Pro Bowl returns to Hawaii but with pre-Super Bowl date

HONOLULU -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith figures it shouldn't be too difficult to draw up plays for his NFC stars in Sunday's Pro Bowl.

Finding the right mix on special teams? That's more tricky.

"I don't think there's going to be a whole lot of differences in terms of playing offense and defense," Smith said Tuesday. "I think the biggest challenge is that a lot of these guys have not been involved in special teams. ... We have a plan for that."

The Pro Bowl has returned to its island home, a place where many players believed it never should have left.

Despite player complaints about holding the event in a city they visit during the regular season, the NFL shipped the all-star game to Miami last year. It also was scheduled before the Super Bowl, an experiment to draw more media attention and television viewers.

Hawaii, which started staging the game in 1980, is paying $4 million per game to hold the Pro Bowl this year and 2012. The site beyond then hasn't been determined.

TV ratings were up for last year's AFC-NFC matchup on ESPN. It was watched by an average of 12.3 million viewers, the most since 2000. That's up 40 percent from the 2009 Pro Bowl in Honolulu on NBC, which drew 8.8 million viewers when the event was held after the Super Bowl.

The game has returned to Hawaii, but the NFL is sticking with its strategy of keeping the Pro Bowl ahead of the Super Bowl.

"Our fans have clearly responded to the change in the format," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "We think it's great for the NFL. We think it's great for the state of Hawaii."

The change means the Pro Bowl will not feature any Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers on the field or the sidelines. They are preparing for the Feb. 6 Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas. There are 10 Pro Bowl selections in the Super Bowl, including six Packers.

Last year, Pro Bowlers who were in the Super Bowl were introduced at the stadium but didn't play. This year, they're far from the beaches and umbrella-adorned mai tais that their colleagues will enjoy this week.

Anderson said the NFL was "delighted to be back here" and talked about the strong TV ratings in Miami.

"We had 12.3 million viewers in 2010, (but) we certainly expect to surpass that this year back in beautiful Hawaii," he said.

In an interview, Smith said not having any Packers does leave his NFC squad short, "but I really do believe the Super Bowl should be the last game of the season and be the climax of the season."

Smith's top-seeded Falcons lost in the playoffs to the Super Bowl-bound Packers, 48-21. The Falcons have the most players on the NFC team with nine selections, and the New England Patriots lead the AFC with eight.

"It's a pleasure to be here in Hawaii," Smith said. "I know I speak for our coaching staff: There's no better place on earth than to be in Honolulu this week."

Smith probably would have traded his ticket to the Aloha State for one to the Lone Star State.

His AFC counterpart, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, was nowhere to be found at the Pro Bowl's news conference Tuesday in which the NFL showed off its new trophy and a few cheerleaders.

Belichick had trouble flying into Hawaii and was expected to arrive late Tuesday, one day before practices start. He also had a difficult end to the season. The Patriots were 14-2 heading into the playoffs, but they lost to the New York Jets, 28-21.

Joining Smith and Belichick will be two college coaches from Japan.

Both teams will have Japanese coaches as the NFL and Hawaii tries to broaden the game's appeal in Asia. Ritsumeikan University coach Akira Yonekura will be on the NFC sideline, and Waseda University offensive line coach Hiroyuki Yabe will be on the AFC's coaching staff.

Football is played at some colleges in Japan, but it lags far behind in popularity to sports such as baseball, soccer and sumo.

Yabe was just eager to meet his new boss, Belichick, and learn how to "put together a strong team and win."

"(When I heard it was Belichick) I started foaming at the mouth. I didn't know what to say," Yabe said through a translator. "He is one of the top coaches in the NFL. This is a fantastic opportunity."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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