If this were boxing or college football instead of the Canadian Football League playoffs, the Baltimore CFLs would have spent this week firing insults, boasts and other forms of verbal trash at today's opponents, the Toronto Argonauts.
Instead, the sound of silence has prevailed.
That silence is the measure of the play ers' respect for (and fear of) coach Don Matthews, and does much to explain the CFLs' unusual success in their expansion season.
The story begins two weeks ago with the Argonauts' upset of defending league champion Edmonton, after which a couple of Argos players spoke unflatteringly about the CFLs. Rodney Harding said the victory was the Argos' first over a quality team, which was an insult considering that the Argos had beaten the CFLs. And Pinball Clemons said the Argos wanted to play the CFLs, not Winnipeg, in the first round of the playoffs.
You can't get much more classically "in your face with my big fist" than that.
It wouldn't have been surprising to see the CFLs join the verbal war when it turned out the Argos were indeed coming to Baltimore for the first round. Everyone talks the talk here in the Deion Era, right?
Well, not exactly.
Matthews brought up the subject at a team meeting. He asked the pass receivers, "Are those quotes going to make you run better routes?" The answer, of course, was no. Then he asked the defensive linemen, "Are those quotes going to make you rush the passer better?" Again, the answer was no.
His message was obvious: forget the whole thing. This is a coach who encourages his players to use the motto "live on the edge," but trash-talking fireworks clearly weren't in his thrill-seeking playbook.
"That kind of thing has no bearing on the outcome of the game," Matthews said the other day. "It is totally beside the point."
Thus, the sound of silence.
"Everyone in here read those quotes when they came out," rush end O.J. Brigance said, "but to be honest with you, we haven't talked about them since then. If we start concerning ourselves with who is saying what, we're worrying about the wrong things."
If that sounds like a player who has heeded his coach's words, it is no coincidence. The first commandment for a CFLs player, though written nowhere, is as clear as a bold headline: Thou shalt not make Matthews angry.
No player in any sport is wise to anger the coach, but the CFLs have reason to be particularly careful of Matthews.
He has this habit of cutting or benching players who are not in his favor. Barely a day has passed this season without the CFLs making news or the transactions wire with a personnel change. That kind of management style tends to get players' attention.
Zel,.5l As well, he is the linchpin of the team's success. Everyone in the CFL understands that the smartest thing Jim Speros did was bring in a coach who was experienced and successful in the Canadian game, as opposed to a name American coach.
"It was a huge advantage from the first day," running back Mike Pringle said. "The other [new] teams had American coaches, and while they're good coaches, the Canadian game is real different in a lot of ways, particularly pace and strategy, and it takes time to get used to the changes. We never had to go through that."
Having earned the attention and respect of his players, Matthews was able to meld the CFLs into precisely the shape he wanted. They are disciplined, focused and businesslike, and that is the foundation of their success.
Thus, though Matthews didn't tell them what they could or couldn't say as they prepared for the Argos -- "They can say anything they want," he said -- he effectively tied their tongues. The message? Stick to your business. Practice hard. Concentrate. Be serious.
"This isn't rocket science," Matthews said. "You don't want to spend time on things that have no bearing on the outcome of the game. We didn't even look at the films of the Sacramento game [last week]. Because of the inclement weather, it wasn't a football contest. It can't help us this week."
Not every coach agrees. Remember when then-Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson guaranteed a victory before the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers last year? It created a pressurized and wholly artificial side-issue. But it also succeeded in stoking the Cowboys' emotions.
Matthews' control of the CFLs' minds is not unlike Johnson's with the Cowboys a year ago. But Matthews' style is totally different. No side issues. No hype. No nothing. Just play ball and be smart. It has worked pretty well so far.