Mularkey displays gadgets

1-5-03, 9:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PITTSBURGH _ This is why the Bengals are considering Mike Mularkey for their next head coach:

Just under a minute left in AFC Wild Card Sunday. Heinz Field has just been reduced to a frozen loony bin with the Steelers taking their first lead of an exhausting, exhilarating day, 34-33.

Now they go for two points and Comeback Player of the Year, quarterback Tommy Maddox, is inexplicably, coming back to the sideline. Now wide receiver Hines Ward is the quarterback, until he calls a signal and bolts in motion. Now wide receiver Antwaan Randle El is the quarterback getting a direct snap, and now he is rolling right and throwing a strike to tight end Jerame Tuman.

The man wide receiver Terance Mathis calls "Inspector Gadget," had run out of smoke and mirrors and went to a play that had been installed just this past Wednesday.

"We used up all our two-point plays this year and had run some twice," Mularkey said later.

Now the Steelers win, 36-33, with three different receivers catching at least 85 yards, Maddox throwing for 256 in the second half, and Mularkey looking at his family under the press box in a sea of black and gold delirium. The man who Randle El calls "a mastermind," can get sentimental.

"I can see them if I move away from the TV," said Mularkey of his perch in the box where he called the plays for the NFL's fifth-best offense this season. "I can track them down. They're all looking up.

"Pretty much I told them this is why I'm not home," said Mularkey of the emotion racing through him like Randle El on the loose. "Then I said, 'This is the best job in the world. There's no job that gives you the emotional highs and lows of this job and this is the way you're supposed to feel."

Mularkey, 41, the former nine-year NFL tight end, may have to figure out if the Bengals' head coaching job would be better than this. The Bengals have to figure out if they will keep four other candidates waiting at least another week as Mularkey continues this post-season run.

But what is easy to figure is that during this 432-yard extravaganza,

Mularkey showed the attack mentality and innovative bent that has marked his two-year regime in Pittsburgh.

And what is also easy to figure Sunday night is the drained Mularkey is hoping the NFL can come up with another way to help assistants like himself get promoted even though they are still in the playoffs.

Mularkey ended up calling what he referred to as the proudest moment of his career less than 24 hours after an estimated four-hour interview with the Brown family Saturday afternoon. Sandwiched between a morning walk-through and night meetings.

"I hope the NFL asks me my state of mind by the time I got to the interview," Mularkey said. "I didn't

change my preparation during the week or anything, but I was probably not as prepared as I'd like to be. I was probably drained at the time. I don't know if it's the right time to do it during an important situation like it is right now.

"I've got a lot of respect for the Brown family," said Mularkey in declining to discuss the Bengals in deference to the Steelers' game next week in Tennessee. "My No. 1 priority is my family and this team."

But if Mularkey didn't talk about it, his associates did. Even Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who gave Bengals President Mike Brown permission to talk to Mularkey. It seems, reluctantly.

"He's a people guy. Everybody likes him," said Rooney before the game. "He's an innovator. He's a smart guy. We'd hate to lose him."

Mathis, the 13-year receiver who has been playing so long that he was in the NFL with Mularkey, calls him "Inspector Gadget."

"The guy has a lot of gadgets he comes up with," said Mathis, after the Steelers cranked out 22 points in the last 12:28. "I would say 80 percent of the time it works. You get that kind of percentage and that means something. You know that he knows what's going on."

This is what was going on during that two-point play when Randle El took the direct snap. The week before, they tried a similar play, but with Randle El making an option pitch that got stuffed. The Bengals like those gadgets, but they like the fact even more that his offense is sound. In that context, the gadget was a logical move because the Browns no doubt had the option pitch in the back of their minds instead of a roll-out pass.

"We've used it , but not with Antwaan and not with Hines," Mularkey said. "Not the same thing, but similar."

The winning touchdown on the play before might have even showed more of Mularkey. With 58 seconds left on second-and-3 for a touchdown, Mularkey called a running play, a draw, to fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. It was a risk because Pittsburgh had just one timeout left.

But maybe not. "Fu," said the play took the Browns by surprise. The Steelers came out in a passing formation four wide receivers and called a play they have rarely shown on the goal line.

Mularkey had called two plays in the press box in case the first one didn't work. Running backs coach Dick Hoak, the NFL's senior position coach, had nudged Mularkey in the leg and urged the draw.

"He said, 'Why don't you try this?'" Mularkey said. "And I said, 'It might work. Let's see if it does.' It's my right to say yea or nay. Most times, a guy that's been in the league 40 years, I'll definitely pay attention to what he's saying."

Dick Hoak?

Wasn't it Dick Hoak who one legendary moment after a Bengals-Steelers game gave former Bengals coach Sam Wyche the nickname, "Whicky-Whacky?"

But Mularkey is proud of his Wyche roots that nurtured his creativity. Wyche gave him his first job in the NFL in 1994 in Tampa Bay, and asked Sunday if the two-pointer was Wychian in origin, he said, "No," but, "some other things we did today came from Sam." Asked what they were, Mularkey said in Sam-like secrecy, "I'll tell you when all is said and done."

Mathis likes what Mularkey has done because, "he's adjusted." Last year, he played smash ball and athletic quarterback Kordell Stewart took them to the AFC title game. This year, "he adjusted to a very different game," with more of a spread offense directed by the recycled drop-back play of Maddox that produced the first 4,000-yard passing season in Steeler history.

"He has the right mentality and the right insight to know what you have to do to win football games,": Mathis said.

Randle El said he's never surprised when something new comes up, he's just not sure what it's going to be.

Ward could have told him the two-point conversion was, "just Mularkey using his talent to the utmost. He gets the most out of each and every player on this team.

"All year he's done a tremendous job getting his players in the position to make plays."

Randle El calls him a mastermind, but a down-to-earth mastermind.

"He's not an old guy, he really just got out of the league," he said. "He knows his players. He knows how to put them in position."

Yes, a nice guy. But the Bengals have had their fill of nice-guy coaches. Yet, a former Bengal who played in his first playoff game ever after a seven-year wait, thinks Mularkey would be a strong figure in the Bengals' locker room.

"He's a very serious, serious guy," said tight end Marco Battaglia. "He's got that quiet fury that guys respect. I've seen it with other coaches and he has it. Mike has his own way of getting his point across. Just by a look and and people respond to it. He would be a good candidate."

For now, the weary candidate is only thinking about Titans and not Bengals. The Steelers prefer it that way.

"I hope so," said Ward, when asked if his man will become a head coach. "But I don't want him to leave."

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