Last Sunday night, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made waves by deviating from the coachspeak playbook and talking openly about not one but two upcoming showdowns against the Patriots. The potential consequences of Tomlin’s decision to discuss the proverbial “elephant in the room” could arise both in December, and again in January.
I know, I know. We in the media abhor coachspeak. It’s predictable, it’s boring, it’s useless. But does that mean we should blindly praise an excursion into non-coachspeak that could create real problems for the coach who decided to speak that way?
For Tomlin, the problem arises from the fact that the Steelers play the Bengals and Ravens before facing the Patriots the first time. And, surely, the Bengals and Ravens will be using his words to provide the players with extra motivation to humble the Steelers before their definite date with the Patriots.
A separate problem arises in January, as the Steelers (if they secure a bye) prepare to face an opponent in the divisional round, with a return match against the Patriots on the line. Surely, whichever team has the task of traveling to Pittsburgh will be playing Tomlin’s words, over and over again, pointing out that he chose to look past that team before even knowing who that team would be.
But don’t take my word for it, as if you ever would. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains how bulletin board material once bit Bill Cowher in the butt, specifically as it relates to an AFC title game against the Patriots from nearly 16 years ago.
“There was no week off between the title games and the Super Bowl that year,” Bouchette writes. “Cowher said the Steelers would take a day early in the week before the title game to make preparations for the Super Bowl. After the Patriots upset them, New England players brought up the Steelers’ Super Bowl preparations as a motivating factor.”
Tomlin knows personally the potential impact of bulletin-board fodder. A decade ago, former Steelers safety Anthony Smith guaranteed a win against the unbeaten Pats. The Steelers lost, and Smith found himself the target of repeated Tom Brady passes.
“The safety play at that position was pretty inviting,” Brady said after the game, via Bouchette. “We’ve played against a lot better safeties than him, I’ll tell you that.”
While this specific incident of bulletin-board fodder will do nothing to fire up the Patriots, it will indeed give other teams an extra kick. And it definitely raises the stakes, both for the next two games — and in six weeks, when the Steelers likely will have to hold serve at home in order earn the rematch.
So if Tomlin can think about beating that team without even knowing who it is, I can say this: Whoever it is in the divisional round, that team will give the Steelers everything they can handle.