Throughout training camp last year, Kordell Stewart, the perennially embattled Steelers quarterback, could sense the doubt creeping back into his coaches' minds, could feel their leash tightening, and he thought, Here we go again. Never mind that in 2001 he'd led Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship Game and finished fourth in the league MVP voting. Stewart knew that he would be benched come that first big mistake. "Before the season even started, the book was shut on my situation," says Stewart. "In Pittsburgh I had to play perfectly—and that wasn't realistic."
Sure enough, after he threw a costly end-zone interception in Week 4 against the Browns, Stewart lost his job to Tommy Maddox, whose play in leading the Steelers to a comeback win in that game sealed Stewart's fate with the franchise. Even when Stewart replaced an injured Maddox seven weeks later and led Pittsburgh to two wins, he knew he was auditioning for some other team. "I was ready to go," says Stewart, who was released last Feb. 26 after eight erratic seasons in Pittsburgh. "I know I have lots to prove. I wanted to go where they'd have my back."
In Chicago he thinks he has found that team—a club that knows something about ups and downs. In 2001 the unsung Bears were the NFL's feel-good story, going 13-3 and winning the NFC Central. With expectations duly raised last year, Chicago promptly caved, devastated by injuries and an eight-game losing streak on its way to a 4-12 finish. Even with healthy starters, offensive coordinator John Shoop's run-oriented, short-passing sets had been uninspiring, but last year, with 15 starting offensive lineups and a patchwork line, the attack was plodding and anemic. Chicago ranked 29th in the league in total offense (274.7 yards a game) and tied for 29th in average gain per play (4.5 yards), while brittle quarterbacks Jim Miller (released last February) and 37-year-old Chris Chandler (now Stewart's backup) struggled to stay upright. Enter the durable Stewart, signed to a two-year, $5 million contract in the hope that he'll recapture his, and Chicago's, 2001 magic.
"When we brought him in, it was, 'You're the starter,' " Bears coach Dick Jauron says. "We've incorporated his running ability into our game plans, which will make him that much more dangerous. If he's not throwing the ball, he's coming out—but I don't mean out of the game. He's running." Says wideout Marty Booker, whose 97 catches and 1,189 receiving yards made him the team's only offensive standout last year, "I can't wait to see that first 30-yard scramble. It'll loosen everything up."
But Stewart can't carry the offense with his legs. The Bears need a return to form by third-year halfback Anthony Thomas, whose tale of two seasons is all too familiar: 1,183 rushing yards as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2001, 721 yards in an injury-shortened '02. Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz leads a line that at least remained healthy through camp, though right tackle Marc Colombo, sidelined since breaking his kneecap last Nov. 18, is out indefinitely.
Stewart looked shaky at times during training camp—particularly when making quick reads and taking shorter drops than he's accustomed to—but Shoop and Jauron are quick to laud their pupil's aptitude and enthusiasm. "He's playing in a QB-friendly system," says Jauron, who insists Stewart won't have to worry about giving way to Chandler or impressive rookie Rex Grossman, a first-round draft pick out of Florida. "Our progressions are simple, and he won't be doing things he's never done. I have no reason to doubt Kordell. He's our guy."
Stewart beams when told of Jauron's vote of confidence. If all he needed with the Steelers was similar support, he has no excuses now. "I can't explain how good it feels to be appreciated," he said after an August practice in which his every move brought ovations from Bears' faithful in attendance, a regular occurrence during camp. "I want validation. And I want it here."
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