He has always been a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare. This week, it's Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith's turn to lose sleep.
What's Mike Mularkey going to have up his sleeve this Sunday? What's the guy going to do to embarrass me? He had a whole summer to prepare for this game. Why does it have to be me?
Mularkey, of course, is the former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator who made the Steelers famous for his bag-of-tricks offense that used quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers as interchangeable parts. Gimmicks? Absolutely, they were gimmicks, all intended to disguise the one thing the Steelers really wanted to do: Run the ball.
All of a sudden Kordell Stewart steps out from under center and is walking toward the sideline, gesturing to his bench as though something has gone amiss. Immediately, we expect a timeout, but then the ball is snapped to Jerome Bettis and Bettis is running directly forward. Wow! What a trick play; direct snap to a guy who catches the ball and runs forward.
But it always worked.
Tricks on top of tricks on top of tricks.
How about the goal line play against Cincinnati? The Steelers come to the line of scrimmage but something is wrong. It's not the center who's over the ball, it's the guard, and the Bengals defensive linemen scratch their heads. Too late, walk-in.
In Pittsburgh, Mularkey always had a stable of slash-type players. There was Stewart and Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, and when the Jaguars' Troy Edwards was with the Steelers he was another slash-type guy.
Cheap? Bush league? Maybe, but it worked for a team that needed something to keep defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage.
You know what else it did? It made defensive coordinators work harder the week they played the Steelers than any other week of the season. Mularkey drove coordinators nuts.
Now he's the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, the Jaguars' opening-day opponent, and Mularkey is still playing the cat-and-mouse game for which he is famous.
"Yeah, in Pittsburgh we ran some trick plays and I think they keep defenses off balance, I really do. If you design them right they succeed and you have given yourself a chance for big plays. I never want to not take a chance for a big play, ever. I doubt the conservative side will come out, whether we show a trick play this game or not. I doubt that will ever happen," Mularkey told reporters on Wednesday when he was asked if the Bills' rather conservative personnel might mellow him.
Do you have a Randle El or a Kordell Stewart on this team?
"That's another thing you'll have to wait and see," Mularkey said.
You didn't show anybody in that role during the preseason?
"No, we stayed pretty vanilla during the preseason," Mularkey said.
Oh, the anxiety the man creates. Imagine what Smith's life has been like this week, and all of this on top of the fact that it's a season-opener. How do you cope with all of this?
Forget about all that gimmick stuff. There's only two things an offense can do with the football: They may run with it or they may throw it. Does it really matter who's doing either?
The real concern in facing Mularkey is that he has displayed a great penchant for reclaiming quarterbacks' careers. He did it with Stewart in 2001 and he did it with Tommy Maddox in 2002. Now, he'll be attempting to do the same with Drew Bledsoe.
So, how do you beat Mularkey? The answer is simple, though the execution of it isn't.
You stop the run and then you rush the passer. Make them throw, then sack the quarterback.
It's an unbeatable formula for playing winning defense. It's for defenses that don't need gimmicks of their own.