The 2016 Pro Bowl will kick off at 7:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, with five Tampa Bay Buccaneers ready to do battle. Logan Mankins, Gerald McCoy and Doug Martin will toil for Team Rice – named for team captain Jerry Rice – and they will oppose Lavonte David and Jameis Winston on Team Irvin (Michael Irvin, that is).
Pro Bowls are unpredictable because the rules are designed to avoid injury and acknowledge the fact that the game's participants have already been through a very grueling NFL season. That said, the competitiveness of 80-something professional football players tends to bubble to the surface once the ball is kicked off. The stakes may not be very high on Sunday night, but the entertainment value will be. Given that backdrop, here are a couple things to keep in mind:
1. Pro Bowl announcer Jon Gruden expects good things from Jameis Winston.
Jameis Winston is the first Tampa Bay rookie quarterback ever to make the Pro Bowl, and just the third rookie passer in NFL history to surpass 4,000 passing yards. Winston was one of the last players added to the all-star roster, but he probably won't be a stranger to the Pro Bowl. ESPN's Jon Gruden, who will be calling the game along with Mike Tirico, is bullish on Winston's NFL future.
"One thing that impresses me the most is how accurate and tough he is, under fire in the pocket," said Gruden. "I studied every complete pass – that's what I do, I grab quarterbacks and see where they're making their money. He's making a lot of difficult throws down the field under fire and he doesn't flinch. I'm really impressed with that. Big plays he's making down the field with people around him"
Gruden, of course, was the Buccaneers' head coach from 2002-08, and he guided the team to its first Super Bowl championship at the end of the '02 season. That 2002 team had veteran Brad Johnson at the helm, and the Bucs' 2007 playoff squad was led by veteran passer Jeff Garcia. Gruden's 2005 team also made the postseason, with Chris Simms under center, but Simms was a third-round pick who never really nailed down the job. It's no surprise that Gruden said with a laugh, about Winston, " I wish I had him."
There are plenty of former and current coaches who would like to build their teams around a young passer who combines talent and will like Winston does.
"What really impresses me is his mental toughness," said Gruden of Winston. "The guy will not go away. They're trailing against North Carolina, 38-10, late in the game, and he's still competing. I love that about him. I think he's going to bring out the best in his teammates. I've seen him here, I've talked to him here at the Pro Bowl, he's just got a confident vibe about him that's contagious. That's something you've got to have to be a great quarterback. His abilities, his charisma, intelligence, his work ethic – all those things combined give Tampa a lot to be excited about."
2. Some NFC South foes are going to be joining forces on Sunday.
Gerald McCoy and Cameron Jordan are teammates for the week, which might seem like a strange experience for a pair of division foes. McCoy and Jordan are part of a star-studded D-Line for Team Rice, a group that also includes Fletcher Cox, Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and Everson Griffen. The fact that McCoy and Jordan both play in the NFC South gives them an obvious reference point to begin with.
"I see him twice a year for the past four years…I'm not saying we're best friends but I think I know him," said Jordan of McCoy after the final Team Rice practice on Saturday. "He plays on the same side of the ball as me and I've always admired how well he's done, how much of a get-off he has. There's something inspirational the way he's been able to come through his career the way he has. Plus, I always like to have a D-Tackle like him on the inside, so I'm going to get a little taste of that in this game."
Jordan's desire to have an elite inside pass-rusher to complement his work is understanding. It's safe to say that McCoy would appreciate the same sort of give-and-take on his outside flank. Obviously, both the Buccaneers and Saints will be looking for ways to make their respective pass-rushes more complete in 2016. That shouldn't be a problem for Team Rice this weekend, however.
"We're just going to play off each other, which is going to be fun," said Jordan.
3. Buc fans should expect a more aggressive Tampa Bay defense in 2016.
How much can one really learn from a Pro Bowl, given the modified game rules? The end result often comes down to a series of deep balls that could go either way.
So, enjoy this instead: Here's Falcons Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant describing the coaching style of new Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. Smith drafted Trufant in the first round in 2013, when he was Atlanta's head coach.
"He's going to be aggressive, probably multiple packages," said Trufant of Smith. "He's a great coach, great teacher. I think there's going to be a lot of different blitzes, a lot of different looks and things like that, disguises, so it should be pretty good."