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Too much is made of advantage of Super Bowl experience

TAMPA, Fla. -- Let's ease up on the talk about the Arizona Cardinals being at a disadvantage in Super Bowl XLIII because of their dearth of players with Super Bowl experience.

I'm as guilty as anyone for citing it as a key factor in why the Pittsburgh Steelers have the edge, so the easing will begin here.

This is what I saw: Twenty Steeler players who were part of the team that won Super Bowl XL and five Cardinals who have played in the Super Bowl, although not all of them having done so in recent years.

Simple, right?

But doing the math shouldn't necessarily carry substantial weight -- or any weight at all -- in picking Pittsburgh to win. It's one thing to say that the Steelers have the NFL's best defense or that they'll force more mistakes than they make. It's another to suggest that the members of their roster who were part of a Super Bowl-winning effort three years ago should influence the outcome because there are three times as many of them as there are players who have ever appeared in the big game for Arizona.

One only has to go back to last year, when the New York Giants faced the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, to find flaws in that thinking. The Giants had a mere four players with Super Bowl experience, although only three had actually played in the big game -- defensive end Michael Strahan, wide receiver Amani Toomer, and offensive guard Grey Ruegamer. Of that group, only Ruegamer was previously part of a winning effort, in 2001 with the Patriots.

Clearly, a lack of Super Bowl experience didn't matter against an opponent that had won three Vince Lombardi trophies in the previous seven seasons. The Giants' defense muffled what had been the most explosive offense in NFL history, and set the stage for the last-minute heroics of Eli Manning, David Tyree and Plaxico Burress.

The Steelers, for one, aren't buying that having so many more players with recent Super Bowl experience should count for anything.

"You can't compare Super Bowl game to Super Bowl game," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "It's like comparing Week 5 last year to Week 5 the previous year. We just try to go perform each week, week by week."

Tillman's spirit lives on in Cardinals

The Cardinals have only one player left who called Pat Tillman a teammate: Adrian Wilson.

Wilson was a rookie in 2001, Tillman's final year in the NFL before he decided to reject a $3.6 million contract offer from the Cardinals and enlist in the Army. In 2002, Wilson took Tillman's starting spot at strong safety, and has been there ever since. Two years later, Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

As the Cardinals made their remarkable journey to the Super Bowl, they do with Tillman's spirit close by. The team has a statue of him and a reflecting pool honoring him outside University of Phoenix Stadium.

Wilson will never forget the tremendous influence that Tillman had on helping to make him a better player after he joined the Cardinals as a third-round draft pick from North Carolina State.

"Pat helped me with the playbook," Wilson recalled. "He helped me learn how to practice and do a lot of things that I didn't know how to do. I think Pat eventually knew that I was going to be the guy who would take over his spot and he didn't have any problems with that. He showed me the right way to do things."

If Tillman had remained with the Cardinals -- and managed to stay healthy enough and perform well enough to keep his job -- he would be in his 11th NFL season.

Wilson can't help but wonder what might have been had Tillman, one of the toughest and most respected players in the league, joined the Cardinals on their Super Bowl ride.

"I think not only the players but the fans of Arizona really look back and wonder what this whole scene would have been like if Pat was still here," Wilson said. "Just to have (his memory) around the stadium and around the practice field, I think, says wonders about the organization -- that we are still thinking about him and that he is still here with us in spirit."

From furniture moving to long-snapping

Super Bowls always generate their share of off-beat stories. This one is no exception.

It all began on Oct. 26, when the Steelers experienced a special-teams disaster. After long-snapper Greg Warren suffered what would prove to be a season-ending knee injury against the Giants, linebacker James Harrison volunteered to fill the void in a pinch. But on his first attempt, he sent a snap well over the head of punter Mitch Berger and the resulting safety proved decisive in the Steelers' 21-14 loss.

Enter Jared Retkofsky, who in two years since finishing his football career at Texas Christian had been cut by the Steelers three times and once by the Seattle Seahawks before he even made it to either team's training camp.

Retkofsky was in Fort Worth, Texas, earning $15 per hour moving furniture. But he didn't see a long-term future with that and was looking into becoming a policeman or firefighter. Then the Steelers called to offer him yet another chance to try out to become their long-snapper.

Now Retkofsky has a chance to earn a Super Bowl ring.

"It's absolutely unbelievable," he said. "It's a really crazy story. Eleven weeks ago, I had no clue how I was going to make money to pay the bills and get by. I'm working on the back of a moving truck one day … then I get all excited because I'm going to the NFL. Then next thing I know, I'm on a really good team and they're going the whole way.

"You've got to respect that because there have been a lot of guys who have been in the league for a long time but they've never been (to the Super Bowl). I've been here 11 weeks and I'm blessed enough to go. It's a great honor."

In typical football fashion, one man's misfortune becomes another man's fortune. However, Warren was the first person from the Steelers to call Retkofsky after his injury let him know of the potential opportunity to take his place. Warren had tutored Retkofsky during offseason workouts in Pittsburgh and the two became friends.

"It sucks for Greg to have that happen and it's kind of sad right now because he doesn't get to play in the Super Bowl," Retkofsky. "But I think he trusts me (to do the job well)."

Son's fight has been inspiration to Smith

Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith is able to smile when talking about his five-year-old son, Elijah. That's because Elijah is making progress in his battle against a form of leukemia with which he was diagnosed last October.

During the Steelers' portion of Media Day on Tuesday, Smith happily reported that his son was in a down phase of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (a cancer of the white blood cells), which doctors have told the family has an 80-percent survival rate, and that would allow him to attend the Super Bowl. However, a much more intensive round is forthcoming. Smith said his son hasn't lost any hair so far, but he did wake up in the middle of the night after becoming nauseated during his most recent treatment.

Smith could have chosen to step away from the game, at least temporarily, while he and his wife dealt with their son's illness. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and the team's management were totally supportive of whatever way Smith chose to approach the situation. But Smith never stopped playing, and has actually performed at a high level despite clearly having more important thoughts on his mind.

When word of his Elijah's condition became public in December, it prompted a surge in blood donations throughout the Pittsburgh area to help the treatment of Elijah and others. Smith can't say enough about people in Pittsburgh, which he describes as a "city that takes care of its own," and he and his wife have been overwhelmed by the countless cards and letters of support they have received.

Many of Smith's teammates also donated blood and have rallied around him and his family.

"It's unbelievable," Smith said. "This team is truly a close group of guys -- guys that I truly love and appreciate and enjoy being with one another. I think what's separated this team from teams in the past and what's got us to this point is we're a group of guys going out there and working together and we don't care how gets the glory or who gets the credit. We just want to work together and win."

Number of 3-4 defensive teams continues to grow

The NFL's top two defenses in 2008, the Steelers' and Ravens', ran 3-4 schemes.

It could be argued that Pittsburgh and Baltimore reached the AFC Championship Game because of those defensive styles and how well they executed them. It also could be argued that the Steelers are in the Super Bowl largely for the same reason.

Seven other NFL clubs used the 3-4 as their base defense in '08. By next season, two that formerly used a 4-3, the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos, also will be going to a 3-4.

That's because Dom Capers and Mike Nolan, two of the better defensive coordinators in the league and major proponents of the 3-4, are the new defensive coordinators for the Packers and Broncos, respectively.

However, it is hardly coincidence, based on random hires, that is determining the growth of the scheme's popularity. League-wide offensive trends have plenty to do with it. The proliferation of aggressive passing attacks has forced defenses to maximize their ability to cover the pass, which is easier to do with three linemen and potentially eight people dropping into coverage.

Teams also want to duplicate the tremendous success the Steelers have had with zone-blitzing and the considerable confusion the Ravens have been able to create with a wide variety of blitz combinations. For the most part, relying mostly on four defensive linemen to generate pressure is harder because it is difficult to sustain unless a team has exceptional depth at the position, which is rare. It's easier to move linebackers around and have them become interchangeable with linemen, while also incorporating defensive backs into the pass rush.

Smith discussion shouldn't take very long

When those of us who are part of the voting panel for the Pro Football Hall of Fame get together to determine the Class of 2009 Saturday morning, my sense is that there won't be a very long discussion about Bruce Smith's worthiness as an inductee.

Smith is the NFL's all-time sack leader and one of the most dominant players in the history of the game.

I'm not so sure the rest of the finalists will have as easy a time getting their tickets punched to Canton, however. I'm expecting some lively discussion, especially when it comes to the two wide receivers on the list -- Cris Carter and Andre Reed. With pass-catching numbers soaring in recent years, thanks largely to defenders being prohibited from making contact with receivers, there has been growing concern among voters that too many players at the position could be selected without true merit. How, beyond the numbers, do you determine a true Hall-of-Fame receiver?

That's one of the questions we'll tackle, over coffee and Danish, on Saturday morning.

Niners, Raiders should take an East Coast lesson

I certainly hope the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders take the NFL's advice and look into sharing a new stadium.

The concept made sense for the New York Giants and Jets, who have collaborated on the construction of a $1.6-billion facility. Given these hard economic times, why wouldn't it make sense for the 49ers and Raiders to do the same?

Never mind the stark differences between 49ers fans and the ultra-rowdy Raiders faithful. The Giants and Jets are vastly different franchises with radically different followings, and they made sharing Giants Stadium work. They'll do the same in their new digs. And, despite the price tag that makes it the most expensive stadium in the history of U.S. sports, it is being privately financed at less of a cost than it would have been had each team tried to build a facility of its own.

Would the Niners and Raiders ever develop the cooperative spirit necessary to make a joint stadium a reality? Who knows? What is known is that they need new stadiums, and the chances of getting them built seem much slimmer than building one they could share.

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