THIS YEAR, more than ever, the idea is to make the Pro Bowl but not actually play in it.
The NFL has moved its annual all-star game from Hawaii the week after the Super Bowl to the Super Bowl site the Sunday before - meaning nobody on a conference championship team will suit up for the Jan. 31 Miami Pro Bowl, at all. The league wants to have all its stars on hand, though, and it wants to emphasize the new tie-in with the Super Bowl, so the conference champions will wave to the cameras from the sideline.
That's what David Akers is aiming for, the Eagles' kicker said last night, after being named to his fourth Pro Bowl, his first since the Eagles' Super Bowl season of 2004 when 10 Birds ended up going. The Eagles are 11-4, their most victories since that year, and not coincidentally, their six players announced as selections last night are the most they've managed since '04. In addition to Akers, cornerback Asante Samuel, wideout DeSean Jackson, left tackle Jason Peters, defensive end Trent Cole and fullback Leonard Weaver were chosen. The NFL said it believes Jackson is the first player ever to be selected at both wideout and punt returner, a testament to his electric second NFL season; he leads the league in yards per catch (18.7) and punt-return average (16.0).
Jackson said he was "kind of lost for words for a minute" when Eagles coach Andy Reid told him he had made it in both spots. The only other Reid Era wideout to make the Pro Bowl was Terrell Owens in the Super Bowl year; Jackson is the first Eagle to make it as a return specialist.
Jackson said his first thought was of his father, Bill, who passed away from pancreatic cancer this past offseason. "He motivated me so much," Jackson said. He said if his father were present "he would probably be going crazy. He always thought the world of me."
Jackson talked about always having to prove himself, being undersized at 5-10, 175.
"I've been through a lot," he said. "I play this game like I did when I was a kid . . . I was always taught to be the difference-maker."
Given the nonparticipation of the Super Bowl teams, more alternates seem likely to go than ever before, so Donovan McNabb, first alternate at quarterback, still has an excellent shot, and as second alternates, tight end Brent Celek and corner Sheldon Brown certainly shouldn't discard their ticket stubs. Third alternate Quintin Mikell (safety) and fourth alternates Todd Herremans (guard) and Brodrick Bunkley (defensive tackle) face tougher odds.
The Minnesota Vikings placed eight players on the NFC squad, and the Dallas Cowboys, who will host the Eagles this Sunday with the NFC East title on the line, matched the Birds with six.
"It speaks to the tremendous talent this organization brings in," said Weaver, a first-time selection, who joined the Birds in the offseason as a free agent from Seattle. "It's an unreal experience."
Weaver leads NFL fullbacks with 69 carries for 321 yards. He is the first Birds fullback in the Pro Bowl since Bill Barnes in 1960.
"This feels better than the first one," said Akers, who suffered a hamstring injury in 2005 and struggled to regain his form. He ended up losing weight and changing his training regimen. This season he is 32 for 36 on field goals, a career-high 88.9 percent. His 139 points lead the league.
Akers, 35, is in his 11th Eagles season.
"It goes back to my gratitude to the Eagles, giving me the opportunity to be here for that amount of time, going through some times that weren't as good statistically," Akers said. "Our team goal is to actually not be able to go to the Pro Bowl and play in it this year, but to be in Miami for the Super Bowl."
Cole made the Pro Bowl in 2007, then found himself fighting more double-teams, as his sack total dropped from 12 1/2 to 9. This season he is back at 12 1/2, with a game left to play, the NFC's third-highest total. He ranks fifth in franchise history with 47 career sacks.
"The Pro Bowl's like a dream, every year . . . it's a fight every year. There's a lot of great players out there," Cole said.
Weaver, Jackson, Peters and Samuels were selected as starters, something Cole said would be his goal next season.
Cole mentioned deserving players who didn't make it. Brown might be near the top of that list; his five interceptions are a career high, but they don't compare with the nine that got Samuel his third successive invitation, though Brown is a better tackler and less of a gambler in coverage.
Brown said he hadn't been counting on making it, though he'd rate this season among the top two or three of his 8-year career. He said he can't fault the role of stats in the process, even if they don't tell the whole story.
"We vote for the receivers, and I definitely don't see every receiver in the league," he said. "I have to go off the stats."
Celek is having a breakout year, with 69 catches for 875 yards and eight touchdowns, but he faced a tough field; hard to argue with San Francisco's Vernon Davis and Dallas' Jason Witten making it. McNabb, a five-time Pro Bowler, probably is having his second-best season, but New Orleans' Drew Brees, Minnesota's Brett Favre and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers have stats McNabb couldn't match after missing two games early.
Peters and Samuel were not available for comment. Like Samuel, Peters made his third Pro Bowl in a row, Peters having gone the past two seasons with Buffalo. Peters has played well down the stretch after struggling early with knee and ankle injuries.
As expected, the Eagles elevated Dallas Reynolds from the practice squad to the active roster when they placed center Jamaal Jackson (ACL) on injured reserve . . . The group that presents the Ed Block Courage Award said it would not ask the Eagles to rescind the nomination of Michael Vick, despite criticism of Vick's suitability for the honor . . . Asked about deserving teammates who didn't make the Pro Bowl, Leonard Weaver gave a shoutout to right tackle Winston Justice. Certainly, no player has done more to redeem his onfield reputation.