NFL: A record-setting 34 fill-ins participating in Sunday's Pro Bowl
By Omar Kelly
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Substitutes, alternates, replacements?
Whatever you want to call them, the record-setting 34 fill-ins who will step on Sun Life Stadium's field Sunday for the Pro Bowl plan to make the most of their opportunity.
But will all of these substitutions - the result of injuries, apathy or the 14 Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints who won't play Sunday night because they are preparing for next weekend's Super Bowl - water down this all-star game?
Will Sunday night's contest not be a competitive battle between the NFL's elite from the AFC and NFC because of the talent drop-off?
Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, who made his sixth Pro Bowl as a replacement player, addressed that criticism with his classic "child please" retort.
But it's hard to say "Pro Bowl quarterback" and "David Garrard," the Jaguars' quarterback who was a late addition t o the AFC squad, in the same sentence without snickering.
However, that's what it comes to when Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is playing in the Super Bowl, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady withdraws due to injuries and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is expecting his fifth child any day.
"It doesn't matter to me how or why I got here. I'm in this Pro Bowl for a reason," said Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell, who replaced Colts safety Antoine Bethea. "I don't dwell on what could have and should have happened. I'm here and happy to be here. This was one of my goals, and every time you reach one of your goals it's pretty fulfilling. Me being here this year makes me hungrier to make sure I'm back as one of the starters. This isn't the end for me."
Bell pointed out that "Pro Bowler" will forever be attached to his name, then added: "Sounds good, doesn't it!"
San Francisco tailback Frank Gore said it's a slap in the face to consider him an inferior player just because he's a Pro Bowl sub.
"The way I look at it, it's not like this is my first time," said Gore, who tallied 1,526 yards of total offense and scored 13 touchdowns in 14 games last season. "When I look at my stats and other guys' stats, I'm right there. I had way less carries than the other running backs, and I also missed games. So the way I look at it I deserve to be here."
Brian McCarthy, the NFL's vice president of corporate communications, points out that if the Super Bowl participants weren't factored in, the amount of substituted players wouldn't be so alarming. In 2002, the Pro Bowl had 22 players withdraw from the game, which was played in Hawaii the week after the Super Bowl.
Ray Lewis has been selected a Pro Bowler 11 times, and only once did he not participate in the game.
That was the 2006 season, and Lewis had a good excuse. He withdrew to provide a Ravens teammate, Bart Scott, who was his alternate, with his first Pro Bowl berth .
"Bart had a hell of a season so I let him go, but I usually don't miss this," Lewis said. "These days will never be again. So if God blesses you to do it, why not do it? I'd hate to look back at my career and say I missed out on this."
That same reasoning explains why plenty of these substitutions/alternates/replacements are thankful they'll be suiting up in their red, white and blue Pro Bowl uniforms, which will likely end up framed on their walls as a trophy.
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