Don’t tell Marc Mariani that the Pro Bowl isn’t competitive … or physical.
“I got beat down on that day almost worse than I’ve ever gotten beat down in a game,” he said. “I had like, what, 12 returns? And I got thumped on every single one of them.
“To me, it was real competitive. To me, there was no slowing down. I remember London Fletcher just looking me up every single kick.”
Actually Mariani only returned nine kickoffs in the NFL’s all-star affair following his rookie season, 2010. Still, that was a Pro Bowl record. So were his 326 kickoff return yards for the AFC side that lost 55-41.
As it stands right now there is no danger either of those marks will fall anytime soon. Or ever.
The NFL on Wednesday approved several changes to the format of the game, which has come under criticism in recent years for a perceived lack of interest on the part of the participants.
Among those rules adjustments was the elimination of the kickoff. League officials decided instead that the offense simply would take possession at its own 25 in situations where a kickoff would have taken place.
“That’s too bad,” Mariani said. “It’s definitely a safety issue. Guys lay it on the line every Sunday for five months and it’s tough to go out there and risk that on an all-star game like that.”
Other changes to the format include:
• No longer will the contest be between representatives for the AFC and NFC. Rosters will still be made up of 43 players each but they will bet determined by a playground-style draft and the distribution will not be balanced by conference. For example, all six quarterbacks could come from a single conference.
• A two-minute warning will be added to the end of the first and third quarters. Possession automatically will change at the end of those periods.
• Defenses will be permitted to play press coverage or Cover 2, which expands their options from the straight man coverage that had been required for everything except goal line situations.
• The roster spot that had been used for a return specialist now will go to a defensive player.
“Just so the players are chosen the same way by their peers, by the coaching staffs, so the guys who should be picked in that should get the credit for having great seasons,” Titans coach Mike Munchak, a nine-time Pro Bowler during his 12-year Hall of Fame career, said. “Then after that, however they decide to make the game more interesting.”
The Titans have not sent a player to the Pro Bowl since the 2010 season. Mariani was one of four who went that year. The other three were running back Chris Johnson, safety Michael Griffin and defensive end Jason Babin.
Coincidentally, the record Mariani broke for kickoff returns in a single Pro Bowl was eight set following the 2003 season by Derrick Mason, who it that year as a wide receiver. Mason had been, however, a Pro Bowl return specialist three years earlier.
Now, Mariani’s only chance to return is to follow Mason’s example.
“I got a little taste of it and I definitely want to go back, but those are goals that are definitely after the team goals,” Mariani said. “… It’s a bummer, I think, to see [the spot for a return specialist] go.”
• Rookie center Brian Schwenke’s chance of earning a job as a starter continues to diminish. The fourth-round draft pick out of Cal has missed the last three days of workouts with a hamstring injury.
“Getting hurt kind of put him in a tough spot,” Munchak said. “Between Rob [Turner] and Fernando [Velasco] and [Chris] Spencer we have some players. I think we can win with all three of them. It’s just a matter of determining which one’s the best one to start with.”
• Wednesday afternoon’s workout was cut roughly 20 minutes short when approaching thunderstorms threatened the area.
“We got through about half of practice with the weather, then it was a matter of can we squeeze in the second half,” Munchak said. “We got most of it in.”