NFL Pro Bowl Games have coaching help for Manning brothers

ByStephen Holder ESPN logo
Thursday, February 1, 2024

ORLANDO, Fla. -- It was two weeks before the Pro Bowl Games last year, and the NFL wanted Eli Manning's playbook to print out.

But there was a problem.

"I don't have a playbook," Manning said, recounting the conversation on Thursday during "The Pat McAfee Show." "What kind of playbook? Can you create a playbook for me?

"I'm like drawing it up on paper. Here's my playbook. Here's 30 plays I just made up. I don't even know what the rules of the game are, what's going on. It was a little chaotic."

Last year's events represented the debut of the Pro Bowl Games, which featured flag football replacing the tackle version. The skills competitions also were expanded, with cumulative point totals from all skills events and the flag games determining the winner. The NFC, coached by Manning, beat the AFC, coached by his brother Peyton, by a score of 35-33.

Eli Manning said the playbook problem, at least from his perspective, will be solved when this year's version of the Pro Bowl Games kicks off this weekend (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN, and Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN). Manning will delegate playcalling duties to his offensive coordinator,Minnesota Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell.Miami Dolphins receivers coach Wes Welker will be the offensive coordinator for the AFC.

"I needed to hire an offensive coordinator," Manning said. "It was very stressful for me last year.

"It used to be in the Pro Bowl, an NFL team's staff comes to be the coaches. And you have your receivers coaches, and you have a playbook, and you just say, 'Hey let's make this a little smaller, a little easier.'"

Manning decided to make the playcalling much easier this year.

"I handed over the reins," he said. "Keenan, you run it. I'll be the head coach. I'll talk trash to Peyton. I'll be handling the players. I don't want to think about calling any plays. This is your show."

Manning doesn't envision the same scenario playing out on the other sideline with his famously detail-oriented brother.

"I'm sure [Peyton will] be like, 'Hey Wes, you call the plays in the game, but I want you to call these 20 plays first. But yeah, you handle it, you're the coordinator. But the first time we're in the red zone, we're definitely running this play and this play,'" Manning said.

"He'll definitely be micromanaging the heck out of him the whole game."

Even with a degree of chaos last year, Manning said the mission of making the Pro Bowl experience more fun and compelling was accomplished.

"The game had gotten so bad, the NFL was thinking of getting rid of this thing," Manning said. "But people watch it, people were still tuning in, but everybody was writing negative things about it, so we said we have to do something. So, we have flag football.

"The game was outstanding last year. You get to see the greatest athletes like Tyreek Hill, CeeDee Lamb, DK Metcalf make plays, quarterbacks throwing to them, defenders making interceptions. No one wants to get hurt. These guys are making so much money, they can't afford to get hurt. Teams don't want them to get hurt. So, let's just eliminate those chances, make it flag, and still have fun, get guys smiling, take the helmets off. Let them take some pictures."

Here were some of the most memorable snapshots from last year:

Who said there's no hitting in flag football?

Las Vegas Raiders star Davante Adams was streaking toward the end zone when he caught a brief glimpse of a defender angling toward him from his left side. Rather than risk not reaching the end zone, Adams lateraled the ball backward to Dolphins All-Pro Hill.

That's when the plan went awry.

The pursuing defender, Jalen Ramsey, turned his attention to Hill, who was focused on corralling the ball and had no opportunity to brace for what came next. Ramsey, then a defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams, was unable to slow down, resulting in a massive collision between him and Hill, briefly sending the wideout airborne and knocking him out of bounds.

Hill kept his sense of humor about it, but he wasn't about to pretend the hit didn't happen.

"This supposed to be flag meanwhile I'm getting de-cleated," he tweeted, adding a laughing emoji.

When the Dolphins traded for Ramsey last March, Hill joked on Twitter about setting boundaries in practice: "If you hit me like you did in that flag game we fighting."

More competitive than tackle games?

With the championship on the line, things heated toward the end of Sunday's competition last year. The AFC led heading into the final flag game. That's when players took on a more competitive posture, turning things up a notch with $84,000 at stake for each of the winners. (Losers were awarded $42,000 apiece.)

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins lit it up in the final game, rallying the NFC to an overall win with three touchdown passes.

"It got very competitive at the end, and I think that's what they wanted," Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith said.

Derek Carr said goodbye

Then-Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, playing in his home stadium with Las Vegas hosting the game, made his final appearance for the Silver and Black in last year's Pro Bowl.

He stated prior to the contest that he would not adjust his contract to push back the day on which more than $40 million in guarantees kicked in, practically ensuring he would be released.

Carr soaked in the cheers from the locals, acknowledging the sense of finality.

"I got goose bumps, because they're wearing the jerseys and it brings tears to your eyes because you love them so much," said Carr, who signed with the New Orleans Saints in March. "You poured your heart out to try and give them some memories."

Tyler Huntley soaked it up

The internet had a lot of fun at the expense ofBaltimore Ravensquarterback Tyler Huntley, who became an unexpected choice as an injury replacement with the bench of AFC quarterbacks getting thin.

Huntley, who replaced theBuffalo Bills' Josh Allen, started just four games in place of injured Baltimore starter Lamar Jackson in 2022. Huntley certainly didn't expect to parlay that into a Pro Bowl appearance.

But Huntley acquitted himself well, finishing second in the precision passing skills challenge and leading the AFC with 192 passing yards and four touchdown passes.

"It kind of feels like I'm in a movie right now," he said. "I'm still just taking it all in."

Whatever else happens in his career, Huntley will forever have the title of Pro Bowler.

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