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Savran: QB controversy gets hot after '02

Saturday, October 19, 2002

Nine quarters. That is the sum and substance of Tommy Maddox's Steelers resume. But they have been a productive nine. The offense has scored 73 points with Maddox under center, and by my elementary school math, that's eight per period.

Those kinds of numbers will, or at least should, win you football games. Whether Maddox is directly responsible for the improved level of play which has resulted in the increased production, or is just the beneficiary of same, is problematical. Regardless, he's the quarterback, so he gets the credit for now, and the blame later if production declines.

For the moment, there is no quarterback controversy in the land. The Steelers have assembled as good a quarterback trio as any team can boast. All three have started in the NFL, all three have achieved levels of success. Any controversy (fans and media will seek it out even if it's presumptive) will come only if Maddox falters. But brace yourself for season's end, when contracts and salary cap issues hog the center stage spotlight.

What might the Steelers do with Kordell Stewart then, is the question du jour. We already are hearing whispers from teams that might like to have him, Cincinnati apparently being one. But where he might go is a discussion even more premature than if he goes at all.

First, one must assume that Maddox continues his excellent play for the remainder of the season. And although the early results are very good, remember that Al Gore was awarded Florida very early on election night. There is still a very real possibility that his performance could drop a notch, and then there's always injury. Kordell Stewart might not have started his final game in a Steelers uniform.

Second, while it makes perfect sense that the Steelers would be reluctant to take a huge salary cap hit for a clipboard holder, the wild card in all this might be Charlie Batch. Remember, he signed a one-year contract, and will be free to flee after this season. Let's assume he chooses to do so, setting out on the NFL's long and winding road in search of a starting position, knowing full well he would be only a backup here, whether it was to Maddox or Stewart. Then what? Are you quite as willing to trade Stewart to wherever for whatever? Or release him to alleviate the salary cap pressure? If you do, that comfortable quarterback depth has not only been reduced, it vanishes. You would have to renew a search through the NFL's quarterback tire heap. It's true they found Maddox under that pile, but how many times are you willing to test your luck? What might you find there now? Mark Rypien? Rodney Peete? Kent Graham?

At present, there are much bigger fish the Steelers must fry. But at the end of this season, there will be a big decision to be made on Stewart. He will still have one year remaining on his contract, but this issue must be resolved before the 2003 draft. If the Steelers are convinced that Maddox is for real, then they've got to decide how to move Stewart. Conversely, if he returns to the starting position and performs well, they would need to lock him up before he becomes a free agent. If the Steelers decide he's their guy, they won't want him to go on the open market in 2004.

But I wonder if Stewart would even be willing to sign here again should the opportunity present itself. You get the sense that he still harbors ill feelings toward Bill Cowher for the long-ago issues of 1999 and 2000. And further, you get the impression that he feels wronged this season ... believing he was yanked too early by Captain Hook. Most fans wouldn't agree, and it's very hard to dispute the subsequent results with Maddox at the wheel.

Still, even if Stewart were to again be given the keys to the Steelers offense, and even if he were to return to his most thrilling days (2001) of yesteryear, would he be willing to sign a long-term contract binding him to the Steelers and Cowher for the rest of his career?

Most fans couldn't care less now that Maddox is the hero of the moment. But should Batch leave of his own accord, and Stewart be dispatched at management's behest, the Steelers will have a truly empty-set backfield.

No, there's no quarterback controversy at present. But that doesn't mean there's not one bubbling hotly just underneath the surface, about to explode once this season goes dark.

Stan Savran hosts a sports talk show, weekdays 3-6 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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