HONOLULU -- After a week of practices about as stressful as a Hawaiian sunset, players shifted to Aloha Stadium for their final workouts before Sunday's Pro Bowl.
Workout, in this case, is a highly dubious description. The most work done by players in their brief on-field appearances Saturday was signing autographs for the fans who showed up in the dazzling island sunshine, and everyone involved seemed thrilled that this game is back in Hawaii.
Even New England's Bill Belichick, the AFC's coach, departed from his dour reputation to smile a time or two.
Fans with special permission to be on the field during practice far outnumbered any "working" media, and it was difficult to locate anyone actually participating in drills amid the throng, although there was the amusing sight of Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald working on the NFC kickoff team, something he probably hasn't done since junior high, if then.
Peyton Manning paused from a casual chat with fellow AFC quarterback Philip Rivers to deadpan about the serious nature of the final pre-game preparation.
Say what you want about the laid-back irrelevance of this mostly defenseless game one week in advance of the hyper intensity of the Super Bowl, there is no lacking of star power, despite the fact that conference champions Pittsburgh and Green Bay aren't even represented. The most notable absence is that of New England's Tom Brady, who was supposed to be the AFC starting quarterback but withdrew from the game because he had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot.
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But the game still has the top three passers in the NFL this season. Rivers, the San Diego Chargers star who replaced Brady in the starting lineup, led the league with 4,710 yards. Manning, making his 11th Pro Bowl appearance, was a very close second with 4,700. NFC backup Drew Brees, last year's Super Bowl hero for the New Orleans Saints, was third in passing yards with 4,620.
NFC starting quarterback Michael Vick probably appreciates his appearance more than anyone on either side of the ball, considering how far he has come since serving prison time for his role in dogfighting operation.
"This one feels great due to the fact that I've been through so much and trained to getting back to this position," the Philadelphia Eagles star said earlier this week. "It's paramount for me and my family, and I'm just thankful."
NFC safety Adrian Wilson has said he was surprised to make the team -- as a starter, no less -- after what he considered a sub-par season for the Cardinals. He said he never takes this game for granted and wants to let first-timers know that they shouldn't be misled by the relaxed nature of the experience.
"There are little things that you learn, the twists of the game," he said, "and you just take that to the young guys and make them understand how important this is."
Fitzgerald, the 2009 Pro Bowl MVP, was one of the replacements named for 10 Packers and Steelers who were Pro Bowl selections. Another 17 players are out with injuries, most recently Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who tweaked his injured left knee in practice this week. Miles Austin of the Dallas Cowboys arrived at 1 a.m. on Friday to take Jackson's place.
The NFL's decision to move the Pro Bowl to the week ahead of the Super Bowl helps fill the void in the two-week leadup to the season's biggest game, rather than have the all-start tilt languish as an even more irrelevant afterthought. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs isn't sure he buys that concept, but he's glad the game is back in Hawaii after one season in Miami.
"I can go to Florida anytime," he said.
While just about every player took time after practice to sign autographs, no one signed more than Manning. No one was even close, something that wasn't lost on the NFL personnel on hand.
"He gets it," one of them said. "That's why he's so popular."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press