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Cook: Like it or not, Kordell's the man

Monday, September 03, 2001

A lot of fans went to Steelers games at Three Rivers Stadium and hoped to see Kordell Stewart get hurt. Tell the truth. You were one. You're not proud of it and you surely didn't wish for a serious injury. But would a sprained ankle have been so bad? Or maybe a bruised elbow? Anything to get Mike Tomczak on the field?

Times change, don't they?

Now, you have to go to games at Heinz Field and pray Kordell stays healthy.

More than ever, the Steelers are Stewart's team. He's not just their best chance of making the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. He's their only chance. You might not like it, but he almost certainly will be their best and only chance for years.

That irksome, in-your-face quote from Stewart in Friday's Post-Gazette?

"I am not going anywhere! Kordell Stewart is going to be here for a long time."

It's absolutely true.

Reality bites, doesn't it?

Actually, Stewart played well enough this summer to inspire at least some hope for the season, which starts Sunday in Jacksonville. He couldn't work with offensive coordinators Kevin Gilbride and Ray Sherman. Maybe he'll be able to play nice with Mike Mularkey. Certainly, he has made good decisions in Mularkey's offense. His passes have been unusually crisp and sharp.

But ...

A lot of us still don't believe Stewart ever will throw the ball with enough accuracy to be a big winner in the NFL. That's why we were so disappointed in how Tee Martin played in the exhibition games. We were hoping he would take advantage of his shot, show what he has got, prove he's ready to take over the team soon and be an upgrade over Stewart.

It didn't happen.

Martin was the one disappointment in an otherwise encouraging preseason.

It appears he didn't even beat out Tommy Maddox for the No. 2 job.

It's fun to root for Maddox, who has replaced Tomczak as the new most popular guy in town. It's nice to think he'll get his chance and be better than Stewart. Heck, why stop there? Why can't he be the next Kurt Warner and lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl?

But what's that hope based on?

One strong performance against the Detroit Lions in the third exhibition game?

Really, one sweet 33-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Brown?

Don't you just hate reality?

Maddox hasn't played in the NFL since 1995. Think about that. You know first-hand how desperate teams are for quarterbacks. You saw Stewart not only keep his starting job after a horrible 1998 season but get a contract extension. You saw him win back the job last season after an equally horrendous 1999 season. And you know he's as entrenched now as, say, Peyton Manning based on his better, yet still-mediocre play in the second half of last season.

That's pretty desperate.

And Maddox couldn't find a job anywhere?

Well, he has one now.

It's hard to knock Bill Cowher for keeping Maddox and Martin and saying goodbye to Kent Graham yesterday. Graham was good enough to win the starting job at the start of last season, but he never played well again after injuring his hip in the third game. His $1.4 million salary made it easy to release him, but, even if he was making the minimum as Maddox is, he deserved to go.

But it's also hard to think Cowher isn't taking a huge gamble. Most teams that think they are playoff contenders like having experience at backup quarterback. Cowher always has believed in it. Last season, he had Graham, who had started and won games in the NFL. Before that, he had Tomczak, who also won games.

Now the Steelers have a guy who was out of the league for five years and was 0-4 in his only four NFL starts in 1992 and a second-year pro whose next snap will be his first in an NFL regular-season game?

Like you, Cowher should be praying Kordell doesn't get hurt.

The good news is Stewart is extraordinarily durable, as tough as they come. He's not afraid to take a hit when he takes off and runs. He has been knocked out of a couple of games -- with a concussion against Indianapolis in 1997 and briefly with a knee problem against Oakland last season -- but he has never missed a start because of an injury.

The bad news is that remarkable streak is due to end.

If it happens this season, another Steelers streak will continue.

Four years and counting without a trip to the playoffs.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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