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Savran: Maddox erases a host of doubts

Saturday, January 11, 2003

Had the Steelers lost Sunday to the Cleveland Browns, a black cloud probably would have hovered over the rapidly approaching off-season.

If, as all signs indicate, the departure of Kordell Stewart is imminent, this means the Steelers are unequivocally entrusting the quarterback position to Tommy Maddox.

But what if Maddox had continued to play poorly in the second half of the Cleveland game?

It might not have changed the Steelers' position on the matter, but there certainly would have been a shadow of doubt in anointing Maddox as the man.

And that would have caused them to rethink their plans concerning Stewart. You can rest assured doubts on both fronts would have furrowed the brows of many fans.

But Maddox erased the doubts.

Even if the Steelers had lost that game, even if they lose today, he answered a question asked about every quarterback. "Can he bring his team back in a big game?"

Maddox did that with his arm. And with his mind, because he called most of the plays in the second half.

But it might have been his mouth that energized the team with a form of shock therapy.

Many players, especially those on the defensive side, were surprised when the normally soft-spoken quarterback gathered the team on the sideline before the second-half kickoff and delivered his best Knute Rockne speech.

Let's not go overboard on the value of the shortest motivational speech this side of Gettysburg, because the Steelers went three-and-out in their first series of the third quarter and the defense needed a dropped pass to finally halt the Browns. But, when several players mentioned it repeatedly after the game, it had to have had a profound impact.

It's a bonus when a player at another position emerges as a leader.

For a quarterback, it's a prerequisite.

Arm strength, ability to read defenses, leadership. It doesn't have to be fire and brimstone, like a television evangelist trying to squeeze every last penny from a retiree; just conviction in the huddle, a strong, stable voice.

Apparently, Maddox fulfills the requirement.

One of the fans' objections to Stewart is a perceived inability to bring the team from behind, and the AFC championship game last year always is cited as the example.

I've always thought that was unfair.

He did bring them back from 21-3 down to 21-17. Yes, the two interceptions he threw in the fourth quarter were bad ones, but he did rally his offense to within striking distance.

But I suppose you have to seal the deal to get full credit for a comeback, so fans still have some doubts about Stewart.

That isn't unusual, because until you do it, there's no proof you can. In the fading light, you've got to make a defense feel as if they're playing from behind, even though they're ahead. Make their offense feel badly about taking a lead with too much time remaining.

Like all quarterbacks, Stewart was going to have to do it at some point.

Maddox did it in his first playoff start. Given the margin of the deficit and the time available to erase it, are there many who truly believe Stewart would have engineered the same kind of comeback Sunday?

Still, there's a market for him.

What the Steelers can expect in return, if anything, is problematic. The hope is that a team in need won't be willing to trust the waiver process, worried another team might claim him before their turn.

That being the case, a team would be willing to part with a draft choice, say a third-rounder, as compensation.

On the other hand, teams know that if no trade is available, the Steelers are likely to release him.

Then, you could pluck him off waivers and wouldn't have to part with a player or draft choice.

The downside is that, if he cleared waivers, he would become a free agent, and you might find yourself in a bidding war. This, obviously, would be the best of all worlds for Stewart.

But there are many inches of newspaper space and many hours of talk-show conversation for that subject to fill.

For now, even if things go poorly in Music City today, the Cleveland Comeback accomplished two things: It gave the Steelers another chance, and it should have erased most doubts about their long-term choice at quarterback.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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