Steelers steady under Stewart's unpredictability

Pittsburgh capitalizes on decision to make QB `more of a threat'

Ravens / Steelers - Afc Divisional Playoff

January 20, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH - Very recent history shows Kordell Stewart throwing six interceptions in the Pittsburgh Steelers' last two regular-season games - about one for almost every nine passes he attempted.

In the distant past, however, is the hand-wringing that used to accompany such struggles, if you want to call them that in the context of the season in which the seventh-year quarterback has led the Steelers to a 13-3 record, home-field advantage and a date with the Ravens in today's AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field.

There will be no knee-jerk reactions of earlier years - no shelving of the passing game, or any move of Stewart to flanker.

"I think that Kordell has been a big part of where we are right here," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, barely two years after benching Stewart and moving him to receiver. "He's very strong, very confident right now, so we're going to go in and not get away from what got us here."

The Steelers have gotten to this point by being far less predictable than in previous years, not only running the ball well but also benefiting from Stewart's passing.

Stewart threw for 3,109 yards in 2001 to go with a team-record 60.2 percent accuracy rate. That led to a Pro Bowl selection, and high praise from Ravens coach Brian Billick.

"I think Kordell is the MVP - that was my vote, quite frankly," Billick said. "I think that's been a big part of Kordell's ascension and play this year. A lot of it has to do with the maturity of his receivers as a group, and they are a factor."

Of course, the Ravens saw up close what Stewart was capable of when they last played the Steelers on Dec. 16. That was the day he dominated by throwing for two touchdowns and 333 yards while running for 55 more.

"Everyone and their momma was watching," Stewart said, "and it was one day that I performed well."

It's been awhile since Stewart has played well on so many days in one season, at least not since 1997. In only his third season out of Colorado and in his first year as a starter, he threw for more than 3,000 yards and led the Steelers to the AFC Central title and nearly the Super Bowl.

The future for Stewart seemed bright. But that destiny took awhile to arrive, preceded by a healthy helping of disappointment.

Chan Gailey, the offensive coordinator in 1997 who was credited for the team's offensive success, left after that season to coach the Dallas Cowboys, taking with him the philosophy that allowed Stewart room to improvise and use his running ability if plays broke down. Gailey's departure was a development generally cited as the trigger that shot Stewart's career into turmoil for at least the next two seasons.

It's unknown why that thought process failed to hold as Ray Sherman and then Kevin Gilbride took turns as offensive coordinator from 1998 through 2000, but it clearly didn't. Both tried turning Stewart into a pure pocket passer, an otherwise noble notion that made him unhappy and led to poor results as the team went 22-26 during that time.

Cowher eventually benched Stewart, banned him from quarterback meetings and asked him to apply his talents at wide receiver. Off the field, the slights continued: beer poured on his head, racial slurs yelled from the stands and widely-spread rumors about his personal life.

"People are going to be fickle. One minute they're going to say great things, the next they're going to talk crazy," Stewart said. "I don't get caught up in the things that they say and how they feel, and their opinions. It doesn't validate anything that's going on with me or this team, so it's just a matter of me going out and playing."

The simplicity of football only re-emerged for Stewart this season with the ascension of Mike Mularkey, who was promoted when Gilbride was fired as offensive coordinator.

For Mularkey, who had been on staff as a tight ends coach for the past five years, any key to Stewart's future success would require an investigation of Stewart's success under Gailey.

Going into what he called "the attic," he threw some designed runs in for Stewart, largely to make the quarterback more comfortable.

"If you get him running, he is not only a threat," Mularkey said, "but his blood also gets flowing a bit when he runs in games and I think it makes him more confident, more of a threat."

In addition to the retrofitted philosophy, Stewart has benefited from an offensive line reminiscent of the Steelers' playoff runs in the early years of Cowher's tenure with Pittsburgh, as well as the best group of receivers the franchise has had since Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward both had more than 1,000 receiving yards this season, providing physical targets downfield to complement a rushing game that was tops in the NFL.

The loss of Jerome Bettis to groin and hip injuries hastened that progress. Though the rushing game continued to flourish, there was still pressure on the passing game to produce until it proved it could.

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