LB Derrick Brooks won the MVP award at the 2006 Pro Bowl.
Last January, the NFL's Pro Bowl left Hawaii for Orlando, Florida, relocating nearly 5,000 miles from its home for 35 of the previous 37 years. In a way, however, that game was more of a departure in style than location.
Amid concerns that the league's annual all-star game had become a glorified walk-through played at less than full speed, particularly in the trenches, something unexpected happened in the 2017 Pro Bowl: The defenses showed up. The AFC beat the NFC, 20-13, in the lowest-scoring Pro Bowl since the 1995 season, and the game generally featured a more competitive atmosphere than it had in years. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle had one of seven sacks by the NFC defense, albeit in a losing cause.
Last year's game could represent a turning of the tide in how the game is played. The Pro Bowl returned to its AFC vs. NFC format, which may have restored a bit of conference rivalry; whatever the cause, the 2017 showcase of NFL stars featured 33 combined points while the previous 10 Pro Bowls had averaged 72.9 combined points per game. This Sunday, McCoy and Buccaneer teammate Kwon Alexander will try to keep the Pro Bowl trending in a defensive direction, at least for the NFC.
Or perhaps last year's game was just an anomaly and Sunday's game will go back to the air-it-out and run-it-up style of most of the last two decades. After all, it's happened before, this one game dip into defensive dominance, and it did nothing to the overall scoring trend. The last time it happened, it was largely due to a trio of 30-something Buccaneers. In February of 2006, the Bucs' Killer Bs – Ronde Barber, Derrick Brooks and Josh Bidwell – helped turn the Pro Bowl following the 2005 season into a low-scoring slugfest.
View some of the top photos of LB Kwon Alexander from the 2017 season.
That was clear in the game's final score, 23-17, which is the equivalent of a 10-7 struggle in the regular season. It was even more clear in the postgame choice of MVP: Brooks. His 59-yard interception return for a touchdown was the game's decisive score and it made him the first defensive player in 18 years to take home Pro Bowl MVP honors.
The play was vintage Derrick Brooks, who in 2002 had become the first linebacker in NFL history with three pick-sixes in one season, a feat he amplified in the Super Bowl that year with another game-clinching touchdown return.
"How about our guy?" said Barber after the Pro Bowl MVP trophy went to his teammate. "He came up big, didn't he? That was just Derrick being Derrick."
In fact, it wasn't even Brooks' first Pro Bowl pick-six; he returned another one 20 yards for a score in the 2000 game, after the 1999 season. That touchdown was mostly just a footnote in another scoreboard-rolling Pro Bowl, as the NFC won, 51-31, and wide receiver Randy Moss topped 200 yards for MVP honors. The 2006 Pro Bowl was radically different, with neither team topping 300 yards of offense and no single reception going for more than 33 yards. Contrast that with the Pro Bowl from two seasons earlier, when the very first play of the game was a 90-yard touchdown catch by Chad Johnson on the way to a 55-52 final.
DT Gerald McCoy was selected to the 2018 Pro Bowl.
It's not like AFC quarterbacks didn't try to go deep. In fact, they did so repeatedly on simply fly patterns and pump-and-go routes. It's just that the NFC defense wasn't having it. Barber, in particular, was a menace on deep balls, breaking up three passes and denying one potential touchdown toss in the end zone. A steady rain throughout the first quarter also complicated matters for the AFC's passers, led by Peyton Manning, who was intercepted five times.
"Yeah, we managed a couple of breakups down the field," said Barber. "We got the feeling early that they were going to air it out, and they weren't messing around. They weren't even using double-moves, they were just flying deep. Unfortunately for them, the ball was a little slick due to the rain. You saw Peyton having some problems where the ball just got away from him. That and six or seven [combined] interceptions made the difference in the scoring output."
Even Bidwell, the first and only Buccaneer punter ever to play in the Pro Bowl, had a part in suppressing the scoring. He punted five times in the game and averaged an excellent 48.4 yards per boot. One of his kicks in the third quarter was downed about an inch from the goal line by Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, leading to an AFC punt from its own 14-yard line.
High-scoring Pro Bowl normalcy returned the next winter, with the AFC winning a 31-28 shootout. Point totals continued to increase from there, hitting 100 combined points five years later. It appeared there was no end in sight in this trend until last season's unexpectedly rugged battle. It remains to be seen if that same intense competition will return this Sunday when the AFC and NFC do battle again. If it does end up in another defensive struggle, perhaps it will once again be a small contingent of Buccaneers leading the way.