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The NFL
Peter King
December 06, 1999
Slash and Burn Pittsburgh has backed itself into a corner with Kordell Stewart
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December 06, 1999

The Nfl

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QUARTERBACK, YEARS

RECORD*

TDS

INT.

YARDS

QB RATING

1. Neil O'Donnell, 1991-95

39-22

65

39

12,529

81.3

2. Bubby Brister, 1986-92

28-29

50

52

10,000

71.3

3. Kordell Stewart, 1995-99

27-20

38

45

7,105

68.2

4. Mark Malone, 1984-87

21-22

49

58

7,356

63.7

*As starter

Slash and Burn
Pittsburgh has backed itself into a corner with Kordell Stewart

For the second time in 15 days, the Steelers lost at home on Sunday to a pathetic rival. On the heels of a last-second defeat by the expansion Browns, a team Pittsburgh had beaten 43-0 in September, came one that might have stung even more, a 27-20 loss to the 1-10 Bengals. So the crowd in the north end zone at Three Rivers Stadium tore into the man they held responsible.

"Kordell, you suck!" one fan yelled. "You piece of s—-!" screamed another. And those were a couple of the nicer comments directed at Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart as he ran off the field and into the tunnel. Following him soon after was Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, and one sentence he uttered after observing the scene spoke volumes about the wretched state of Stewart's game and his inability to demonstrate that he has the qualities essential to a pro quarterback. "Kordell," Gilbride said moments after leaving the field, "is letting this crowd destroy him."

So much so that after the game, coach Bill Cowher—who wasn't exactly having a good week himself, what with rumors flying that he would quit at season's end-decided it was time for a change, Cowher announced that 37-year-old Mike Tomczak would start this Thursday at Jacksonville and suggested that he'd return Stewart to the rushing/receiving/quarterbacking role that earned him the nickname Slash, a role in which he was such an electric performer in his first two years in the league, 1995 and '96.

Stewart took the demotion well, maybe too well. He tried to be cool. He even denied that he was being demoted, though when you're replaced by a player like Tomczak, a 15-year veteran who has thrown only 81 touchdown passes during his career (and 100 interceptions), it's hard to call it anything else. Away from the horde of reporters and cameras, however, Stewart admitted that the fans may be affecting him.

"Obviously you hear the crowd," he said, getting more worked up with each sentence. "You can't not hear the crowd. I just want to shut 'em up. I just want to shut 'em up so bad, you have no idea."

The Steelers, 5-6 after losing three straight and in danger of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, have one heck of a dilemma: Their quarterback stinks, but they're contractually wedded to him. The players and coaches have little choice but to publicly support him, even though they have to be thinking that he's the second coming of Bubby Brister—if only he were that good. In his 57 starts with Pittsburgh, Brister had a quarterback rating that is 3.1 points higher than the one Stewart has put up in his 47 starts (chart, above). Also, since the start of the '98 season, Stewart is the 28th-rated quarterback in the league. Asked after Sunday's game if he still thought Stewart could be a good NFL quarterback, Cowher simply replied, "Yeah."

If that's ever to happen, Stewart has a lot of work to do. He presses. He doesn't let his game flow the way he did when he was one of the league's most exciting players. He throws poorly on the run. On the first series against the Bengals he darted out of the pocket to his right and threw across his body in the direction of wideout Will Blackwell. But the ball was three strides behind Blackwell and went right into the arms of Bengals cornerback Rodney Heath.

On the Steelers' fourth series Stewart locked on to Cincinnati's pass rush and tried to float a throw to god knows who. No Pittsburgh player was within eight yards of the pass. Heath plucked the ball out of the air and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown. That put the Bengals up 21-3 and sent Stewart to the bench. "What he has to learn," says Steelers president Dan Rooney, "is that he can't look at the rush. We're trying to teach him that."

Stewart thinks he works hard at his job, but he doesn't work nearly hard enough. Tomczak gets to weekday morning film sessions by 7:15 or 7:30. Stewart regularly arrives after 8. Who's the starter here?

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