave the ball back to the AFC. The AFC would go on to knot the game at 14-14, followed by an exchange of TDs that led to the halftime tie.
The incentive is basically the bottom line. Every player in the Pro Bowl receives a game check, and those on the winning team take home $50,000, twice the share for the players on the losing squad. Joseph didn’t get the best share this time around, but he did play a majority of the game when the NFC was on offense.
In the second half, Joseph again started at right guard as the NFC got the ball first, but he ended up having to run in the opposite direction after Eric Waddle’s interception and long return off Newton, the Carolina Panthers’ impressive rookie quarterback. After an AFC field goal, Joseph stayed in at right guard on a drive that ended better for the NFC, with Newton hooking up with Panthers teammate Steve Smith for a 55-yard touchdown pass and a 35-31 lead.
Joseph’s role remained the same throughout the rest of the game, as he was essentially the “swing” guard, playing on both the left and right sides to spell Evans and Nicks and getting perhaps the most playing time of all three players. For instance, he moved to the left side following Smith’s touchdown and yet another successful onside kick by the NFC, though that drive too ended in a Newton interception. In all, Joseph was on the field for six of the NFC’s eight drives in the second half, as the lead swung back and forth and the players pursued that victor’s share.