Mike Tomlin is taking the Steelers to their second Super Bowl in three years.
Super Bowl experience should be an advantage for Pittsburgh, not only in the game, but in the way the team prepares during the week. For most Steelers players, this is their second trip to the Super Bowl. For some veterans like Hines Ward, Ben Roethlisberger, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, this is their third opportunity. The two-week break and enormous hype can be very distracting for teams, and Green Bay is much more likely to fall victim this week. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also got his first Super Bowl experience out of the way two years ago and will surely tighten things up in his preparation the second time around.
Expect some retirement speculation with the Steelers, although I'm not sure they will entertain it. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Ward will be at the center of it. LeBeau, 73, said three years ago that he's coaching on a year-to-year basis, and now he has a chance to go out on top. LeBeau also is in the final year of his contract with Pittsburgh. Ward said in the offseason that another Super Bowl title would make his career complete and he would retire. But last week Ward downplayed those comments and said he hasn't thought about retirement. Both will be asked to revisit the topic in Texas.
With Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) sidelined, it's time to start thinking about who will take his spot on Sunday's 45-man roster. It could be as simple as making defensive end Aaron Smith active. Smith has missed the past 12 games, including playoffs, following triceps surgery and is listed as questionable. If Smith cannot go, the Steelers will likely take on another offensive lineman such as Tony Hills or Chris Scott to provide depth.
It's never a good thing when your quarterback is making disparaging remarks toward the organization, which is what Joe Flacco did recently to the Baltimore Ravens. Flacco was not happy about the firing of quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, and Flacco took it as a personal shot at his performance. Flacco's perception is inaccurate since he put up career highs in yards (3,622), touchdowns (25) and quarterback rating (93.6) this season. But the offense could have done better and probably had too many voices, which is why the Ravens never established one identity and one direction this season. Flacco is a major part of the Ravens, and the organization needs to do a better job of communicating these things to its starting quarterback so there is no confusion or public rifts in the future.
In other AFC North drama, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has to deal with an unexpected problem this offseason. Now that he's finished coaching the Senior Bowl, Lewis has to return to Cincinnati and immediately address the morale of his team, which appears very low. Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer wants out and is threatening to retire. That's a huge blow to the Bengals, because it creates a dark cloud of uncertainty over the entire team. This could also impact free agents coming or staying with the Bengals. Cincinnati already is coming off a 4-12 season, which is tough enough, and it will be Lewis' job to convince Palmer and others the team is still heading in the right direction. Based on Palmer's reaction this offseason, that looks like a hard sell.
You can pretty much rule out Washington quarterback Jake Locker as a possibility for the Bengals. By all accounts, Locker had a bad week at the Senior Bowl, which will drop his stock a considerable distance from Cincinnati's No. 4 overall pick. Even with Palmer's situation, the Bengals still may not draft a quarterback in the first round because they have other needs. But if Cincinnati considers it, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert seems to be the only possibility currently in the top four.
Speaking of the draft, I'm starting to believe the Cleveland Browns will go offense early this year. President Mike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur are both offensive coaches, and I have a hard time believing this pair wants to spend another year with the same talent deficit it had on that side of the football. Cleveland helped the defense last year by spending its first two picks on cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward. Both were good selections. But if there's an equally-rated player available at No. 6 on offense and defense, my feeling is the Browns will break the tie on offense and want to help that side of the football more this offseason.