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Madden: Stewart must prove his mettle

Saturday, September 28, 2002

The citizens are missing the point regarding the potential benching of Kordell Stewart tomorrow. Bill Cowher does not want to bench Stewart. That is not his ultimate goal. He merely wants Stewart to play better, and that would be a good thing, right?

Stewart has been coddled and babied by the Steelers' organization for so long that the great unwashed (as well as Kordell's media apologists) seem stunned now that a little good old-fashioned accountability is being demanded. Play better, or sit. Isn't that competitive sports in a nutshell?

Jack Ham suggested to me that Cowher is approaching this the wrong way. "Stewart is too sensitive," Ham said. "You're never going to get anything good out of him by threatening his job." (Jack was strangely mum when I pondered the possibility of Chuck Noll walking a wide emotional circle around a 29-year-old veteran for the sake of not shattering his psyche. Noll never pampered Terry Bradshaw, and we all seemed pretty excited about the results of that.)

Stewart is, indeed, very sensitive. Maybe he will crumple under the pressure when the Steelers face Cleveland tomorrow at Heinz Field.

But if Stewart wilts under the pressure of a challenge for his job, how is he supposed to withstand the pressure of competing for a Super Bowl? A Super Bowl is the Steelers' oft-stated goal, and it can be the only goal when you've just spent $40 million on signing bonuses. You don't sacrifice those dreams (or that kind of cash) at the altar of one man's fragile ego.

Maybe Stewart isn't getting enough credit in this instance. Maybe he will rise to the challenge, play well against the Browns and go on to greater glory.

If so, good. Again, that is the primary intent behind pressuring Stewart. If he folds, then it's time to give Tommy Maddox a shot.

I do not see Maddox as any kind of savior. I can't envision him being the reason the Steelers make the Super Bowl. But I also can't envision Maddox being the reason the Steelers don't make the Super Bowl. It's pretty easy to project Stewart into the latter scenario.

Maddox isn't half the athlete Stewart is. Luckily, Maddox won't be asked to run the decathlon. He'll be asked to bring accuracy and composure to the quarterback position, and you know what? He can do that. Maddox can execute the basics. And that might be all the Steelers need from a quarterback. Maybe they just need somebody who won't commit 16 turnovers in six games.

Stewart's reaction to the challenge was predictably pathetic.

"I can't do it all by myself," Stewart said. "It's not the Kordell Stewart show. It's the Pittsburgh Steelers show. I'm not Moses. I'm not going to part the sea."

No, Stewart isn't Moses. Moses never committed 16 turnovers in six games. But Stewart is the quarterback. He gets the most money, he gets the most glory and, in return, he has to shoulder the most responsibility. That's in every city, not just Pittsburgh. I'd feel a lot better about Stewart's chances tomorrow if he were talking about what he has to do, not what 22 guys have to do.

I remember when Mario Lemieux was just out of his teens and playing for some Penguins teams that were still pretty bad. Whenever they lost, he gladly took the blame. "I have to do more," Lemieux would say. "I get the most money. It's up to me to make this team win. I have to score more."

Such an attitude showed amazing maturity and accountability for someone so young. It was especially amazing when Lemieux would blame himself for not scoring more when he had just done something like rack up eight points in a 10-8 loss.

Sometimes you have to accept a burden even when it's unfair. When you do so, you lighten the load for your teammates, and you make them play harder for you. Lemieux always has understood that. I wonder if Stewart ever will. I can't think of one thing Stewart has ever done or said that would make his teammates want to try harder on his behalf.

Stewart is in his sixth season as the Steelers' starting quarterback. He was good last year and in 1997, but it's fair to say that he faded at the end of both seasons. He was terrible in '98 and '99, decent in 2000. Stewart rarely has played well in big games. When opportunities have materialized for him to take control in crucial situations, he has spit out the bit. Witness the end of the AFC final last season.

Given his career to date, I don't think it's even remotely unfair to demand more from Stewart.

By pressuring him, Cowher has made it probable that Stewart will rise or fall early against the Browns. Which is good, because the game is too crucial to mess around with. If Stewart performs well early, mission accomplished. If he fires up a few picks, get Maddox in there. The only goal tomorrow should be winning. If the Steelers start 0-3, the season is over.

Stewart always talks about how his daddy did a fine job of raising a man.

Tomorrow, we find out if that's true.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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