The hidden side of politics

From Pro Bowl Games to the Olympics, flag football enticing NFL players

Reported by ESPN:

ORLANDO, Fla. — As the world’s greatest collection of tackle football players gathered in the Florida sunshine, you might expect their pursuit of a Lombardi Trophy to be top of mind.

But with flag football now featured in the Pro Bowl Games, and with the much-anticipated inclusion of men’s and women’s flag football in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games, how about a gold medal?

“I’d rather have the Lombardi, but I’m OK with the gold medal,” Dallas Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb said.

Flag football games on Sunday could decide the winner of the Pro Bowl Games (3-6 p.m. ET, live on ESPN, ABC, ESPN+).

The idea of NFL players participating on a flag football Olympic team was well received among Pro Bowlers this week, similar to the reaction of NBA players when Olympic participation was opened to American professional basketball players in 1992.

“That’s a big deal,” said Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates III, who had a career-high six interceptions in 2023. “The sport of football has changed my life and a lot of other guys’. I would definitely [like to play], if I learn how to pull a flag.”

Buffalo Bills receiver Stefon Diggs said he would “a hundred percent” be in favor of playing: “Flag football should be appreciated,” he said. “Not even just men, but we can involve the women, too. They’ve been taking over flag for a long time.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to get everybody playing one sport, representing America as a whole, and hopefully get a gold medal.”

The conversation begs another question: In assembling an Olympic flag football squad featuring NFL players, which players would be among the first picked?

“My first pick would be Tyreek Hill,” said Hill’s Miami teammate cornerback Jalen Ramsey. “Nobody can match that speed in 7-on-7. You can’t really press [in flag]. You’re not going to be able to get hands on him. He will have a field day.”

Hill was a popular choice among his colleagues, including by his own quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa.

“How do you chase a guy like that,” Tagovailoa said. “I mean, he’s running all over the place. Perfect skill set. He makes it tough.”

Hill’s speed and elusiveness are undeniable. According to Next Gen Stats, Hill produced three of the top 10 fastest speeds recorded by players this season. He tied with Lamb for the most receptions of 20 yards or longer in the NFL (29) and has 148 such receptions since entering the league in 2016 — more than any player.

Hill will be on the field for Sunday’s flag games at Camping World Stadium.

But his wasn’t the only name to come up frequently. Another popular choice: Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

The reality that quarterbacks can be blitzed in flag football, thereby giving them the ability to scramble for yards, made the slippery Jackson a natural option.

“After hearing some of the rules and how you can rush the passer, you’ve got to go with Lamar,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “Guys have got to keep up with him.”

Said Bates: “You can’t have somebody who’s just going to be a statue back there. You’ve got to have somebody who can move. Lamar would probably be my No. 1 pick, because if you get a rusher, you can take off.”

Football does, however, include two units — offense and defense. So, leave it to a defensive player to stick up for his own.

Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner looked around during Friday morning’s practice and found himself in awe of the defensive talent surrounding him.

“Come on, man,” he said. “We’ve got Sauce [Gardner], Denzel Ward, the linebackers like Fred Warner. To be honest, I feel like it wouldn’t even be a challenge. We could dominate the Olympics.”

Or, maybe not.

Flag football is its own animal, as the NFL stars learned during their crash course on Friday. Actual flag football stars were on hand to assist in the NFL players’ transition, as this is only the second year that flag football has been played in the Pro Bowl.

As it turns out, lots of things in tackle football are inapplicable to flag.

“I discussed hip moves, dips, flag pulling, because a lot of the guys don’t understand,” said Darrell “Housh” Doucette, a quarterback on the USA Football men’s flag national team.

“Of course, some of the [defensive backs] didn’t understand that you can’t jam [receivers]. They were like, ‘Wait, so how can I cover?’ That’s one of the main things that the defense struggles with: knowing they can’t put their hands on people.”

But there are some tackle football elements that carry over quite seamlessly, said Madison Fulford, a receiver on the USA Football women’s national squad.

“Great route running,” she said. “For receivers, it’s a little bit easier to convert over. You’re just out in the open. You don’t have to worry about the jam — none of that. You’re just making things work in the open field. As a DB, I think what works best is focusing on the [receiver’s] hip. The hip will never change.”

In the end, there is one aspect that the NFL and flag players have in common, something that might ultimately allow NFL players to succeed in the altered form of their game.

“I like competition,” Lamb said. “I’m here to compete. I’m not scared of anybody. I want it. It’s fun.”

ESPN’s Michael DiRocco contributed to this report.