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Steelers Exclusive! Finder on the Web: Kordell must keep playing

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Told you so....OK, that's enough gloating.


Written in this cyberspace one week ago was an ode to the old Kordell Stewart, a plea to start him again, a thesis that now is the best -- if not last -- time to test run his Steelers future. So let's not waste any more time discussing my genius, my prescience, and get right to the point.

Stewart must play.


Coach Bill Cowher may proceed with his charade about Kent Graham being his undisputed starter. Cowher may continue to delude himself that Graham deserves to keep the No. 1 quarterback job and Stewart deserves to retreat to sideline duty away from the Three Rivers Stadium boos, something that certainly will cascade faster on Graham what with the backup's sudden resurgence in Pittsburgh popularity. Cowher may make whatever mental machinations he wants to employ.

But the result must be unwavering: The Steelers need to play both quarterbacks.

Graham, who is not the future, possesses a proven pocket record in Kevin Gilbride's pass-happy offense and the immobility that allows opposing pass rushers the chance to play vulture to a road-kill designated thrower off the bench.

Stewart, who is trying to prove whether he belongs in the Steelers' future, possesses a 2-0 record the past two weeks and a dose of confidence last seen in that AFC championship game season of 1997.

So go ahead and start Graham.

Then bring in Stewart on the third or fourth series. Allow each to play a spell. Give the wheel to the offense's best driver by the fourth quarter.

Play Stewart on those odd, Slash-esque downs, if you still want. The selection process remains a bit murky to me, though. Three downs at the Baltimore goal line, but not the fourth? Second-and-22 one game, but not second-and-21 the next? You coaches writing these "game situations" down somewhere?

The jury may still be out for Stewart, but the evidence is overwhelming from the Jacksonville and New York Jets road victories the past two weeks. Granted, as all you e-mailers reminded me after last week's column, the defense and running game were the main proponents in the Jacksonville triumph. The defense again seized the day throughout that 20-3 victory Sunday over the Jets. Yet Stewart's contributions cannot be mealy-mouthed: He scrambled for first downs, he kept defenses guessing, he converted third downs (10 of 18 Sunday alone), he played mistake-free.

Seventeen of 26 for 140 yards weren't the vital Stewart numbers to note Sunday. These were: completions to eight different receivers (including not one, but two tight ends!), three 13-play scoring drives, 11 passing first downs, zero interceptions. True, he has been a bit fortunate there while showing that even he can overthrow a 6-foot-6 Plaxico Burress. But he did conjure the Steelers' first passing touchdown of the year, after 19 dry quarters. He did drive the offense effectively enough in back-to-back victories, after a dozen regular-season Steelers weeks without such a streak (for which he was responsible in only the first two such losses). He did manage some weighty plays on those long scoring drives Sunday: third-down throws for double-digit yardage and timely runs on scoring drives of 94, 87 and 53 yards that ate up nearly a quarter and a half of clock all by themselves.

Cowher knows Graham is a nice passing quarterback who offers consistency and no reason for Three Rivers patrons to hurtle either invective or ale. Yet Stewart's glimmer of 1997 form requires further 2000 testing, begs for further proof. This isn't so much about whoever offers the Steelers the best chance of winning, although they are 0-3 with Graham the starter. This is about confounding defenses now and convincing Steelers brass about a potential future with Stewart.

Just the same, the decision on the surface seems so easy. Graham is 15-21 as an NFL starter in nine seasons and returning from a nasty hip injury. Stewart is 25-20 as an NFL starter in what amounts to less than three full seasons at quarterback and the hot Steelers hand.

"There are no ifs, ands or buts about it," Cowher said in the Jets aftermath, firmly affixing that jaw. "That's the way it's going to be."

All right, all right, start Graham.

But Stewart must play.

Give Graham the chance to stretch defenses vertically with his passes, then permit Stewart the opportunity to bend, fold and mutilate them horizontally with his arm and legs and unpredictability.

Shoot, even heretofore anti-Stewart Steelers fanatics seem to suddenly support him. Look at the polls. Fifty-one percent of the voters at the www.Steelers.com Web site favor awarding the backup quarterback a Jets game ball. Sixty-five percent of the voters in a KDKA-TV poll preferred him over Graham as the starter for Sunday's home date with Cincinnati. Bush and Gore wish they could sway the populace so hastily.

I know from last week's e-mails that I cannot sway the populace.

No matter how right I am.

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