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Pro Bowl Review

It’s that time of year again. As the regular season winds down, above-average teams jockey to make the post-season. December can be one of the most exciting times of the season for fans whose teams have a shot at the playoffs. December can also be the least gratifying time of the season for fans of mathematically-eliminated teams, who continue to watch every Sunday knowing that winning games means nothing and losing still hurts. For the latter group, the best consolation is having favorite players selected to the Pro Bowl. I contend that the Pro Bowl serves no purpose other than to entertain fans whose post-season asperations have been dashed and to recognize the most dominant players of the year. The Pro Bowl game itself has become so inconsequential that many fans skip watching it all together; nevertheless, a chorus of complaints and over-analysis of high-profile “snubs” ensues as soon as the NFL announces the Pro Bowl rosters each year. Every team’s fan sites launch into lamentations about their underappreciated stars who inexplicably missed the cut (which I will do shortly).

In theory, the Pro Bowl rewards individual performances, allowing the elite players on the worst teams to gain recognition. Football, however, is the consummate team sport. In practice, even the most talented athletes have difficulty distinguishing themselves when relying on a supporting cavalcade of losers. It’s no surprise that the Pro Bowl rosters are stacked with players from winning teams. This year 7 Falcons, 6 Patriots, 5 Eagles, 5 Ravens, and 5 Packers will play in Hawaii. Only one Redskin, cornerback DeAngelo Hall, will join them. Though Hall was the sole Washington player selected, his teammates LaRon Landry, Brian Orakpo, London Fletcher, Mike Sellers, and Brandon Banks also played Pro Bowl or nearly Pro Bowl-level football this year.

For the first 10 weeks of the season, Redskin LaRon Landry played the best strong safety in the league. The new 3-4 defense suited him so well that Coach Mike Shanahan said, “I thought the first half of the season, he’d be [the NFL’s defensive] MVP with the way he was playing.” After 9 games, a nagging achilles tendon injury sidelined Landry. The tendon took much longer than expected to heal, forcing the Redskins to place him on injured reserve in mid-December, ending his season. Landry’s stat line would be impressive for a full season, but as a 9 game accomplishment it is incredible. He tallied 85 combined tackles, 1 sack, 8 passes defended, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble. His breakout season, though short, impressed so many people that Landry led fan Pro Bowl voting at the strong safety position. Unfortunately, players listed on injured reserve do not appear on coaches’ and players’ Pro Bowl ballots, making Landry ineligible even if his tendon could mend itself by Janurary 30th. Arizona’s Adrian Wilson will take Landry’s place as starting strong safety for the NFC. Wilson started 15 games, recording 84 combined tackles, 2 sacks, 7 passes defended, and 2 interceptions.

Washington’s outside linebacker Brian Orakpo appeared in the Pro Bowl in 2009, but missed the cut this year for a variety of factors out of his control. The players selected, Green Bay’s Clay Matthews, Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware, and Chicago’s Lance Briggs, proved stiff competition at the OLB position. Matthews started in 14 games, recorded 58 combined tackles, 12.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, 1 interception for 62 yards and a touchdown, and 2 forced fumbles. Ware started 15 games, recorded 61 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 1 pass defended, and 2 forced fumbles. Briggs started 14 games, recorded 80 combined tackles, 2 sacks, 7 passes defended, 2 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles. Orakpo performed nearly as well this season. He started 14 games, recorded 52 combined tackles, 8.5 sacks, 2 passes defended, and 1 forced fumble. He finished ahead of last year’s performance in tackles but lagged in sacks.

Getting used to the 3-4 defensive scheme may have slowed Orakpo slightly, but the repeated holds on him hindered his play most. Redskins fans, reporters, coaches, and players have watched opposing teams hold Brian Orakpo all year long. Too often the referrees are the only people on the field who don’t see it. Only a few weeks ago, a Tampa Bay Buccaneer hooked his forearm around Orakpo’s neck as Orakpo rushed toward the quaterback for what would have been a sack. The hold was so obvious and egregious, the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg posted a photograph of it on his blog. The referrees again missed the call. When asked about the play, a frusterated Orakpo said, “I’ve been held all season. I don’t understand it. I keep saying, I’ve got to keep fighting through it, keep fighting, but I mean, when you’re getting held like this, it’s ridiculous. They’ve got back judges there for a reason, and for them to tell me that he wasn’t looking at the play, he was looking downfield? We’ve got downfield judges for that. He’s the backfield judge.” Coach Shanahan agreed, saying that Orakpo “was mugged.” Though excessive holding may have kept Brian Orakpo from having a Pro Bowl season, resolving the issue moving forward is of much greater concern to the franchise.

Middle linebacker London Fletcher, whose character and performance make him one of the most beloved Redskins, also missed the Pro Bowl after being selected in 2009. Despite his age, few players make a bigger impact on defense than London Fletcher. He has played a consistently elite level of football for his entire career, but rarely recieves the recognition he deserves. This year’s Pro Bowl is no exception. San Francisco’s Patrick Willis and Chicago’s Brian Urlacher were selected to play middle linebacker. Willis started 15 games, recorded 128 combined tackles, 6 sacks, 5 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles. Urlacher started 15 games and recorded 120 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, 10 passes defended, 1 interception, and 2 forced fumbles. Both impressive showings to be sure, but no more impressive than Fletcher’s. London started in 15 games, recorded 127 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, 11 passes defended, 1 interception, and 3 forced fumbles. He also accomplished those numbers while transitioning to a 3-4 defense. Whether he’s a 2010 Pro Bowler or not, I’d choose London Fletcher for my team over Brian Urlacher or Patrick Willis any day.

Washington struggled on offense all season, but one bright spot was fullback Mike Sellers. He often came through for the Redskins in critical situations and, in my opinion, played among the league’s best at fullback. Sellers proved an excellent blocker and an able receiver. He rushed for only 2 yards on 4 attempts, but caught 19 passes for 215 yards. Despite Sellers’ performance, Atlanta’s Ovie Mughelli was chosen as the NFC Pro Bowl fullback. Mughelli rushed for 28 yards on 11 carries and caught 13 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown. Because Sellers had less success running the ball in a more traditional fullback role, Mughelli had the edge to make the Pro Bowl.

Last, but not least, Brandon Banks had an exceptional rookie season that bordered on Pro Bowl caliber. On special teams, no player has equalled Chicago’s Devin Hester’s success. Hester was selected to his third Pro Bowl this year and anyone looking at his return numbers can see why. He played in 15 games and returned 12 kicks for 427 yards, with a 35.6 yard average, a 79 yard long, 9 returns of over 20 yards, and 5 of over 40 yards. He returned 31 punts for 529 yards, with a 17.1 yard average, a 89T yard long, 3 touchdowns, 9 returns of over 20 yards, 5 returns of over 40 yards, and 9 fair catches. Washington rookie returner Brandon Banks showed Hester-esque promise this season. I’m adding the two touchdowns that were nullified by penalty to Banks’ statistics to better reflect his actual performance. He returned 43 kicks for 1,180 yards, with a 27.4 yard average, 96T yard long, 2 touchdowns, 32 returns of over 20 yards, 4 returns of over 40 yards, and a single fumble. He also returned 35 punts for 435 yards, with a 12.4 yard average, 77T yard long, 1 touchdown, 5 returns of over 20 yards, 2 returns of over 40 yards, 10 fair catches, and a single fumble. If nothing else, Banks’ season proves that the Redskins have a real talent at their disposal.

Though the Pro Bowl is largely irrelevant, fans feel the sting when their favorite players are overlooked. The Redskins who were left out may not get the recognition they deserve elsewhere, but they certainly will here.

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