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Stewart leaves whipping boy vacancy

You won’t have Kordell Stewart to kick around anymore.

Unless Tommy Maddox announces his retirement some time in the next 15 minutes, Stewart will be playing for somebody else next season. He said as much on Monday. Since I established myself as Pittsburgh’s number one Kordell Stewart apologist a long time ago, I think now would be a good time for me to, once and for all, explain why I have subjected myself to scorn and ridicule from so many for so long.

It began in 1994 when he was the quarterback for Colorado and I saw him destroy Wisconsin, at the time a top 10 team, on national TV. Later that season he threw a 76 yard (in the air) Hail Mary to beat Michigan in one of the most amazing plays in college football history. The following April, on the day of the NFL draft, I wrote in a column that the Steelers should pick him if he’s still available on the second round. They did. You know what happened in 1995 and 1996. Then I watched him in 1997, his first year as a starter, throw for 21 touchdowns and run for 11. He’s still the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 20 and run for more than 10 in the same season.

I also watched him stink up the league in 1998 and 1999.

This is where I part company with most people. I attribute his putrid play in those two seasons to monumentally bad coaching. Bill Cowher coached much worse than Stewart quarterbacked. First, Cowher chose Ray Sherman to replace Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator in 1998. Sherman was an unmitigated disaster. The players knew it. The front office knew it and Cowher finally figured it out. By the end of the season Cowher had taken the play calling duties away from Sherman. Of course, it didn’t help Sherman or Stewart that Yancey Thigpen, an All Pro receiver who had set a Steelers record for receiving yards, had been allowed to leave via free agency. (Think Tommy Maddox’ performance might dip a little if Hines Ward disappeared and Ray Sherman became offensive coordinator next week?) It was early in Sherman’s tenure when I read a piece in The Sporting News that suggested ways for Stewart to return to his 1997 form. The writer suggested more play action passes, rollouts and bootlegs. He had gone over the tapes of the Steelers first six games and counted something like five play action passes.

I decided to count the play fakes in the Steelers’ next game. I counted two. When I suggested in a Bill Cowher news conference that the Steelers weren’t doing much play action, I was publicly scolded by Cowher and later invited to his office to go over the previous game, play by play. He counted three.

Kevin Gilbride followed Sherman in 1999 and decided to squeeze Stewart’s square peg into his system’s round hole. The conventional wisdom around the league was that Gilbride’s system was a good one, but that it took two years for teams to learn it. Stewart wasn’t helped by the fact that he would be learning it after losing his best receiver (Charles Johnson) for the second year in a row. Stewart’s three starting wide receivers, Troy Edwards, Hines Ward and Courtney Hawkins had combined for one touchdown reception the previous season. Neither Ward nor Edwards, a rookie, had ever caught a touchdown pass in the NFL. I continued to keep track of the rollouts and play fakes and they were just as few and far between as they were under Sherman.

By the end of the 1999 season Cowher had stupidly turned Stewart into a wide receiver and installed Mike Tomczak at quarterback. Stewart will carry that baggage with him for the rest of his career. Tomczak led the Steelers to a 1-4 record down the stretch.

Cowher continued his brilliant handling of his quarterback situation by bringing in Kent Graham for the 2000 season. Enough said• Not long after Graham embarrassed himself and the entire organization and lost his job, Stewart was still being scolded by Gilbride for running, including once after a 30-yard gain. Meanwhile, I was still counting rollouts and play fakes and they were just as rare as ever.

We all know what happened in 2001. Mike Mularkey became offensive coordinator and Tom Clements was hired to coach the quarterbacks. I couldn’t keep track of the fakes and the rollouts anymore. Stewart rushed for 537 yards without being scolded and was voted MVP by his teammates. He went to the Pro Bowl. Of course, he also “lost’ the AFC Championship game.

Then came the bad start this season. Almost every top quarterback in the NFL had a stretch this season that was as bad as Stewart’s first three games. I know. I looked it up. They just didn’t have the baggage that Bill Cowher, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride dumped on Stewart in 1998 and 1999. Benched again.

Stewart’s bags are packed now and Pittsburgh will have to find a new whipping boy.


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