Eleven players take part in Alabama’s pro day

Alabama had its pro day on April 11. Workouts were held indoors on FieldTurf. Eleven players from Alabama participated.

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Getting to know the men behind the masks

With all the money, fame and attention bestowed upon NFL players it is easy to forget that even at the Pro Bowl — where all-stars are recognized for extraordinary performance on the field — off of the field they are still a group of ordinary young men. They are sons, brothers, husbands and fathers, who laugh at and worry about the same things as the rest of us. In the short period of time since the players arrived in Hawaii on Tuesday afternoon there have been constant reminders of that for those of us working closely with them.

In my last NFL.com blog, I mentioned that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who has been selected to his 12th Pro Bowl squad this year, usually gives a side-splitting speech at a meeting, which all players and coaches attend upon arrival. He did not disappoint this year, but before he got into the jokes, he told a personal story that made a big impact. He talked about the first time he attended the Pro Bowl when he was four years old, and his father — New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning — was selected. He also spoke about the 12 all-star games he has played in since. He explained that during that time he has been fortunate to take the field with seven guys who later were inducted into the Mobile Advertising Pro Football Hall of Fame, and described how profoundly both of those experiences had shaped his life.

Manning reminded the room — a mixture of rookies and veterans — that it is an honor to play in the Pro Bowl, and that they have a responsibility not only to each other and the fans to play hard, but also to the players that would come behind them. You could feel the room buzzing with energy, each guy looking at the next thinking “we cannot be the ones responsible for this game ending.” It was very moving, and a great example of why Manning is regarded as the “Patriarch of Pro Bowl.” Always the comedian, he then went on to leave the room in stitches with an assortment of jokes that poked fun at just about everyone.

It struck me how ordinary the scene was as he read a list of which offensive linemen and heavy-set coaches should be barred from taking their shirts off at the pool, and showed a YouTube clip called “The NFL: A Bad Lip Reading”, which I had heard many of my own friends talking about earlier that day.

I was again reminded of how normal these guys are on Wednesday night at the player hotel, when I went to set up their welcome reception. Following a traditional Polynesian luau, the Grammy award-winning band Train was set to play a private acoustic concert, and we had decided to build a floating stage over the pool. As we began to construct it I glanced around to take in the scene. There was New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning building a sand castle with his little girl. His older brother Peyton looked on smiling, before walking over to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who was holding court with some younger guys at the bar, to embrace him warmly. Nearby was Denver Broncos head coach John Fox telling someone that he could guarantee his team “was going to show up” on Sunday.

On the opposite side of the pool, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was bringing his wife a cool drink, and rushing past was New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who politely said “excuse me” as he bumped into me trying to open the door for someone else’s grandmother, after painfully and publicly losing his own last year.

How many parents have failed miserably trying to build a sand castle? How many of us have watched our siblings with pride, or lost a job or opportunity that we desperately wanted due to illness or injury, only to try to rise above it? How many of us have been devastated by a life lost only to use that pain as a daily reminder to take care of those still with us? Is there any football team in history where offensive linemen are not subject to ridicule?

On Thursday, the Pro Bowl players will take that same positive energy and invest it back into the local community. First, they have a joint AFC-NFC practice at Hickam Air Force Base near Pearl Harbor, where they will honor and mingle with active soldiers and Wounded Warriors. Afterward they will split up and go to a variety of community events around the island and interact with disadvantaged youth. On Friday, they will do it again when they host a large contingent of Make-A-Wish families at practice at their hotel, making dreams come true for terminally ill children.

Well-paid for playing a game? Yes. Blessed with tremendous opportunity? Absolutely. But different from us on the most fundamental levels? Not in my opinion.

Make sure you tune in to NBC on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET to watch these guys defend their all-star game, and learn a little more about the men behind the masks.

Erin Casey

Pro Bowl: The Super Bowl’s crazy cousin

The NFL has landed in Hawaii to begin final preparations for what might be the last Pro Bowl game ever played. For those of us who work it, this is our baby, and we are pulling out all the stops to give the game its best possible chance to succeed.

Two critical pieces that will help determine the decision whether to continue playing the All-Star game are ticket sales, and the performance of the athletes on the field. The latter is out of our hands, but we have good reason to hope. The players fought hard to keep this game — and keep it in Hawaii — during the last round of labor negotiations, and they are well aware that their physical effort is what will be judged by Commissioner Roger Goodell. Recent comments from players such as Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who has promised he will be “playing hard,” have been encouraging.

Aside from ticket sales, there are many other projects we are working hard on. In addition to overseeing our hotel block of more than 500 rooms, and our credentials, of which we issue approximately 7,500, my primary focus is to make sure that the Pro Bowl players and their families have a great experience while they are in Hawaii. From the minute they touch down at Honolulu Airport we want them to feel the “Aloha Spirit.”

The best part about Pro Bowl is that the atmosphere is very relaxed. It’s almost like Super Bowl’s crazy cousin. Players come out here to celebrate with their families and each other, and there are always a lot of laughs. The comedy usually begins at the ‘Mandatory Player Meeting,’ on Tuesday when all the guys get into town. This is probably the only NFL meeting in history that most of the guys bring beers to. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who has been selected to the All Star squad for the 12th time this year, is usually the ring leader. After various official speeches from NFL and NFL Player Association representatives, Manning has been known to give a hilarious account of what he thinks the guys should expect during Pro Bowl week. My favorite was probably the time when he pretended to warn the guys not to play pranks on each other, such as sending large amounts of unrequested room service to each other, and then proceeded to give out a few of the players’ room numbers. I can’t wait to see what he has planned for this year, especially since his little brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who he loves to pick on, will be joining us as well.

Once everyone has arrived, the first official event for the players is a Welcome Reception on Wednesday night. I have been responsible for managing that party for the past five years, and try to make sure that it always feels fresh and different, but one thing I have come to expect is that the party takes on a life of its own. I have seen everything from former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips leading a giant conga line, to Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White doing “The Worm,” to Donovan McNabb dismissing the deejay I hired so that he could spin the turn tables himself, and New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker attempting to spin on his head break dancing.

At first I was a little stumped about how to make this year’s party special, because last January we put on a show with some of surfing’s most elite professionals, including legend Kelly Slater, which was a big hit. But I think we’ve nailed it by hiring the Grammy award-winning band Train to play a private concert on a sleek, modern stage built over the pool and LED lights. One thing I’ll be sure to do is take down the cat walk to the stage down when the show is over, so that we don’t end up with any break dancing players in the pool by accident.

Only time will tell what will happen at the welcome party, and some of the other special events we’ve created — which I’ll detail more in later blogs –but one thing is for sure, in the meantime there is plenty of work to do. Stay tuned for more updates in the next two weeks!

Erin Casey

Marshall steals the show

A few observations after the AFC ran away with the 2012 Pro Bowl, 59-41:

Despite the final score, the NFC was in this to win this from the start. Following a 10-yard TD from Aaron Rodgers to Larry Fitzgerald, Mike McCarthy surprsied the AFC with an onside kick. Charles Tillman recovered and Rodgers connected with Fitzgerald on the very next play for a 44-yard touchdown.

Then, unbelievably, they did it again early in the third quarter. This one was receovered by long snapper Brian Jennings.

Didn’t anybody tell these guys it’s the Pro Bowl? …

As tends to be the case in these games, turnovers were abundant. I count eight total: Five from the NFC (three INTs, two fumbles) and three from the AFC (two INTs, one fumble). …

I sat one row back from Dog the Bounty Hunter in the press box. All right (name dropper).

But Dog took off midway through the third quarter. I’m guessing he wasn’t going to catch any bad guys. …

Is it just me, or does Fitzgerald own these games? He had four receptions for 70 yards to go with his two scores in the first half.

Brandon Marshall was giving Fitz a run for his money though, with two catches — both touchdowns — totaling 103 yards in the first half. That included a 74-yard touchdown catch from Ben Roethlisberger.

Marshall’s day included the play of the game on a 47-yard bomb from Andy Dalton in the third quarter. Marshall collided with a couple of DBs around the 5, sending him sprawling on his back into the end zone. The ball deflected off one defender, then again off Marshall’s left leg and straight into his waiting arms as he lay in the end zone.

Marshall then outdid himself in the fourth quarter, making an impressive one-handed touchdown catch, falling down in the corner of the end zone. For those of you counting at home, Marshall finished with six catches, 176 yards and four touchdowns. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your MVP. …

Not to be outdone, Fitzgerald reappeared in the fourth quarter on a 36-yard touchdown catch with 2:37 left. Too little, too late, though Fitzgerald finished with six catches for 111 yards and three touchdowns. …

– Immaculate reception it was not: A first-quarter Rodgers pass batted down at the line of scrimmage landed back into the quarterback’s hands, with only Bucs DT Geno Atkins there to take him down 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, leading to this play chart:

A.Rodgers pass short left to A.Rodgers to NFC 19 for -15 yards.

Any suggestion that this game should be played outside of Hawaii should be put to bed. All due respect, no “mainland” (as they like to call it here), crowd would ever be as into an exhibition game as they are here. As in need of an update as Aloha Stadium might be, the size of the venue lends a sense of intimacy to those on hand. And there are no luxury boxes. No corporate Miami crowd would bring it like these folks do. This is their Super Bowl and they cherish it. …

Steve Smith was raving about Cam Newton before the game, and he showed why in the third quarter, catching a 55-yard pass from Newton, which traveled all 55 yards in the air. Sometimes Newton makes it look so easy, putting it on the money halfway down the field with just a flick of the wrist.

The sometimes he looks like, well, a rookie. Despite what was probably a better roster of talent (completely subjective observation, of course) the NFC ran out of bullets once Rodgers and Drew Brees took to the bench. That led to a Newton vs. Dalton second half in which Newton showed his inexperience, misfiring on a number of throws, including three interceptions. He definitely heard it from the crowd, too.

In the end, Dalton outplayed his rookie counterpart, finishing seven of nine for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Newton finished nine of 27 for 186 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.

To be fair, Newton’s first interception was not his fault, going through his receivers hands and into those of Chargers safety Eric Weddle. But the second was telegraphed to Texans CB Johnathan Joseph in the third quarter when the NFC had a chance to go up by two scores. And the last one was just a lazy pass into the hands of Weddle once again, who lateraled it back to Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson, who took it back 60 yards for the score. …

The dearth of penalties called (I’m not even sure the refs brought  flags to the game) made for an entertaining gameflow, with minimal stoppage. But Marshawn Lynch tried to get away with one in the third. As he was being taken down on a short run, Lynch casually flipped the ball to Newton … who was standing well in front of the RB. You’re better than that, Marshawn.

– Aron Angel

Watch: Eagles’ McCoy wired for sound

LeSean McCoy was wired for sound during Saturday’s practice and he took his job seriously.

The Eagles RB does his best to play reporter, hitting up Aaron Rodgers on the MVP race, Mike McCarthy on the Packer representation in the Pro Bowl and Jimmy Graham on his days as a basketball phenom.

Pro Bowl outtake: Do the Raji dance

One more outtake from Thursday’s practice, where Packers DT B.J. Raji was caught on camera teaching one soldier how to do the Raji dance.

What’s that, you ask? watch to find out.

Pro Bowl outtake: McGahee fires back at Ravens fan

HONOLULU — A couple of short, but sweet leftovers from Thursday’s Pro Bowl practice at Hickam Air Force Base.

Broncos RB Willis McGahee was wired for sound during the practice and while he signing autographs afterward. That’s when a Ravens fan used the opportunity to take a shot at McGahee’s quarterback, Tim Tebow.

McGahee was a good sport, but didn’t hesitate to fire back.

“That’s not nice,” he told the fan. “That’s like saying if you had a better kicker, you’d have won.”

Players keen on winning share of Pro Bowl stakes

HONOLULU — While the Pro Bowl is all about having a good time and putting on a good show, don’t think for a second that taking home the winner’s share (approximately $50,000 for the winning team and $25,000 for the losers, according to the players) isn’t on everyone’s mind.

Heck, Tony Gonzalez closed Wednesday’s practice with this platitude: “We don’t want to lose money, Let’s win, on three …”

To that end, most players aren’t shy about wanting to get that extra $25,000 Sunday afternoon.

“I think guys, for the first few quarters, they come out and have a good time,” Chargers TE Antonio Gates said Saturday. “But when the fourth quarter arrives, people start thinking ‘Wow, I’ve been here for a week and I’ve spent this and all the incidentals.’ So another $50,000 seems a lot better than $25,000.”

Vikings LB Chad Greenway didn’t argue with that.

“Its huge,” he said. “Obviously you come out here to win for your conference, but winning that bonus money is pretty nice.”

That money goes even further for younger players like Saints TE Jimmy Graham.

“The extra $25,000 wouldn’t hurt, especially for a young talent like myself,” Graham said. “I don’t get paid like the rest of these guys do.”

Like Gates, Packers WR Greg Jennings says it all comes down to the fourth quarter.

“First three quarters keep it fun, but when the fourth quarter comes, that’s when it all factors in,” Jennings said. “You’ve got to keep it close, but we’re not worried about keeping it close. We’ll take care of that.”

Jennings clearly wasn’t watching last year’s Pro Bowl, in which the NFC led 42-0 in the second quarter (to be fair he was probably preparing for the Super Bowl). But facing the like of Steelers LB James Harrison, Jennings appears far more concerned with staying safe during what could be an intense fourth quarter.

“He’s been forewarned already,” Jennings said of Harrison. “Don’t touch me. Do not touch me.”

– Aron Angel

NFC keeps things light — and tricky — on Ohana Day

HONOLULU — It was Ohana (family) Day at Aloha Stadium on Saturday, offering local fans a chance to watch the AFC and NFC squads go through their final preparations for Sunday’s Pro Bowl.

A casual atmosphere (casual, of course, being a relative term) pervaded Saturday’s practices, with cheerleaders and mascots roaming the sidelines, and in some cases taking the field with the players.

Packers WR Greg Jennings took his turn at quarterback for the NFC on Saturday. (Kirby Lee/US Presswire)

While the AFC continued to keep things strictly business, the NFC again toyed with various offensive alignments and formations.

Continuing a theme from Thursday’s practice, Panthers QB Cam Newton got in a little more work at wide receiver, handing off a reverse to WR Steve Smith before turning upfield and catching a touchdown pass from his teammate.

Newton lined up wide left on the next play, with WR Greg Jennings taking the shotgun snap. Jennings looked to Newton in the corner of the end zone, but his pass came up woefully short and was intercepted by Seahawks CB Brandon Browner.

Jennings was back in shotgun on the final play of practice while his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, lined up wide left. Instead, RB Marshawn Lynch took a handoff up the middle.

All of this, of course, is to be taken with a grain of salt. While it would not be a surprise to see Newton catching a few passes on Sunday, keep in mind that Jackson DeVille and Freddie Falcon — the Jaguars’ and Falcons’ mascots, resepctively — also lined up wide left a couple times during practice.

The only difference is the mascots were waived off by Newton.

– Aron Angel

Pro Bowlers talk Manning, legacies

With Peyton Manning‘s end in Indianapolis coming sooner or later, NFL.com’s Jeff Darlington spoke to some Pro Bowlers to find out what it means for players and fan bases when a legendary player finally moves on.

“As was the case with Brett Favre and Joe Montana, two players who were replaced by younger quarterbacks before they deemed their careers dead, the dramatics of their final years in Green Bay and San Francisco were necessary in the moment of negotiations but irrelevant in the overall determination of their legacies,” Darlington writes.

Watch: B.J. Raji wired for sound

Watch as B.J. Raji shows off how it’s done during Pro Bowl week.

The Packers defensive lineman takes in the sounds of the NFC’s Friday practice.

Forte patiently waiting for new Bears GM, new deal

Matt Forte during NFC practice. (Perry Knotts/NFL)

OAHU, Hawaii — Matt Forte sounds like a man who believes he’ll be playing in Chicago next season, albeit with a lot of changes.

With his rookie contract set to expire, Forte is waiting for the Bears to hire a new general manager to replace Jerry Angelo — fired earlier this month — so he can begin working with the team on a new deal.

When that’s complete, Forte will get to work learning the new offense under former offensive line coach Mike Tice, replacing departed offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

“It will be something new,” Forte said. “There’ll be some changes that we have to get used to. But I’m looking forward to getting a deal done, first of all, and when that happens, getting in there and learning a new system.”

Until then, Forte is enjoying his first trip to Hawaii as a member of the NFC’s Pro Bowl Squad, waiting for word from his agent.

“I’m just being patient,” Forte said. “Just waiting to see who they name as GM, and I’m excited to go from there.”

Watch: McGahee wired for sound

In case you missed it, Broncos RB Willis McGahee wore a microphone during Wednesday’s practice.

Watch as McGahee yucks it up with his AFC teammates in preparation for Sunday’s Pro Bowl.

Miller wins battle with a Marlin

Von Miller stretches at practice. (Perry Knotts/NFL)

OAHU, Hawaii — Von Miller is making the most of his time here in Hawaii as one of the few rookies fortunate enough to be invited to the Pro Bowl.

Miller might not be guaranteed much field time come Sunday, but he most likely already recorded his greatest accomplishment of the week when he reeled in a 250-pound blue Marlin during a deep-sea fishing trip Tuesday.

“It was incredible, it was like having to fight with this thing for 40 minutes,” Miller said. “We caught a sailfish after that. It’s about 110 pounds.”

So based on his battle with the Marlin, Miller said it’s fair to assume his surgically-repaired right thumb is fine.

“Yeah, it’s feeling good,” Miller said. “I got a little brace and it’s feeling a lot better.”

A few other things we learned about Miller this week:

  • The  Broncos rookie has been hauling around some heavy-duty camera equipment as he films an autobiographical documentary, what he describes as a “first-person point of view type of thing.”
  • If you watch Miller’s Broncos teammate Willis McGahee mic’d up from Wednesday’s practice, you’ll learn two things about Miller:
  1. He’s related to Boobie Miles, the subject of “Friday Night Lights.” No, not NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” the original H.G. Bissinger book, “Friday Night Lights: A Town and a Team,” about the high school football team from Odessa, Texas.
  2. Miller doesn’t wear those thick-framed glasses to make a fashion statement. He needs them. As McGahee puts it, “He blind.”

– Aron Angel

Lewis: ‘Everybody wants that one thing’

OAHU, Hawaii — Ray Lewis has done this before. Twelve times. But only once — following the 2000 season — has he been a guest here in Hawaii as a Super Bowl champion.

However, after 16 seasons in the NFL, Lewis is at peace with his status — as what many consider the best ever to play linebacker, and as a regular visitor to Honolulu as a runner-up.

“The thing is, everybody wants that one thing. Everybody wants to touch glory,” Lewis said Thursday in an interview with NFL Network. “When you’ve been there, you always try to explain to them what it feels like, what it takes to get there. And then when you get guys in their older years — Ed (Reed) and (Terrell) Suggs and all those guys — it really hurts. It’s like, ‘Aah!’ Yeah, we didn’t get there this year, but there’s only one champion at the end of the day.”

Lewis has been receiving accolades for a post-game speech he made to his teammates in the wake of a painful loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. His message was simple: Falling short of the ultimate goal doesn’t mean the Ravens’ journey wasn’t worthwhile.

“The way y’all feeling this week, somebody’s feeling like that tonight, somebody’s going to feel like that in two weeks and that’s all it is,” Lewis said of his message.” So I had to take that road because I’ve been there. I’ve been on both sides of it, and to see my team fight so well, I’m like, ‘Don’t discredit what we’ve done.’ “

Ravens guard Ben Grubbs said Lewis’ message was meaningful because of who it came from.

“To hear those words come from him, it really means something,” Grubbs said. “He really put everything into perspective … He was like, ‘How great is your pain?’ that pain we were experiencing after the loss. ‘How great is it?’ It’s not that great, when you think about the lives that are being lost around the world. It kind of puts things into perspective.”

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