The most depressing day in recent Pittsburgh Steelers history was drawing to a close, and the AFC champions stood quietly on the sideline of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Sunday, absorbing their season-opening slap in the face and reacting like zombies. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who normally displays all the restraint of Robin Williams on an espresso binge, merely folded his arms and scowled in the final minutes of his team's 24-9 defeat to the second-year Jacksonville Jaguars. The Steelers' emotional leader, All-Pro linebacker Greg Lloyd, was long gone, his season ended in the third quarter by a torn patella tendon in his left knee. Starting quarterback Jim Miller stood alone with a football under his arm at one end of the bench area, while veteran backup Mike Tomczak was on one knee off by himself at the opposite end.
Only one person, a 23-year-old spot player who may be Pittsburgh's best hope for resuscitating its offense, showed any fiery defiance. Kordell (Slash) Stewart, the Steelers' quarterback/running back/receiver/rabble-rouser, walked around jawing at teammates, at one point getting up close and personal with 245-pound running back Jerome Bettis for an amicable but spirited conversation. "A lot of crazy stuff was happening out there," Stewart explained later. "You wonder why certain things happen, you talk about them, and you try to get them resolved."
Stewart did not share the specifics of his discussions with teammates, but the subject matter wasn't difficult to pinpoint. Seven months removed from a near upset of the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, the Steelers were drowning in the wake of Lloyd's injury and quarterback Neil O'Donnell's off-season departure, by free agency, to the New York Jets. The leadership void is daunting, but Stewart's instincts in that regard were surfacing as the clock wound down against Jacksonville. A novelty act who made an impact as a rookie, Stewart wants to "play quarterback only—starting right now."
Stewart has become wary of the multipurpose role he played last year. He believes opposing defenses have caught on to it, he thinks it is disruptive to the team's other quarterbacks, he fears it will delay his opportunity to become the full-time quarterback, and he has already lost his enthusiasm for it. "Last year I was like an infant," he says. "This year I know better. If [the multipurpose role] is not working, all it does is throw off our offensive rhythm, and I'm just not into it."
Stewart competed for the quarterback job in the preseason, but Miller was declared the winner of the three-man bake-off. After the Steelers' poor performance in the season opener, Stewart, like many of his offensive teammates, believes he is the best man to lead the club. "Just put the damn ball in Kordell's hands and let's get on with it," said one prominent Pittsburgh player as he walked off the field. "He's the guy who people respond to, and we can all see that, so let's stop messing around."
In his postgame address to the team, Cowher promised he would "make some choices," meaning he would reduce the lineup juggling that made the Steelers' offensive unit resemble a hockey team changing lines every few minutes. Pittsburgh scored like a hockey team too. The Steelers were held without a touchdown by the Jaguars' once laughable Teal Curtain defense. Despite a lively running game—Bettis, the rejuvenated St. Louis Rams castoff, and Erric Pegram combined for 101 yards on 21 carries—Pittsburgh got no closer than the Jaguars' four-yard line. That came with two minutes left in the third quarter and Jacksonville leading 14-6. The ensuing sequence underscored the Steelers' struggles. On second-and-goal from the four, Stewart replaced Miller, ran an option that fooled no one and lost a yard. Miller returned on third down and badly overthrew wideout Andre Hastings in the end zone. Pittsburgh settled for a field goal. Miller, who completed 9 of 17 passes for 83 yards, spent the rest of the day on the sideline.
While Miller bombed in his first NFL start, neither Stewart nor Tomczak showed much in relief. After filling in at quarterback, fullback and slot receiver in the first three quarters, Stewart took over for Miller at the start of the fourth. He handed the ball to Bettis and threw two incompletions; Pittsburgh punted; and the Jaguars advanced the ball far enough for Mike Hollis to boot a 52-yard field goal, making the score 17-9 with 8:25 remaining. In came 12-year veteran Tomczak, whose first play was a quick sideline pass to Charles Johnson. Jacksonville linebacker Kevin Hardy, the second player picked in the '96 draft, suckered Tomczak with an inside fake, then darted in front of Johnson for an interception, and the Jaguars marched to a game-clinching touchdown.
The Steelers had one last gasp, but Jacksonville turned Tomczak into Tomsack, dropping him on back-to-back plays. The Jaguars, who had a league-low 17 sacks in their inaugural season, produced four on Sunday—one of many signs of progress for a team that believes it is a playoff contender. "We've got something special here," said Jacksonville receiver Keenan McCardell, who beat Pittsburgh cornerback Willie Williams for a 15-yard touchdown catch 16 seconds before halftime. "We just beat the AFC champions, and it wasn't a fluke."
When the Jaguars just beat the Steelers 20-16 in the first meeting between the two clubs last October, it was one of the season's biggest upsets. Sunday's game wasn't even close. "We got our asses kicked," said Hastings. "I'm embarrassed."
The game began with the Jaguars scoring on their first drive, as receiver Willie Jackson left Pittsburgh cornerback Rod Woodson flat-footed and raced down the sideline with a 38-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Mark Brunell. The game ended with 70,210 fans singing Happy Birthday to that noted party animal, Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin, who had turned 50 a day earlier. And the scary thing is, the day could have been even more festive for the Jaguars.