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No more return specialists in the Pro Bowl

Marc Mariani, Zak DeOssie

Tennessee Titans kick returner Marc Mariani (83) of the AFC attempts to return a punt while being chased by New York Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie (51) of the NFC in the first quarter during the NFL Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011 in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)


One of the changes the NFL is making to the Pro Bowl is the elimination of kickoffs. Another change is the elimination of Pro Bowl return men.

In the past, one return specialist per conference was chosen to the Pro Bowl. But this year, the NFL announced, there will be no return specialists. The number of players per Pro Bowl team will remain the same because the two Pro Bowl returners will be replaced by two additional Pro Bowl defensive backs.

There are still punts in the Pro Bowl, so some player will return punts, but that player will not be chosen to the team solely for his ability to return punts. Instead, the two Pro Bowl coaches will choose their punt returners from among Pro Bowl receivers, running backs and defensive backs. (And there are so few punts in the Pro Bowl that the coaches might as well just not even bother having anyone return them.)

If there are any return men in the NFL who have Pro Bowl bonuses in their contracts, you can bet they and their agents will be unhappy about this new rule change. But the reality is that return men are slowly being phased out of professional football as the NFL increasingly views kicking plays, with their propensity for high-speed collisions, as particularly dangerous.

Some day the lack of return men could extend far beyond the Pro Bowl. Eventually, there may be no kicks to return in the NFL at all.