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Madden: Stewart winning rigged QB race

Saturday, November 18, 2000

"I think he took some strides the other day. They may have been baby strides, but I think he did take some strides."
-- Bill Cowher on Kordell Stewart's performance against Philadelphia

Kordell Stewart's passing statistics vs. the Eagles: 14 for 31, 159 yards.

They say statistics don't lie. Bill Cowher, I'm not so sure about.

After a brief hiatus while Kent Graham got a sham of a chance to be the starting quarterback earlier this season, the Cowher public relations machine is once again churning out absurd feel-good statements on behalf of Stewart. The Steelers' coach seems dedicated to the concept of convincing everyone -- including himself -- that Kordell is worthy of continued duty as the No. 1 pro quarterback in town.

I would love to live in the alternate reality, where throwing for 159 yards against a mediocre team is considered making progress for a fourth-year starting quarterback. Maybe I'd have a chance to win a Pulitzer Prize for my fine journalistic work on Monday night wrestling.

But then, maybe the Steelers' quarterback situation is very similar to pro wrestling. Maybe it was predetermined from the very first minute of Steelers' training camp, and Cowher decided to toss in a plot twist to placate Kordell bashers.

Maybe Cowher let Graham open the season knowing he would pull Graham the first time things went even marginally bad for him. Then, Cowher would -- and did -- insert Stewart, thus allowing him to "earn" the starting quarterback job. Then, as always, Cowher would stick with Kordell come hell, high water, overthrown passes and an endless series of sub-200-yard games.

This scenario is kind of silly, sure. It's a one-man conspiracy theory. All that's missing is a grassy knoll and an equally inaccurate second gunman.

But if you're among those who believe the Steelers' quarterback derby is a straight deal, answer this: How the heck is Stewart still the starter?

Kordell ranks 20th in the AFC in passing efficiency -- near the bottom, just like 1998 and '99. He appears more composed than in years past, but his arm is still scattershot. Stewart isn't making strides, baby or otherwise. He still looks to scramble far too often -- Kordell seemingly plans to improvise, an awesome oxymoron -- but, in fairness, the offense isn't geared to exploit his mobility. Tennessee's Steve McNair and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb roll out, run bootlegs and execute play-action. Kordell doesn't.

For whatever reason, Stewart doesn't produce. Yet he keeps playing.

Graham is better. No doubt. When he played, he gave the Steelers' passing game credibility. Ask the Tennessee Titans. With Graham behind center Sept. 24, the Titans played a straight defense. They knew Graham could burn them if they put too many men in the box. With Stewart taking snaps two weeks ago, Tennessee had everyone but the waterboy tight on the line. The Titans gave Kordell's arm zero respect. They might as well have been telling jokes about him over the PA.

But Graham isn't playing. And he won't. It's like 1996, when Cowher used Jim Miller to start the opener, then yanked him before the game was over. Mike Tomczak had suddenly "earned" No. 1 status.

Miller was set up. Just like Graham this year.

Sounds far-fetched? I agree. But come up with a logical explanation for the quarterback situation.

Graham's worst full game this season saw him throw for 173 yards. Stewart's best, this past Sunday, saw him throw for the aforementioned 159. The Steelers have won more behind Kordell, going 3-2 in games he's started. But they've done it despite him, not because of him. A quarterback's primary job is to throw for a decent amount of yards, to at least give the offense balance. Graham does. Kordell doesn't.

Cowher wants to win. But his desire to be right supersedes his lust for victory. Always has.

Cowher always has been vociferously behind Stewart. If he benches Stewart, he's wrong.

So Cowher won't bench Stewart. So he'll work out complicated scenarios to make it seem like the quarterback job is up for grabs when, in reality, it's been destined for Kordell all along. If that's not the case, why did Cowher pull Graham for bad play, yet Kordell has carte blanche to stink?

And believe me, things will get more inexplicable before they get more logical. This story line is far from played out. Cowher will be back to coach next season. And Stewart, no matter what he does the rest of this campaign, will start at quarterback next season. Bet on it. This coming off-season should see the Steelers -- personal seat license money and new luxury box cash in hand -- finally make bold moves via trade or free agency. It should see them acquire either St. Louis' Trent Green or Washington's Brad Johnson.

It will, instead, see them prepare for another year of Stewart's incompetence.

The only way to end the Kordell Stewart fiasco is to end the Bill Cowher era, an era that is quickly becoming a fiasco. For a while, it looked like Cowher was handling the quarterback position in a fair, impartial and logical matter. But now he's back to being a Little League father.

And that's how Cowher planned it all along.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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