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Madden: Unlike Stewart, Maddox earned benefit of the doubt

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

The sports journalism business spawns idea after idea, with each generally more bizarre than the last. But the thought that Charlie Batch should even be considered to replace Tommy Maddox as the Steelers' starting quarterback truly puts the "duh" in dumb.

Any quarterback "controversy" right now is just guilt disguised as fairness. "Kordell Stewart got a quick hook last season," the latter-day King Solomons proclaim, "so Maddox should not get any more benefit of the doubt." Sounds like some people are remorseful about running Stewart out of town.

Not me. I have no regrets. Nor should the Steelers.

The current situation with Maddox bears little resemblance to the circumstances surrounding Stewart when Maddox took his job. Stewart had a Pro Bowl year in 2001, but when he performed horribly to start 2002, his track record gave every indication that he would continue to falter. Stewart has never been one to snap out of a slump and suddenly start playing great. His fragile psyche prevents that.

Stewart played well in 1997 and 2001. He has otherwise done poorly. Looking at Stewart's career resume, it's fair to say that the two good seasons were flukes.

Maddox doesn't have much of a NFL resume. In fact, last year is virtually all we have to judge him by.

Some say Maddox is injury-prone. I'm not sure where that comes from. Maddox did get hurt once last year, when he had the paralysis scare at Tennessee. But he came back quickly and performed well. The fact that his lack of mobility often makes him a sitting duck might give the illusion that he's injury-prone. People see Maddox as a concussion case waiting to happen. But that hasn't happened yet.

Maddox played very well last year. In some ways, he did better than Stewart did in 2001.

In 11 starts last season, Maddox threw for 2,836 yards and 20 touchdowns while surrendering 16 interceptions. His passer rating was 85.2. In 2001, Stewart started all 16 games, throwing for 3,109 yards and rushing for 537. He threw 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His passer rating was 81.7.

More significant, Maddox played well in the playoffs last season. Stewart has been useless in the postseason. He averaged just 129 yards passing per game as the Steelers' playoff quarterback.

In two playoff games last season, Maddox threw for 633 yards and five touchdowns. Maddox was a major catalyst in the Steelers' comeback win against Cleveland. He helped keep them in the loss at Tennessee.

Stewart sowed the seeds for losing his job in the 2001 playoffs. Maddox did no such thing in last year's playoffs. Even if Maddox starts 2003 as poorly as Stewart did 2002, his showing in last year's postseason should buy him quite a bit of extra time.

Maddox is having problems with his accuracy. Big deal. It's the preseason, remember? Stewart had accuracy issues for the length of his career in Pittsburgh. Maddox will snap out of it.

Supporters of Batch point to his four years as Detroit's starter, panting over the "experience" he gained there like he's Bobby Layne. Fact is, Batch's days with the Lions were not exactly fraught with glory, and he ultimately lost his job to Mike McMahon, which meant Batch wasn't even considered the best quarterback from Western Pennsylvania on the Lions' roster in 2001.

Of course, Batch's WPIAL pedigree means oodles to the yinzers and will fuel the fire when Steelers Nation starts idiotically clamoring to give the local guy a shot.

Batch is a sound backup and was an OK starter with the Lions, helping them to a rare playoff appearance in 1999. But Detroit dipped to 2-14 in 2001, Batch's final season there. His passer rating peaked at 84.1 in Detroit, but dipped to a meager 67.3 in 2000, his last full season as the starter.

Anyone who sees Batch as the answer is misguided, nuts or more likely driven by the tradition that no matter who the quarterback is, Picksburghers want the other guy to play. Hanratty instead of Bradshaw, Bradshaw instead of Gilliam, Stewart instead of Tomczak, anyone instead of O'Donnell. The favorite quarterback of the Steelers' faithful always is whoever isn't playing.

Among quarterbacks now with the Steelers, Maddox is by far the best. But the Steelers don't see him as the long-term solution. That became obvious when they didn't give Maddox a long-term contract extension in the off-season. For a long-term answer, the Steelers should look West to St. Louis.

Marc Bulger was the Rams' MVP last year and was the only thing keeping them in the respectability zone after Kurt Warner faltered/was hurt. Warner was inexplicably handed back the job this season. The quarterback position wasn't thrown open in camp. Bulger was shoved to one side and Warner was re-anointed.

Bulger is not the sort to grouse. But he does want to play. If Warner starts all season, Bulger will want out of St. Louis, and Pittsburgh would be a logical place to land. The rifle-armed, sharp-minded Bulger, 26, would be an ideal match for the Steelers' corps of young, talented receivers.

Not only that, but he's a Central Catholic High School graduate. Give the local guy a shot!

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

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