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Savran: Give Stewart credit for growing up

Saturday, December 29, 2001

How did he get to this point? Let me count the ways. An offensive architect who crafted square holes to accommodate the square peg. The addition of an instructor/psychiatrist/confidant he could call his very own. Someone who could speak and understand a language very few can. An upgrade of all component parts, coupled with a coaching staff that knew how to use them.

All are factors in the utterly astonishing rising-from-the ashes Kordell Stewart story. But there is another.

He grew up.

While he grew into the player performing at the offense's most critical and scrutinized position, he grew up in fulfilling the responsibilities inherent with that position.

It's incumbent upon a quarterback to lead. And those who need to be led judge you by how you handle yourself when adversity is about to swallow you whole.

Talent is not enough. Is there a more physically gifted quarterback than Jeff George? Where is he today? Why does no one want any part of that golden arm? Because it's attached to a shoulder which is attached to a neck which supports an empty head.

A Steelers offensive lineman from the 1970s once told me that if Terry Bradshaw called a quarterback sneak (and you'll remember quarterbacks actually called their own plays back then) on fourth-and-17, the other 10 in the huddle were convinced that somehow he would make a first down.

He might have been viewed as a rube by outsiders, maybe even by some inside the organization. But inside the huddle, they believed. No questions asked. It's how it must be.

Up until now, it hasn't been that way for Stewart.

Some will point to his success in his first year as the starter. He might have been the quarterback, but he wasn't the leader. That '97 group contained the nucleus of the '95 Super Bowl team, a team with six Pro Bowlers playing its third AFC championship game in four seasons.

As it turned out, it also was a team on its last legs. It wasn't just Stewart who collapsed in 1998 and '99. The team collapsed around him.

He had legitimate excuses. The trouble was he used them too often.

Perhaps not overtly, but his teammates read between the lines. Some said off the record, some for public consumption -- that they didn't regard diverting criticism as a proper display of leadership.

So before he could even think about regaining the trust of his coaches, he had to establish it with his teammates.

Then came the infamous benching and banishment to wide receiver. I always believed Bill Cowher was correct in doing so, although not allowing him to attend quarterback meetings was probably taking it a stride too far.

Removing him as the starting quarterback was prudent because, at that point, Kordell was like a man stuck in quicksand. The harder he struggled to get out, the faster he sank.

Sometimes, you need to distance yourself from it, or have someone do it for you.

And even though he seethed at Cowher, it might have been the first step in his transformation.

That, and the frank challenge that was laid before him at the end of that '99 season: "Grow up. Stop complaining about those things and those people you don't like." And when he got his chance last year, he played with a seeming anger ... an "I'll-show-you" determination.

If the gauntlet Cowher laid before him was the motivation, so be it. As a coaching sage once said, "Whatever it takes!"

And here we are today. League MVP? Team MVP for sure.

To quote the illustrious Beano Cook, this is the greatest turnaround since Christine Jorgensen.

I thought the Steelers would need to beef up the talent level around him for Stewart to succeed again. And although it always works in concert, truth is, he has made those around him better more than the other way around.

That's testament to his character and mental toughness, not just his athletic gifts. Helmets off to Stewart. He should be proud.

Think back to your parents' disciplining you for one reason or another. No doubt you didn't like it then. Chances are you thank them for it today.

Stewart certainly didn't like the way Cowher handled him in 1999. Probably still doesn't. But maybe he should thank him for it.

Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat at 6:30 p.m. weekdays on Fox Sports Pittsburgh

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