In attempt to attract more television viewers to the Pro Bowl and also make the game more appealing its players, the NFL and the players union on Wednesday announced major changes to spice up the game's format.
The NFL has eliminated the traditional AFC-NFC format in favor of one in which two fantasy football champions from NFL.com and two captains will each pick 43 players, regardless of which conference those players play in, out the pool of players voted into the game. Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders will be the captains for this season's Pro Bowl, which will be played in Honolulu on Jan. 26. The Pro Bowl draft will be held four days earlier.
"It sounds interesting. It sounds like a lot of fun," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I would just say that if you're a coach out there, you have to cross your fingers and hope your guy picks the best players."
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Pro Bowl voting has also been changed, as conference affiliation will no longer be considered in the selection process. For example, that means four or more of the six quarterbacks selected could be from the AFC.
The changes were proposed by NFL Players Association president and former Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth (Maryland).
Fullback Vonta Leach was one of six Ravens selected to last season's Pro Bowl but didn't participate because the team advanced to the Super Bowl. He found out about the changes to the Pro Bowl on Wednesday evening when a reporter asked him about the possibility of having to block a teammate such as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs in the all-star game.
"I guess when the time comes we'll see about that," Leach said. "I guess they're trying to make it more entertaining and get more fans to watch and be excited about it. We'll see."
Another noteworthy tweak to the game was the elimination of kickoffs as a safety measure. Harbaugh, who was once the special teams coach for the NFC in the Pro Bowl, said some of the marquee players he coached weren't exactly thrilled about being asked to cover kicks.
Now, "the special teams coach is going to bring his family out there and have a nice vacation," he said.
With kickoffs scrapped, the NFL also eliminated the return specialist Pro Bowl roster spot and replaced it with an additional roster spot at defensive back.
Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones was selected to the game in that capacity a season ago, but he didn't seem to be too bummed out when he heard about that change.
"I'd rather go to the Super Bowl, anyway," Jones said, shrugging his shoulders.
Other changes included adding a two-minute warning to the first and third quarters and possession changes at the end of each quarter.
Yanda's recovery remains on track
Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda is on track in his recovery after offseason shoulder surgery. Yanda has yet to suit up for an afternoon practice during training camp, but Harbaugh said Yanda has participated in morning walk-throughs and performed well. There is no timetable for his return, but Harbaugh expects him to return to full contact at some point during camp.
"We have a pretty good idea," Harbaugh said. "I don't want to put an exact date on it, but it will be into training camp pretty good. We're not in a rush with him. We're very much on schedule."
In other injury news, offensive lineman Ramon Harewood, who hasn't practiced since Saturday, saw a doctor about his knee. Harbaugh said Harewood, who has battled injuries to both knees throughout his career, received an injection but "should be ready to go when he gets back [Thursday]."
Rookie cornerback Marc Anthony left practice with a strained left shoulder, but Harbaugh said the injury is minor and that Anthony also should be back on the field soon.
Upshaw close to target weight
Courtney Upshaw has slimmed down since showing up overweight for the team's mandatory minicamp. He said he weighed 285 pounds in early June because he was dealing with personal issues. The outside linebacker has not reached his target weight, but Harbaugh is pleased with the improvement.
"He's played well," Harbaugh said. "He played really well during minicamp when he was carrying more weight. He's really taken a lot of the weight off. I don't have the exact number, but it's significantly down. It's very close to his target."
Ravens keeping score in practice
An addition to training camp this year has been a full scoreboard that can keep track of scoring, not just the time on the game clock and the play clock. Harbaugh and the coaching staff have been awarding points to either the offense or the defense throughout practice.
"The general philosophy is competing," Harbaugh said. "We are keeping score. We are competing in everything we do. And we want to get as good as we can get."
Defensive quality control coach Matt Weiss and football video operations coordinator Drew Wilkins watched the team's practice tape from the past two years and tape of NFL games to develop a scoring system based on NFL averages in certain situations. A successful play typically nets either the offense or the defense a point. But multiple points can be rewarded in high-leverage situations, such as a third-and-10 conversion for the offense.
An added benefit, Harbaugh said, is that "there's less room for arguing at the end because there's a scoreboard now."
Kicker Justin Tucker attempted a 71-yard field goal near the end of practice, but the kick came up a few yards short. Asked about Tucker's miss, Harbaugh deadpanned: "I was really disappointed with the 71-yard miss. We'll have to get in him the weight room after that." The NFL record is 63 yards. … Harbaugh said former Maryland tight end Matt Furstenburg has "really improved" since minicamp and is "playing himself into a possible opportunity to make the team." … Owner Steve Bisciotti attended a camp practice for the first time this summer.