View photos of DT Gerald McCoy and LB Kwon Alexander from Wednesday's Pro Bowl practice and Skills Challenge.
The last time it looked like the Pro Bowl could be turning a corner away from its ever-mounting offensive explosions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks was the game's MVP. That trend reversal didn't hold, as it turned out, but maybe it will this year, and Brooks could once again be the key.
Or, alternately, it could be the latest all-star Buccaneer linebacker who leads the way to a second straight hard-fought defensive struggle.
Brooks' got the MVP trophy (and the new car prize) in the 2006 Pro Bowl thanks to his decisive pick-six in the NFC's 23-17 win. That was the ninth of his 10 straight all-star games; he would play in an 11th and final Pro Bowl at the end of his last season as a player, the 2009 game after the 2008 campaign. Most of those games were wild shootouts, but the '06 contest proved to be an anomaly before scores bloomed again in the years that followed.
Until last January, that is. With Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recording one of the NFC's five sacks, the 2017 Pro Bowl was a tight, low-scoring affair, won by the AFC, 20-13. According to McCoy, it was not a current player but a former NFL star who sparked a more intense battle than usual. The game featured four "Legends Captains," two for each team, and one of them had a direct impact on the game's intensity level right before kickoff. McCoy isn't sure which of those four players it was – Ray Lewis, Jerome Bettis, Tony Gonzalez or Charles Woodson – but he makes a very reasonable guess that it was Lewis, an incredibly fiery competitor in his playing days.
"Last year, those pregame speeches were for real," said McCoy. "Whoever gave the speech on the AFC side gave a serious speech, so those guys came out humming. And being a professional and a competitor, you're not going to let anybody outdo you, so then it became a game. We had to bring it."
This year, it's Brooks who is serving as one of the four Legends Captains, along with fellow former Buccaneer Warrick Dunn on the NFC side. The AFC Legends are Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson. It remains to be seen if any of those four will have the right pregame words to inspire the current all-stars to greater effort, but all it will take is one side to bring the heat in order to get the other team to respond, as the NFC did last year.
That's where the newest Tampa Bay Pro Bowler comes in. Kwon Alexander is about to play in his first all-star game, and regardless of the quality of the pregame speech he plans to approach it with the same emotional intensity he shows every Sunday during the regular season. Buccaneer fans know what that looks like.
"You know how I play," said Alexander with a big smile after the NFC's practice on Wednesday. "I ain't about to go out there and play around. I'm trying to win this MVP and just show that I'm supposed to be here. I've been passed up for a couple years so I'm just trying to show that I'm supposed to be here."
View some of the top photos of LB Kwon Alexander from the 2017 season.
Alexander made his first Pro Bowl after his third NFL season, exactly like his predecessor did exactly 20 years ago. Brooks had four tackles in the 1998 Pro Bowl but the AFC edged his NFC crew, 29-24. Though he was a regular in Hawaii for a full decade of winters, Brooks didn't get his first Pro Bowl win until the 2000 game, in which he also had a pick-six. Alexander doesn't want to wait that long, particularly after a Buccaneer season that included fewer victories than most had anticipated.
"Yeah – you've got to win!" exclaimed the first-time all-star. "I don't want to lose! I want to win, so I'm going to go out there and play as hard as I can…well, some people are going to play as hard as they can. I've just got to get the 'W.'"
There's a difference in prize money for the players on the winning and losing teams, and that MVP trophy still comes with a car, so there are plenty of incentives for the Pro Bowlers to go all-out. However, there's also a prevailing feeling of mutual respect among the players, as well as a premium on avoiding injuries, so the game's intensity is always going to be tempered to some extent. McCoy, who has already played in five of them, knows that every Pro Bowl is a little different.
"We'll see," said the seasoned vet. "That's what I'm saying about this week – you've got to feel around for the tempo. If they're going, they're going. If they're not, then…"
The good news for Alexander is that he's already a winner thanks to the Pro Bowl invite he got just last week. The honor validates his own level of accomplishment on the playing field – notably, he's the only player in the league who has compiled at least 300 tackles, at least six sacks and at least six interceptions over the past three seasons – and also gives him a unique experience to mingle with the NFL's stars.
"It's amazing, man," said Alexander of the Pro Bowl experience. "I feel a part [of it]. I feel like I should have been here, so I'm just going to go out here and do my thing and have fun while I can. [I'll] just try to learn as much as I can, pick people's brains, especially a lot of vets, people who have been in the league a long time. Just go out here and enjoy myself. I made it, so I'm just going to enjoy myself, have fun with my family and friends.
"It's still all kind of new to me, so I'm just bringing it all in. I'm just out here having fun."