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Sunday, January 31, 2010
Updated: February 2, 9:26 AM ET
Four SB storylines off the beaten path

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

A Super Bowl with two great quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Drew Brees needs no hype.

They are the headliners in what might be the most-watched Super Bowl in history. Ratings have been huge all season, and that shouldn't change with the two best quarterbacks of 2009 going against each other in the biggest game.

There are wonderful storylines of how the Saints have helped New Orleans and Louisiana bounce back from Hurricane Katrina. There will be stories about the great offensive mind of the Saints' Sean Payton, the steady hand of first-year coach Jim Caldwell of the Colts and the numerous star players on both sides.

But there are a few stories that could slip under the radar. Here are four of them:

  • 1. Veteran Colts coaches: Brett Favre's potential retirement will dominate headlines for the next two months, but the pending retirement of Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd and the uncertain future of offensive coordinator Tom Moore could be one of the big underlying stories in Super Bowl XLIV. Much was rightfully made of the retirements of Moore and Mudd during the offseason. Manning went ballistic and owner Jim Irsay had to scramble to keep both coaches.

    Pending labor problems between players and owners have had a ripple effect on assistant coaches throughout the league because owners are trying to minimize the expense of coaches if there is a lockout in 2011. Plus, the pension laws were working against Mudd and Moore. They were at the stage of service time and pension benefits that they would have taken a huge loss in retirement income if they continued coaching under normal contracts. Mudd and Moore had to retire, receive a special ruling from the government and then sign contracts as consultants to return this season. They did, and the Colts are now in the Super Bowl.

    Moore may return next season, but Mudd has definitely decided to retire. His 2009 season as a line coach is a testament to his value to the franchise. Manning was sacked only 10 times in the 581 times he dropped back from center. What's amazing is that this might be the Colts' least talented offensive line. Mudd went into the season thinking Tony Ugoh would be the left tackle and Mike Pollak would be the right guard. Instead, Mudd coached up backup Charlie Johnson at left tackle and former Arena Football League 2 player Kyle DeVan and kept the line together. Physically, the Colts are overmatched each week trying to run-block. Mudd, however, has kept them respectable and competitive.

    Pierre Garcon
    Second-year receiver Pierre Garcon blossomed in 2009, catching 47 passes for 765 yards.
  • 2. Indy stars in the making: Colts wide receivers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon are slowly making names for themselves, but they still fly under the radar. That's the way defenses treat them, anyway. Naturally, opponents focus their attention on tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Reggie Wayne.

    Clark and Wayne each caught 100 passes during the regular season. Each had 10 touchdown passes. But Garcon and Collie continue to evolve in the Colts' offense. Because they draw mostly single coverage, Manning tends to use Wayne and Clark on some clear-out routes, and give Garcon and Collie the chance to catch passes. More than half of Manning's 83 passing attempts during the playoffs have ended up going to Garcon and Collie.

    Garcon has 16 catches for 185 yards. Collie, the slot receiver, has 11 for 157. Although it can be said that defenses may take the position that they don't want Wayne and Clark to beat them, it can be said Collie and Garcon have been good enough to beat the Ravens and Jets. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams may have to try to play more zone to prevent Collie and Garcon from having big games that might beat them in the Super Bowl.

  • 3. New Orleans O-line: The Saints' offensive line has been under the radar much of the season. Like the New York Giants during their Super Bowl run a couple of years ago, the Saints may have the best offensive line that nobody knows a lot about. Just as Manning does for the Colts' offensive line, Brees makes life a lot easier for the Saints' blockers because of his quick release. He was sacked only 20 times during the 534 times he retreated from center to pass. Guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb were selected for the Pro Bowl, while center Jonathan Goodwin was a first alternate.

    The toughest Super Bowl assignment goes to left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who must handle a banged-up Dwight Freeney. If Freeney can recover from a bad ankle injury, Bushrod will be challenged to stop one of the league's most tenacious pass-rushers. Bushrod is the most vulnerable of the Saints' blockers in pass-rushing situations. He gave up 7.5 sacks in his 14 starts. If Freeney isn't going to play much, the Colts might be tempted to put Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis on his side to take a quick route to Brees.

  • 4. Injury concerns: Freeney's ankle injury will be a main topic during Super Bowl week, but there are a few other injuries that are slipping under the radar. Jeremy Shockey's knee injury must be a big concern. Although it won't prevent him from playing, the injury slowed him and made him a nonfactor in the Saints' win over the Vikings in the NFC title game. He caught one pass for only 9 yards. Shockey even flew to Birmingham, Ala., to have the knee checked out by Dr. James Andrews. If Shockey isn't a factor, it creates major problems for the Saints' offense. The threat of Shockey running routes in the middle of the field opens up things for wide receiver Marques Colston and others. He has played through injuries most of his career, but if Shockey isn't able to run well, the Colts can concentrate on some of the Saints' other receiving threats.

    The other key injury under the radar is the foot injury that has sidelined Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers. Powers missed the AFC Championship Game, but the Colts' defense was able to survive because the Jets' offense doesn't stretch the field with three or four wide receivers. The Saints do. The Colts know they have difficulty when Tim Jennings is called upon to be a big factor in coverage. If Powers can't play, the Saints will try to spread the field and throw at Jennings.

    John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.