Mad skills at the Pro Bowl

Drifting through the channels on a Sunday afternoon, I wearily avoided the multitude of basketball games and pro-am golf events.

I’m not quite ready to accept that we’re stuck with one major sport until baseball starts. If months were ranked, February would easily be 12th, right? At least when you’re not skiing powder.

In my case, I was slouched on my couch, so I was happy to have my attention diverted by ESPN’s NFL Skills Challenge.

The National Football League’s biggest marketing problem is displaying the personalities of its faceless players, and the NFL Skills Challenge offers viewers the chance to get up close and personal with NFL players-who may or may not be stoned.

The best hands competition featured a host of the NFL’s best receivers facing off against machines that throw footballs 43 mph, which is the equivalent of a 90 mph fastball, whatever that means. It’s like saying, “Michael Phelps swam that lap at the equivalent of a 101 mph fastball.”

Anyway, Tony Gonzalez stops mid-drill and complains, “I’m not getting injured, that thing hurts my hands.” The competition awkwardly continued, as receiver after receiver was confused by machines that shot balls in the same exact place each time.

Chad Johnson, who the commentators explained did not take part in practice, proceeded to catch almost every single ball and informed a notably over-eager Suzy Kolber, “You gotta step back for the high one. That’s the key.”

ESPN then cut to the commentators while Johnson was still yapping into the camera. Three minutes later, they went back to Johnson, who apparently hadn’t ever stopped yelling, and he was in the middle of saying, “I’m zero. Zeros before one. That’s some new stuff right there.”

A tough act to follow, no doubt, but Daunte Culpepper did his Dixie Chicks-loving best in the QB accuracy competition, going 1 for 89 on a series of targets.

All I could think of was Antoine Walker’s 2003 three-point contest performance. Can we all accept the fact that Culpepper sucks yet? Averaging more than a fumble a game throughout his career? Annual meltdowns every December? Can you honestly say Daunte Culpepper is an upgrade from Jeff George?

Drew Brees predictably breezed through the drill, tossing softies like Barbara Walters.

Michael Vick followed Brees, occasionally pausing to throw as he walked from booth to booth. He didn’t realize that the drill was timed until the audience began yelling the countdown at him, at which point he frantically starts firing gorgeous deep balls at the furthest target.

Which proved, once again, that Michael Vick is an incredible athlete-and that he might be slightly mentally deficient.

After Vick’s debacle, ESPN cuts to Kolber and Brees, who is all smiles and looks like Tom Cruise in “Cocktails,” except with rooster crap on his face.

Brees tells Kolber: “Try to picture your favorite guy, and put it right through the hole.”

From that gem we go to the unquestionably virile Darrel Green, who is due to compete in the fastest-man competition.

He already competed in the Dan Marino/Steve Young old-timers game, which Young won and acted like he had just won another Super Bowl title, leading to an uncomfortable silence in the post-game interview. Kolber seemed overwhelmed by the thought that anybody could seem more senselessly exuberant than her.

Green was a force in the old-timers game, despite not having been anywhere near the caliber of player as anybody else on the field. He’s really milking the whole “still fast as an ex-player” thing, especially since he was actually in the NFL a couple of years ago. I’m not sure why he should be a story to anybody at this point.

Michael Vick, on Darrel Green: “That’s all I remember growing up: Darrel Green is the fastest guy in the NFL.”

Yes, folks, that’s a good FOOT-ball mind right there.

Green loses in the first round, and Allan Rossum, who aspires to be Darrel Green, wins easily. Junior Seau, a “sideline reporter” for the afternoon, is clearly dogging it on interviews, barely able to suppress a laugh at his actually being a member of the media for the day.

La’Roi Glover then won the strength competition, which was the only letdown of the day, if only because nobody actually extended his elbows-as the rules clearly stated-and nobody really completed a single rep the entire time.

Regardless, I’d consider the overall event a glowing success, and the NFL should take steps to offer more personal access to players. HBO unfortunately stopped doing its excellent “Hard Knocks” series, probably because Jerry Jones single-handedly creeped-out the entire viewer base of the show.

Wiring NFL players for sound during games is still a popular feature, however, especially when Ray Lewis or Randy Moss is prominently involved.

The Pro Bowl should be the DVD bonus feature of the NFL season, not the credits. Maybe next year the NFL will forgo the actual Pro Bowl game, which has never interested anybody, and focus exclusively on a skills competition. This is the stuff I want to see. Plus, February’s screwed anyway.

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