Graham drawing fire from all directions

Ex-Steeler Malone weighs in with shots aimed at current No. 1

September 02, 2000|By Chuck Finder | Chuck Finder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PITTSBURGH -- In the inglorious quarterback tradition of a franchise from which Johnny Unitas was once jettisoned and Terry Bradshaw felt so assailed that he still holds a grudge a generation later, this week a Steelersstarter from the past ripped into the Steelers' starter of the present.

Mark Malone, in an ESPN.com essay about 10 things to watch for in this 2000 NFL season, wrote this as Item No. 6: "Worst off-season addition: Kent Graham. Do they really want the fate of their season and their offense in this guy's hands?

"If you're going to spend [$5.1 million for three years], shouldn't you get someone who is more capable? Or did they go after Graham specifically because he's not a big-time quarterback, and they didn't want to create a clash of egos or confidence problems with [incumbent Kordell] Stewart?

"Every team that gets an insurance policy hopes they don't have to use it. But, if you do have to use it, you want that policy to be able to cover your losses. I don't know if that will happen in Pittsburgh."

What a way to welcome a player to the former Steel City. Especially when it comes from a fellow who experienced only moderate success and a torrent of boos with the Steelers between 1980-87. Especially when it comes from an ESPN pro football host whose play with Pittsburgh once caused a fan to drive into Three Rivers Stadium and slam his vehicle into vats of nacho cheese. Malone made him do it, he told police.

Tough crowd, these Steelers fans and ex-Steelers.

Graham, the anointed starter when the Steelers open the season against the Ravens at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Three Rivers Stadium, claimed he had yet to read Malone's on-line essay. He smiled and said his Digital Subscribers Line modem was down on his computer.

"I'll just have to prove him wrong," Graham added, softly punching a questioner on the arm. "Know what I mean?"

The new Steelers starter is girded for harsh treatment. After all, he used to play in New York. But, from the start, the Pittsburgh reaction can't be any worse than what Stewart faced the previous two losing seasons, the first consecutive ones here since 1985-86.

The question remains: In a city in which the backup quarterback for years has been the crowd favorite, could this system of No. 1 Graham and No. 2 Stewart finally turn the fans in favor of any Steelers quarterback? Besides No. 3 Tee Martin, of course.

"I know I still have a lot to prove to this team and to the fans of Pittsburgh," Graham said. But he doesn't want to prove it in one game. "It's something I have to be cautious against," he said. "I have to come out and have my head about me and have poise. ... Very crucial that I come out and not let my emotions get involved. I have kind of a linebacker's mentality, and I've got to keep it toned down a little bit."

Graham came to Pittsburgh as a free agent last winter in something of a surprise move. Gus Frerotte, from nearby Ford City, Pa., dropped by the offices unannounced during the wooing period and tried to sell himself to his hometown team. The Steelers let longtime backup Mike Tomczak sign with Detroit, Frerotte go to Denver, and Graham become a challenger to Stewart.

The Steelers thus become the fourth team in the nine-year NFL sojourn of Graham, a 6-foot-5, 245-pounder who played at Notre Dame and Ohio State before that (making it six teams in 12 years of big-time football). His pedigree wasn't of the same free-agent class as Frerotte or maybe even Jeff Blake, who went to New Orleans.

He beat out the likes of Danny Kanell in New York, plus an aging Boomer Esiason and inexperienced Jake Plummer in Arizona. He failed to beat out Dave Brown in New York and was cut there in favor of perhaps the biggest first-round quarterback flop of the 1990s drafts, Tommy Maddox.

In fact, Graham's statistics pale slightly when compared with Stewart's. Graham has only 400 fewer career yards in 38 fewer career attempts, three fewer touchdowns and a poorer career record as an NFL starter (15-18 to 23-20) than Stewart, a five-year NFL veteran.

Graham feels his recent record is what earned him a third chance as an NFL starter, after stints with the Giants (1992-94, 1998-99) and Arizona (1996-77) sandwiched around a deactivated Detroit season (1995). The previous two seasons in New York, he went 10-5. Meanwhile, with Pittsburgh, Stewart went 7-9 and 5-6.

Both are at the epicenter of a Steelers realm in which owner Dan Rooney has attempted to stabilize the ground around both the team and coach Bill Cowher, building a new practice complex and signing free agents such as Graham and firing longtime director of football operations Tom Donahoe -- who clashed with Cowher -- in favor of Kevin Colbert.

"The quarterback, of course, is a key thing," Rooney said. And the Steelers start this season with a fellow signed as a veteran backup, an insurance policy.

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