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Madden: Stewart's absence makes no sense

Saturday, April 07, 2001

Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart has been invisible this off-season. More invisible than he was during the 1998 and '99 seasons.

Stewart has not been in Pittsburgh working out with his teammates. In fact, he hasn't been in Pittsburgh at all. Stewart hasn't bothered to meet new Steelers quarterback coach Tom Clements. Stewart is reportedly still upset with Coach Bill Cowher for benching him at the end of 1999 and at the beginning of last season, although he couldn't be as upset as I was when Cowher put Stewart back in.

Steelers owner Dan Rooney believes all of this is no big deal. Maybe it's not. Stewart isn't required to be working out in Pittsburgh now.

But Stewart's prolonged absence from the city where he makes his living is definitely another sign that he just doesn't get it.

Stewart has put himself on a pedestal since '97, his solid first season (and only good season) as a starting quarterback. He once spoke of himself as a potential Hall-of-Famer and still speaks of himself in the third person. He seems wholly incapable of realizing that he isn't very good, that he drastically needs to improve.

Many believe Stewart played well in the second half of last season. By whose standards, Ryan Leaf's? Stewart averaged a meager 203 yards total offense -- that includes his vastly overrated run production -- in the final eight games. He only looked good compared to how he looked in the previous 21/2 seasons. Stewart did help the Steelers go 9-7, but the team missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year. They are one of only four NFL teams to miss the postseason the past three seasons -- all seasons which saw Stewart serve as the Steelers' primary quarterback.

If I'm Stewart, I don't know the meaning of the word "optional." I'm lifting and running with my teammates in the winter, spring and summer, earning their respect and furthering my leadership. I'm playing catch with Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards and trying not to get frustrated by all the drops. I'm watching film, I'm reading the playbook, I'm helping new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey revise the playbook and I'm soaking up whatever pearls of wisdom Clements offers.

But I'm not Stewart.

The guy who is, well, he's on vacation. Which is a nice way of saying he's out to lunch.

I realize quarterbacks often have their own regimen. I'd like to know what Stewart's is. I have a feeling it doesn't stretch much beyond the boundaries of what's required by his contract.

Former Steelers quarterback Mike Tomczak once made Steelers management unhappy when he said Stewart doesn't work hard enough. Shame on you for being right, Mike.

This isn't just another "rip Kordell" column. This is about the facts. Go to the Steelers' training complex and watch the Steelers work out. You won't see Stewart. Many of his teammates are in town. Why not Stewart?

If Stewart believes he's good enough, he's wrong. If he believes he's progressing at a good clip, he's wrong. If he believes he can do without the extra work, he's wrong. He isn't an established NFL quarterback by any remote stretch of the imagination. The fans and media got off his back late last season not only because he did progress from bad to mediocre, but also because blasting him got boring. I know I got tired of it.

The reality of the situation is this: The Steelers don't get enough production or leadership from the quarterback position. They went 9-7 last season despite Stewart, not because of him.

Skills can be learned and production increased by doing extra work. Leadership can be earned by doing extra work. But Stewart doesn't do any extra work. That seems evident. Stewart treats being a pro quarterback like it's a job with a time clock when it's really a year-round labor.

A bit more shocking than Stewart's perennially laissez-faire attitude is the continued deterioration of his relationship with Cowher. It's shocking, but not surprising.

Cowher tried to be more than a coach to Stewart. He tried to be a friend. A father figure. Then, as Stewart faltered, Cowher had to make a tough decision. To Cowher's credit, he made the right decision, sitting Stewart for a significant period. Cowher reportedly started Kent Graham at the beginning of last season in an attempt to change the bad attitude of Steelers fans toward Stewart by making him an underdog. Given Stewart's ultrasensitivity, that decision is understandable and pathetic at the same time.

It's one thing to be benched by your coach. It's another to be benched by your buddy. Stewart likely felt betrayed, like he was the scapegoat for the Steelers' failures. He might still feel that way.

It's reminiscent of the situation with the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL, where General Manager Bob Clarke and star player Eric Lindros went from being very close to being sworn enemies. Cowher and Stewart aren't sworn enemies. But there is definitely tension.

The name for the Steelers' new stadium is a subject of considerable debate. I've got an idea. How about calling the stadium "The Big Top?" Because if Stewart plays poorly and the Steelers start out badly this coming fall, it has the potential to be home to one heck of a circus.

Assuming Stewart shows up for work by then.


Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM 1250.

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