HONOLULU — Deion Sanders is giving Jerry Rice one concession as Pro Bowl week begins: The record-setting wide receiver will call the coin toss today that starts the process of picking teams.
Besides that, the Hall of Fame cornerback claims he has the upper hand under the game’s new schoolyard-style format.
“I think it is going to be a blowout,” Sanders said. “I don’t think Jerry has strategized.”
Rice’s response: “That’s not going to happen. I have a pretty good mindset of where I want to go.”
The Rice-Sanders rivalry is just one of several moves the NFL is using to try to rekindle interest in the Pro Bowl, set for Sunday. The game has been criticized as too lax in recent years by fans and even Commissioner Roger Goodell, putting the future of the game in question.
The biggest change — a two-day draft on today and Wednesday that will determine teams in a new “unconferenced” game — responds by targeting player egos and fan love for fantasy football.
Instead of briefly mentioning a player’s accomplishments during a quick cameo in the all-star game, Rice and Sanders will make choices that reveal the players they believe to be the best among the best — even all-stars don’t want to be picked last in a game with no bad players.
“You want to embrace good-natured ribbing and chop busting,” said Mike Muriano, senior coordinating producer at NFL Network, which is running the draft and televising its second part live.
The league was announcing replacements throughout Monday for players missing the game because of injury or the Super Bowl. Andrew Luck of Indianapolis and Nick Foles of Philadelphia are replacing the quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, Denver’s Peyton Manning and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Running backs Eddie Lacy and Alfred Morris will step in for Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, while Alshon Jeffery and Larry Fitzgerald replace Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas.
Rice and Sanders aren’t being too specific about how they’ll make their picks, though Sanders has said he doesn’t want any Pro Bowlers on his team who have played in more than four all-star games.
“You want what you want,” Sanders said. “I know the guys that are going to cover. No matter what, they’re not cutting no deals.”
Rice said he’s not paying Sanders too much attention because his former 49ers teammate could be trying to misdirect him.
“That might be his strategy — he might go the opposite way and try to select some veterans,” Rice said.
Rice and Sanders have done plenty of talking leading up to the draft, even offering to suit up against one another on the field. Rice says the league won’t let it happen but Sanders says nothing is final until Goodell says so.
“He’s going to be hurting if we suit up,” Rice said.
According to STATS, Sanders had four interceptions in games played against Rice’s teams, going back to 1989. Rice, meanwhile, had 60 catches for 1,051 yards and 11 touchdowns against Sanders’ teams.
Sanders covered Rice on four pass attempts in 1995 and after, when STATS began tracking defensive players targeted on given plays. Rice had no catches and Sanders had no interceptions.
Both players say they’ll base their Pro Bowl picks in part on personal knowledge of the players and their attitudes toward the game.
“I’m looking for the guys that are really hungry and want to put on a show in Hawaii,” said Rice, who said he expects to have a more balanced team than Sanders.
Sanders said he doesn’t want to get caught up in making picks to counter Rice — a common strategy in fantasy.
“You could make a decision based on what you want or you can make a decision based on what you need,” he said.
The draft itself includes several wrinkles that offer room for strategy. The winner of the coin toss has a big advantage if he chooses to pick his captains, either the tandem of Drew Brees and Robert Quinn or Jamaal Charles and J.J. Watt. Not only will he get to pick the first players, he’ll also be able to force a trade on the other team of any player taken after the fifth round on Wednesday.
Another possible strategy will be to try to force defensive players to play against their real-life NFL teammates in the Pro Bowl, making them decide whether to play even softer than they might otherwise.
Muriano said players have responded in a wide range of ways to that prospect, with some relishing the chance to take on their usual teammates.
Rice said it’s just one of many ways to look at the game.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long, long time,” Rice said.