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Thursday, February 10, 2011
Addressing lingering questions

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Labor problems and a lockout hang as clouds over the NFL, making it increasingly harder to focus on the normal business of football after Super Bowl XLV.

But let's try anyway.

Plenty slipped through the cracks during the heat of the playoffs and ice of the North Texas Super Bowl that needs to be fleshed out a little more. There were more coaching changes than expected. Major roster decisions lurk. Some Super Bowl reflections are also in order.

Instead of laboring on labor, let's focus on the game of football as we know it while we still know it.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger's postgame dejection should reassure those who doubt his level of dedication.

• Although I didn't see it personally, the image of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sitting alone at his locker crying after Sunday night's loss says a lot. Before this season, teammates wondered about Roethlisberger's dedication. They don't worry about it anymore. He cares. Before this season, he wasn't dedicated in his offseason training and, although he cared about winning, he wasn't the best teammate. His four-game suspension made him grow up as a player and a teammate. He takes out his offensive linemen on Tuesdays. He's more studious of his game plans. The postgame emotion shows he put his heart and soul into this season, and I would suspect he would be even more dedicated next year.

• Would it be too quick to anoint Aaron Rodgers the fourth-best quarterback in the league? I don't think so. Rodgers' performance in the postseason probably moved him ahead of Philip Rivers of the Chargers and Roethlisberger in the league's quarterback hierarchy. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are still my top three. No, I'm not going to put Rodgers ahead of Brees based on this season, but Rodgers edges out Rivers because he's taken his team deeper into the playoffs and has a Super Bowl ring. Roethlisberger has one more Super Bowl ring than Rodgers, but he's also had two off games in Super Bowls.

• The final straw in Jeff Fisher's relationship with Titans owner Bud Adams was how he quietly extended the contracts of most of his assistants without Adams' knowledge, according to sources. Owners have been reluctant to do much advance financing of assistant contracts because of the pending labor problems. Fisher wasn't happy that Adams wouldn't let him add his son Brandon to the staff after he helped out while offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was undergoing cancer treatment. The relationship was heading toward divorce.

• Mike Munchak was on the list of head coaching candidates of some teams for years, but the Titans are taking a gamble jumping him from position coach to head coach. No one doubts Munchak's ability to succeed, because he is very good at what he does. He's a teacher. But having coordinating experience helps. It's one thing coaching a room a blockers. Running a 53-man room is tougher. This puts more pressure on his finding the right coordinators. Most were surprised he didn't retain Heimerdinger, an exceptional play-caller. Finding experienced defensive coordinators this late in the process isn't easy. Ask the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. For Munchak to succeed, he needs experienced coordinators who can help make his job easier.

• Andy Reid has assembled an all-star cast of assistant coaches. Offensive line coach Howard Mudd and defensive line coach Jim Washburn are two of the best in their eras and are great additions to the staff. Last year, Reid signed one of the best special teams coaches -- Bobby April. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was one of the league's best assistants last year for what he did with Michael Vick. Making offensive line coach Juan Castillo the defensive coordinator was a curious move. The reason Sean McDermott didn't work out as defensive coordinator was that he wasn't Jim Johnson, a blitz genius whose schemes didn't translate as well on paper. Johnson's success rested on his feel for the game in making the calls. Can an offensive line coach recapture what Johnson had? Hard to say.

• The current count of new defensive coordinators is 13, but Hue Jackson still has to hire one in Oakland and Munchak has to find one for the Titans. The Cardinals couldn't land Dick LeBeau or Keith Butler, settling for Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton. If you wonder why offenses are staying ahead of defenses, look at the short tenures of defensive coordinators. If you take away LeBeau's current seven-year run as defensive coordinator of the Steelers, there are only 27 years of longevity of defensive coordinators with their current teams. LeBeau is the only defensive coordinator who has been calling plays for his franchise longer than three seasons. There are only two -- Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati and Brian VanGorder of the Falcons -- with three years as defensive coordinators with their teams.

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