Untested and overshadowed, QB Miller aims to overcome 3rd-stringer in '95, he's handed reins by defending AFC champions

August 31, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Jim Miller is a low-profile man in a high-profile job.

The 1994 sixth-round draft choice from Michigan State was one of the most obscure players on the Pittsburgh Steelers' Super Bowl team last season.

The third-string quarterback, he threw 56 passes and was overshadowed by versatile rookie Kordell Stewart.

Although Stewart threw only seven passes, he eclipsed Miller with his role as an exciting player who could run, throw and catch passes.

Miller wasn't even as well-known as backup Mike Tomczak, a journeyman who is entering his 12th season.

But when Neil O'Donnell left the Steelers in the off-season to sign a $25 million, free-agent deal with the New York Jets, coach Bill Cowher decided to throw open the quarterback job and let Miller, Tomczak and Stewart battle for it.

As it turned out, there was no clear winner after three preseason games. Miller was 23 of 44 for 206 yards, Stewart 21 of 48 for 282 yards and Tomczak 19 of 31 for 244 yards.

Yet it was no surprise in Pittsburgh that Cowher named Miller the starter before the fourth game.

In Pittsburgh, where the offense will be built around the running of Jerome Bettis, the Steelers don't ask the quarterback to win the game. They ask him not to lose it.

The flashy Stewart might make more plays, but he also might make more mistakes. The Steelers think Miller will be a steadier player.

As offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said: "He's ready or we wouldn't have picked him."

The Steelers liked his potential enough to give him a deal that will earn him $11.65 million the next four years if he plays 64 percent of the team's offensive snaps.

It was a lucrative contract for a player who has yet to start a regular-season game and was sidelined during his rookie season with a broken right thumb, then broke his right wrist playing in the World League in spring 1995.

That's why just winning the job was only the start of the task for Miller. Now comes the tough part. He has to keep it.

That explains why Miller kept his promotion in perspective a week ago.

"He had a lot of options, and he still has a lot of options," Miller said of Cowher. "It just means that going into Jacksonville [tomorrow's opener], I'm starting."

Even Cowher's announcement of the choice wasn't a ringing endorsement of Miller.

"As I look at all three quarterbacks, I don't see anybody as a winner in this thing," the coach said. "They're all three winners. They all did a good job. What I'm trying to do is define roles."

It wasn't a popular move, either, because Stewart has become a fan favorite with his dashing style.

"I'm not everyone's favorite," Miller said. "It's as simple as that. I couldn't care less who likes me. Yeah, I want everyone to like me, but that is not feasible."

Miller said he even consulted with O'Donnell to discuss the pressure of living in the fishbowl atmosphere in Pittsburgh, where all quarterbacks are judged against the standard set by Terry Bradshaw.

Members of the younger generation might think of Bradshaw only as the class clown on the Fox TV set, so they have to be reminded that Bradshaw was 4-0 in the Super Bowl, throwing touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of each.

By contrast, O'Donnell threw two second-half interceptions into the arms of the Dallas Cowboys' Larry Brown in the Super Bowl last January, dooming Pittsburgh's bid for a fifth title.

The result was that the fans weren't particularly upset when the Steelers didn't match the Jets' offer for O'Donnell.

Not that Bradshaw didn't go through some tough times, too. Before he started his Super Bowl run, the fans once cheered when he was injured.

"Neil told me what to expect. He said, 'If I were you, I wouldn't even pick up a newspaper,' " Miller said.

Referring to criticism, Miller said: "You lower your shoulder and take it on the chin sometimes. When you are a quarterback, you almost have to be armor-plated. You have to be tough and let things bounce off. The stadium out here on a Sunday can get very rough. Bradshaw went through it. Neil went through it."

It didn't help Miller's cause when Stewart entered the final preseason game as quarterback against the Philadelphia Eagles with the Steelers trailing, 17-3, late in the second quarter and completed 18 of 29 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns. One of the touchdown throws was a Hail Mary pass with eight seconds left, as Stewart came within a two-point conversion of winning the game.

Miller knows if he struggles, the fans will want Stewart, but he seems eager for the challenge.

"I accomplished a goal that I set out for myself," he said. "And I'm happy about that."

Pub Date: 8/31/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.