QB statue is a step up for Steelers

Immobility is a step up from quick feet

Pro Football

September 03, 2000|By Mike Preston

PITTSBURGH -- Maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers' Kordell Stewart should change his nickname from "Slash" to "Crash," as in what has happened to his career as an NFL quarterback.

That plopping sound you heard last week was Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher putting Stewart in his rightful place on the bench for Kent Graham, who actually stinks as much as Stewart, but hasn't had much of a chance to prove it yet in Pittsburgh, as he did in previous stints in Arizona and New York.

It really doesn't matter today if the Steelers start Stewart, Graham or even Terry Bradshaw. This is a game the Ravens should win, even though the season opener is played at Three Rivers Stadium.

Cowher may have done the Ravens a favor by going with Graham. Stewart can't throw, but at least he can run and make plays with his athletic ability. Graham has a better, more precise arm, but can't move.

The Statue of Liberty has more mobility.

OK, that's a stretch, but the Ravens could have Graham for target practice.

The Steelers have a weak offensive line, and the Ravens' defensive ends should dominate Pittsburgh's offensive tackles. The Steelers will start rookie Marvel Smith, a second-round pick, on the right side against Rob Burnett, who should have made the AFC Pro Bowl team last season and had an excellent 2000 training camp.

Veteran Wayne Gandy will start at left tackle for the Steelers. He has good feet and decent strength, but takes plays off. Lazy. He goes against Michael McCrary, a two-time Pro Bowl choice and one of the most relentless pass rushers in the league.

Also, Pittsburgh Pro Bowl center Dermontti Dawson is playing regularly today for the first time since July 30. It could be a four-sack afternoon for the Ravens' ends.

It would seem like a better move to play Stewart, but Cowher can't do that. Stewart completed only 39 percent of his passes in the preseason compared to 82 percent for Graham. The coach can't afford to have the Ravens jump out to a quick lead and have the fans turn against him and Stewart.

But the demotion of Stewart didn't just happen recently. It happened several years ago because Stewart has a huge ego, the Steelers changed offensive coordinators and Cowher made one of the worst decisions in his eight years as Pittsburgh's coach.

Stewart's last great season came in 1997, when he led Pittsburgh to the AFC championship game while passing for 3,020 yards, only the fourth player in team history to throw for more than 3,000.

But after that season, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey left to become Dallas' head coach. Gailey hadn't used Stewart as the standard drop-back quarterback, but as an athlete who played quarterback. Pittsburgh would throw on first down, run on third. The Steelers used trick plays and deception to keep teams off balance.

Ray Sherman became the Steelers' offensive coordinator in 1998, and Stewart's production dropped to 2,560 yards and his QB rating slipped from 75.2 in 1997 to 62.9 in 1998.

Sherman eventually was fired and Stewart said he wasn't going to play any other position than quarterback.

That was amusing.

He later told the Steelers he was either going to play quarterback or not play at all.

That was even funnier.

But Cowher wasn't laughing. He gave Stewart a vote of confidence instead of the boot. The quarterback signed a five-year contract extension worth $27 million, including an $8.1 million signing bonus.

That wasn't a very popular decision, and Cowher joined Stewart as two of the most unpopular people in Pittsburgh. The fans are tired of the emotional, butt-slapping, tough-guy, made-for-TV images of Stewart and Cowher.

If he was so tough, why didn't he demand Stewart play receiver or waive him? Stewart certainly is a better receiver than quarterback. Also, tough guy, how could you let a then fourth-year player dictate terms? After all, we're not talking Warren Moon, Troy Aikman or Brett Favre here.

Instead, Stewart was benched after 11 games last season, his first in the offense of coordinator Kevin Gilbride. That, too, was a bad fit because Gilbride has often created systems built around conventional quarterbacks. See Mark Brunell and Moon.

Stewart completed only 160 of 275 passes for 1,464 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. When he struggled during the preseason, Cowher had little choice but to bench him.

The Steelers are 2-6 in their last eight home games, and some of those Terrible Towels might be used to strangle Cowher if the Steelers lose badly today.

The Ravens might see Stewart today, but they don't know in what capacity.

"We're preparing for all the ways we've seen Kordell, whether it's in the Slash mode, at quarterback, on the goal line, short yardage, open field," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "We've had enough experience against him that we'll prepare our guys for the things they like to do with him."

But it probably won't happen at quarterback unless Graham gets hurt or the Steelers are in deep trouble.

Stewart might turn into Slash today before it's all over, but as of Monday he was getting adjusted to life on the bench, his career as an NFL quarterback having just crashed around him.

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