King for a Day
Kordell Stewart led the Steelers to a surprise win over the Raiders and won over Pittsburgh fans—for now
Kordell Stewart held the game ball tightly in his right arm as he practically skipped across the Three Rivers Stadium field on Sunday, having just engineered the Steelers' 21-20 upset of the Raiders. What the game meant to Stewart: The weight of the world, in his case football-mad Pittsburgh, had been lifted from his shoulders. What the game meant to the 7-6 Steelers: Stunningly, they appear to have found their quarterback—again.
"It's been hard," Stewart said later of his four up-and-down seasons as the passer Pittsburgh fans at first loved but then loathed. "It's been sooooo hard. Nobody could know how hard. Today was just, well, just fun. A lot of fun."
In this game Stewart showed guts, in coming back from a painful calf injury that sidelined him for the second quarter; pinpoint passing, in making two touchdown throws, one a 19-yard rainbow to wideout Bobby Shaw; athleticism, in breaking four tackles on a 17-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown; and moxie, in challenging Oakland's All-Pro cornerback, Charles Woodson and beating him repeatedly.
By clinging to the ball, Stewart held on to his great feeling of accomplishment, and the crowd stood and cheered as he approached the players' tunnel. Then he was so overwhelmed by the moment of redemption that he tossed the ball into the crowd that for two years has eaten him for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Many strange things have happened in this NFL season, but the revival of the 28-year-old Stewart has to be one of the strangest. He lost a training camp battle with free-agent pickup Kent Graham this summer, and got his job back only after Graham struggled early on.
There is no guarantee Stewart will be Pittsburgh's quarterback on opening day 2001, when the team moves into the new stadium being built next to Three Rivers, but coach Bill Cowher said last Saturday that Stewart's play has been so impressive of late that "I don't see how you wouldn't see him as your quarterback of the future. I don't want to pass judgment with a month left in the regular season, but I look at all the quarterbacks who've been down at one time and then went on to play very well—Rich Gannon, Vinny Testaverde, Chris Chandler—and I can see Kordell in them. He's playing with confidence. He's playing with the trust of his coaches and teammates. He's come back from hard times and earned it."
In 1997, his third year as a pro but his first full season at quarterback, Stewart threw for 21 touchdowns and ran for 11 more. He was the poster child for future NFL quarterbacks—strong-armed, athletic, a terrific runner. But the offensive coordinator who was instrumental in Stewart's conversion from a reserve QB/WR/RB to a successful starting quarterback, Chan Gailey, left to coach the Cowboys in 1998 and seemingly took the magic with him.
The Stewart who labored under new offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in 1998 and '99 (a combined 17 touchdown passes, 28 interceptions, zero confidence) forced too many throws and chafed at the constraints of being turned into a pocket passer. Late last season Cowher yanked Stewart from under center and played him almost exclusively at wide receiver, and Stewart hit rock bottom. "I figured that was it for me here, that I'd never have a real chance to be the quarterback again," he says.
But after Graham faltered, Stewart got another chance. Though his numbers are still mediocre—he has completed only 52% of his passes—Stewart has a better understanding of when to leave the pocket and when to stay, when to force a ball into coverage and when to throw it away. When Stewart returned in the third quarter on Sunday, he marched Pittsburgh 91 yards in 16 plays, capping the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Bruener.