Air's Gone Out of Steelers Attack
After last Friday's practice at Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart and wideout Will Blackwell stood near the 10-yard line and, in a test of skill, threw footballs at the goalpost. Blackwell was the first to clank one off an upright, and for his effort he received a standing ovation from a small group of stadium workers. "They were excited because they thought they had found a new quarterback," quipped Stewart.
After helping Pittsburgh get to the AFC Championship Game and making the Pro Bowl as an alternate in his first year as a starter last season, Stewart is going through a severe slump. In eight games he has completed just 117 of 220 passes for 1,159 yards and six touchdowns, and he has thrown 10 interceptions. In a 41-31 loss to the Oilers on Sunday, though he threw for a season-high 230 yards, Stewart was replaced in the fourth quarter after throwing three interceptions and with the Steelers trailing 41-15.
The Steelers rank next to last in the NFL with 146.5 passing yards per game, and Stewart ranks ahead of only three other passers in the league's quarterback ratings, with a 58.5 mark. "I would love to have games where I throw for 400 yards," says Stewart. "But I've come to understand that that doesn't matter. If I throw for 82 yards and we win, to me those are great numbers."
The company line in Pittsburgh takes much the same tone: If the Steelers are winning, then Stewart isn't struggling. "If we were 2-5, then I'd be concerned," first-year offensive coordinator Ray Sherman said last Friday. "We win the ball game, and then someone says, 'Hey Kordell didn't throw for 200 yards' Well, who gives a crap? We won the game."
But Pittsburgh is 5-3 and a game behind the Jaguars in the AFC Central, and Stewart hasn't performed up to last year's level. More than anyone, he has been affected by the team's annual free-agent exodus. Left tackle John Jackson signed with the Chargers after 10 years in Pittsburgh, and this year the Steelers have already surrendered 17 sacks—only three fewer than they gave up all of last season. Stewart's favorite target last year was wideout Yancey Thigpen, who caught 79 passes, then signed with the Oilers in the off-season. And offensive coordinator Chan Gailey left to coach the Cowboys.
"Everything is different for Kordell this year," says running back Jerome Bettis. "He had to start from scratch with the line, the receivers and a coordinator with his own philosophies, and that has created some mumbo jumbo in Kordell's head."
"I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Dang, I'm disappointed,' " Stewart says. "We're winning, and I know the best is yet to come." With a game against the Packers looming on Monday night, the Steelers certainly hope so.
A Sweetheart In New York
After he was unable to cut a deal with either the Broncos or the Seahawks in the off-season, free-agent linebacker Bryan Cox was preparing to settle into a life of golf, softball and training thoroughbreds at his Florida farm, which is appropriately named Freakman Stables. Then Jets coach Bill Parcells called and offered him a job.