Never has there been so much grumbling about a game that means so little.

From the comments around the NFL, you'd think the Pro Bowl was a game for the ages, an invitation to walk with the immortals and bask in the knowledge that players have been asked to a greatness convention.Nah.

There is a simple reason for the moaning of the miffed in the NFL this week.

Can you say "incentive clause"?

Let's face it: That, and ego, are the only reasons players are irritated that they didn't make the Pro Bowl. After all, it isn't like anyone wants to play in the darned game. Quarterbacks, in particular, treat their invitations like they were draft notices in the 1960s.

Still, the grousing has been heard across the country. Take heart, baseball fans. You may make some silly selections, but NFL players and coaches do, too.

For instance, five players from the Minnesota Vikings made the Pro Bowl team, none from the Dallas Cowboys. Four players from Detroit made it, same as the number from Miami. And one Patriot made it, no Seahawks.

The key complainers:

Dallas' Emmitt Smith, who lost out to Phoenix rookie Johnny Johnson: "I'm mad. I'm disappointed. I thought I did all the right things. I haven't legally outperformed him, but you saw the way I performed. The whole world saw my performance."

Minnesota coach Jerry Burns, on behalf of nose tackle Henry Thomas: "I'll say our guy was better (than Detroit's Jerry Ball). I mean, if you want to weigh Henry Thomas against Jerry Ball. Ball at the end of the year started playing better, but early in the year, because of that contract holdout, he wasn't the dominant player that he was in, say, '89."

Giants cornerback Mark Collins: "It comes from coaches' support. We don't get that here."

Giants defensive tackle Erik Howard: "Quite frankly, I don't think (Philadelphia's) Jerome Brown deserves to be there. If you talk to offensive linemen, they'll tell you the same thing."

- Reggie White of Philadelphia manhandled the Packers' Tony Mandarich two Sundays ago, getting two sacks and six quarterback knockdowns. "I can't believe how Reggie was throwing Mandarich around," said teammate Mike Golic. "It was amazing. They're basically the same size, and Reggie treated him like a toy. I started to rush, and I had to watch to keep from tripping over him."

- Houston defensive end Sean Jones has some thoughts on his team's rivalry with Cincinnati. Such as: "They've got some players on that team that are so arrogant. They're front-runners when they're up, and they just try to pound it in you. That's your motivation, because if you've got somebody who hates you with cruel hatred, you've got to be quick, smart and just a little more wicked than they are. It's survival, I guess. You know they hate you, so you've got to hate them more than they hate you.

"It doesn't make a difference what the score is. They have always lost a game by an act of God or whatever. They just can't lose to us. They hate to lose to us. They feel that they're better fathers, uncles, that their wives are better than our wives, that their organization is better, their colors look better. Even if we beat them, it's not enough, because they still think we're not as good as they are."

Oh, and Merry Christmas.

- In the time it takes to read this, Jeff George has improved. "His awareness on the field reminds me of Larry Bird on the basketball court, " Colts' coach Ron Meyer said. "He has an awareness of where everyone around him is. Jeff will make a mistake or two, but so will those guys who have been in the league 10-12 years. I don't like to use the word `rookie' when talking about him. He's beyond that."

- The Giants decided last week that they didn't need wide receiver Lionel Manuel's attitude. Manuel was cut after being 90 minutes late for a meeting one day and 45 minutes another. Say, Lionel, why were you cut? "Attitude," he said. "Bill told me this morning I was late. He said `Don't practice. Don't suit up.' It wasn't the first time I was late, and it probably wouldn't have been the last. It's just a mistake. It has nothing to do with my performance on Sunday. But when you start for seven years, and they put you down (on the bench) and don't tell you why, anyone would get an attitude." At $475,000 per year?

- Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson admits his team's coaching hasn't been so hot. "We've done a lousy job this year," he said. "I've coached poorly. The team's played poorly. All those things are given. When you lose, you have a clear report card." As for rumors he won't be back next year, Robinson said: "We're going to sit down and talk about it and try to work out a plan for the future that is acceptable to the management and ownership of this team and acceptable to me. I think we'll arrive at a conclusion that either says `Yes, let's go ahead and go on' or `Let's agree to part.' I think it will be based not so much on personality or frustration or anger as on arriving at a constructive plan."