When the Pro Bowl fan voting concluded earlier this week, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith seemed heavily favored to be named to a Pro Bowl roster for the first time in his five-year NFL career.
After signing a big deal with the Packers in the offseason, Smith has exceeded expectations as a stalwart on their defensive line and a veteran presence in the locker room. He has also proved to be a perfect fit with fellow pass rusher Za’Darius Smith, who has also thrived since joining in free agency, giving the Packers one of the most dangerous pass-rush duos in the NFL.
And yet, the Smith Bros. — as they’ve taken to calling themselves — were snubbed when Pro Bowl rosters were unveiled Tuesday night and lost out to Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett, Arizona’s Chandler Jones and Chicago’s Khalil Mack. Both were named alternates with Za’Darius Smith earning the distinction of first alternate, while quarterback Aaron Rodgers and left tackle David Bakhtiari were the only two Packers selected to the roster outright.
Critics will be quick to pick out Mack from the list of honorees as one of the more debatable selections, especially in the context of the Smiths and how their statistical seasons stack up against the famed Chicago Bears pass rusher. But the selection actually makes some sense when you consider what factors the Pro Bowl has deemed important.
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Players and Coaches Still Have Sway
After becoming two of the top four highest-paid Packers, Za’Darius and Preston Smith have both proved to be the high-caliber players their contracts suggest.
Preston tends to gain more prestige with his higher sacks total, as his 11.5 sacks currently rank sixth in the league, but Za’Darius is the one having the more well-rounded season with his 10 sacks, 30 quarterback hits, 12 tackles for losses and a league-leading 19 quarterback knockdowns putting him in the conversation to be named All-Pro.
So how does Mack, who didn’t record a single statistic until his tackle for loss on the Bears’ final defensive snap in last week’s loss to the Packers, get an invite over the Smiths and others to the Pro Bowl?
While Mack could see his streak of four consecutive seasons with double-digit sacks end this year with just 7.5 sacks so far, he does have five forced fumbles that have helped the Bears swing games this season. He is also among the most double-teamed pass rushers in the NFL this season, even though Za’Darius Smith and Seattle’s Jadeveon Clowney had been double-teamed more than anyone else in the league heading into Week 15.
As it would seem, though, name recognition around the league still factors heavily into the Pro Bowl decisions. Mack might not be having the first-team All-Pro year he had for the Bears in 2018, but he is still a household name with three All-Pro honors in his six-season career. Fans might be eager to vote up their favorites such as Preston Smith during a strong year, but two-thirds of the vote still comes down to how the players and coaches assess talent.
“I think sometimes there are outliers,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said Monday addressing a lower sacks count for Mack. “Sometimes we go by these stats and we talk about you have to have all these stats all the time to talk about what kind of player you are. I don’t know if I necessarily believe that all the time.”
Rodgers’ Selection Shows Legacy Matters
It might be a hard pill to swallow for Packers faithful, but there is another prime example of legacy winning out over current numbers in this year’s Pro Bowl: Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers’ two-time MVP quarterback is leading a good team into the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, but his passing numbers certainly aren’t setting any records or career highs. The best feature about Rodgers’ game this year has been how well he has taken care of the ball with just two interceptions, but many would contend other NFC passers — Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo — have produced numbers more worthy of his spot on the Pro Bowl roster.
It would seem Rodgers’ eighth Pro Bowl selection is another instance of players and coaches recognizing his storied career as a passer with a higher priority than what other quarterbacks have been able to produce this season. That causes a rift between football fans who believe Pro Bowl rosters should consist only of the year’s best talent and those who want an assembly of the greatest career players, even if others had better seasons.
The problem with the Pro Bowl really comes down to how fans set their expectations for a game that generally isn’t the most entertaining to watch and comes right before the most important showdown of the entire year. Sure, fans want to see their favorite players recognized for strong seasons, but many really don’t care about seeing them play in the game.
Be upset if you want about the snubbing of either of the Smiths, but also remember it won’t matter if the Packers still have a game to play in February.