O'Donnell, 29, will also be a free agent at the end of the season, and the Steelers may be unwilling to break the bank for him. Tomczak is 33, and Miller is a sixth-round draft choice whose only professional action came with the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World League last season. Stewart concedes that he is not yet ready to play quarterback in the NFL but says he will spend the off-season in Pittsburgh, studying the offense and working to remove the slash from his job description.
"I'm convinced I can play quarterback in this league, but I also know it's not my time," says Stewart. "It's a very tough thing to come into this league and play quarterback right away."
Although quarterback is the position Stewart has played at every level of his football life, it's a position that many observers have said he would not be good enough to play in the pros. They said it even while he was breaking most of the passing records at Colorado. He threw a ball 73 yards in the air to beat Michigan last year, and still they questioned his ability. On the physical tests he knocked them dead at the scouting combines. Still, there were doubts.
He was fast, strong and athletic, and surely someone in the NFL would stick his stats into a computer and decide that he was better suited for wide receiver, defensive back, punt returner. Even now, while he flourishes as the Steelers' Swiss Army knife, the question torments Stewart: Were they right? Is he not quite up to playing quarterback in the pros? He was a superb college passer in a one-back passing offense, but now he is running options and playing wideout and blocking down-field. He promised himself he wouldn't let this happen, but it did.
"I just don't know why a quarterback has to be 6'8" and 230 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes," he says. "A team will invest in someone like that and say that he's going to be its quarterback six years down the road. But why can't a team do that with a guy who is 6'1" and black? People still think a black guy isn't going to be a smart quarterback, and that's b.s. People have said to me, 'Once they move you to wide receiver, they won't let you play quarterback again.' Well, I will do all I can to play quarterback again."
Cowher treads lightly when the subject turns to Stewart's future. He didn't even approach Stewart about trying a new job until wide receiver Johnnie Barnes went down with a knee injury after the third game of the season. Cowher had seen Stewart run a few patterns in practice and asked him if he would like to catch some balls for real. Stewart was excited but apprehensive. Was this to be the end of his quarterback career?
Says Steinberg, "We had a long discussion, and finally he said, 'My team needs me, and it's better than standing on the sidelines.' The Steelers assured us that Kordell's future was still as a quarterback."
Last week Cowher didn't sound as if he were ready to let Stewart excuse himself from the wide receiver meetings just yet. When asked if he thought Stewart had a future as a quarterback, Cowher said simply, "I think he has a future as a quarterback-slash-receiver." Cowher is extremely proud of that nickname. Maybe he just doesn't want Stewart to lose it.
"Actually, I'm Slash Junior," says Stewart. "Slash Senior is down in Louisiana. He's a barber-slash-house painter-slash-carpenter. He does more things than I do, believe me."
Robert Stewart is like everyone else with a TV and an interest in the NFL. He is getting quite a kick out of the phenomenon who happens to be the youngest of his three children. Robert has a small barbershop in Marrero, La., and he also runs a home-remodeling business, offering everything from wallpapering to building additions. Kordell learned barbering from his father, and now, says Robert, "he does it better than me." Kordell cut the hair of many of his Colorado teammates, but as yet he has not set up a chair in the Steeler locker room. "Probably doesn't want anyone to know," says Robert. "They'll never leave him alone. He's real good."