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Madden: It should be now or never for Kordell

Saturday, August 11, 2001

I am totally in favor of giving Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart a fair chance to retain his starting job this season. A good chance. A fighting chance.

A last chance.

Enough is enough. This year must be make-or-break time for Stewart. If he doesn't put himself in the top half of NFL quarterbacks statistically and if he doesn't get the Steelers over .500 and at least close to a playoff berth, then Stewart has got to go. Not to the bench, either. To the airport. To another team.

As my radio colleague Jack Ham says, Stewart has been in Pittsburgh seven years, and the Steelers still aren't sure what they've got. As Ham also says, Stewart has never demonstrated the instinct -- the intangible "feel for the game" -- that separates good quarterbacks from bad quarterbacks.

When will Stewart define himself? When will he develop the necessary instincts?

I've got a simple answer for that: Now or never.

Stewart's play in the Steelers' exhibition game against Atlanta didn't make anyone forget Joe Montana. He was 2 for 7 for 14 yards, he didn't lead any sustained drives, his accuracy was, typically, flawed, and his play fakes were atrocious. On one fake handoff, Stewart didn't come within a yard of Jerome Bettis. That fake wouldn't have fooled Stevie Wonder, let alone the opposition's "spy," the defensive player assigned to keep track of where Stewart is and what he's doing.

I wasn't one of those rejoicing over the play of Tommy Maddox and Tee Martin. I just don't believe that excelling in the second half of the first exhibition game proves anything. I certainly don't live in the fantasy world where people believe that Maddox or Martin could and should start.

But I did find it curious that players like Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards went out of their way to praise the leadership of Maddox. When was the last time Stewart's leadership was praised with the same sort of enthusiasm and conviction?

Stewart's performance at Atlanta certainly brought the Kordell apologists out of hiding. I find it simultaneously hilarious and aggravating that Stewart fans still talk about 1997 as if it happened more recently than four years ago and as if that season should somehow be cause for encouragement today.

Sure, Stewart was great that year. Yeah, the Steelers got within a game of the Super Bowl. Then the entire NFL figured out how to defend Stewart and, except for some decent games during the second half of last season, he has been useless ever since.

The only thing funnier (and more maddening) than Kordell's fans citing 1997 is when they still rue the departure of receiver Yancey Thigpen. Let it go, please, I'm begging you.

A lot of Stewart's excuses are legitimate, though. He's worked with a plethora of offensive coordinators, most of whom had no idea how to utilize him properly. He's had to adjust to a different passing offense too many times. He's lost some good receivers and he's seen hotshot young receivers like Burress and Edwards underachieve (although Kordell's lack of timing and accuracy certainly hasn't helped). He's played behind a spotty offensive line.

None of those excuses will fly anymore.

Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey may be new at the job, but his offense is simple, easy and largely tailored to Stewart. Burress is a potential big-play superstar who seems to be progressing, and, even if Edwards disappears again, Hines Ward and Bobby Shaw have developed into very capable pass-catchers. Now that new center Jeff Hartings has (knock on wood) mastered the snap, Stewart is playing behind an offensive line that should be very good. Stewart also has new quarterbacks coach Tom Clements to refine his technique and help him over rough spots.

Stewart is plumb out of potential excuses.

Barring injury or an utter Steve Blass-like collapse, Stewart should start all season. If Stewart plays well on a consistent basis, fine. But if he doesn't, then he should be done. The Steelers should dump Stewart at the end of the year. They could draft a quarterback, sign a free-agent quarterback, trade for a quarterback, raffle off the job at a tailgate party, elevate Maddox or Martin -- by the way, those options are presented in order of potential for success --- but they would have to get rid of Stewart.

It hasn't happened since the heralded, almost holy year of 1997, but the Steelers have provided Stewart with a situation where he not only can succeed, but should succeed -- if he's good enough.

Here's hoping he is. But if Stewart isn't, he's got to go.

Heck, presidents don't get this long to prove themselves. Thigpen isn't coming back to the Steelers, 1997 was a long time ago, and talking as if Stewart's breakthrough is inevitable only makes those who spout such nonsense sound stupid. It's now or never.

I'll be blunt. I'm betting on never.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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