SLASH AND BURN
Pittsburgh has backed itself into a corner with Kordell Stewart
For the second time in 15 days, the Steelers lost at home on
Sunday to a pathetic rival. On the heels of a last-second defeat
by the expansion Browns, a team Pittsburgh had beaten 43-0 in
September, came one that might have stung even more, a 27-20
loss to the 1-10 Bengals. So the crowd in the north end zone at
Three Rivers Stadium tore into the man they held responsible.
"Kordell, you suck!" one fan yelled. "You piece of s---!"
screamed another. And those were a couple of the nicer comments
directed at Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart as he ran off
the field and into the tunnel. Following him soon after was
Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, and one
sentence he uttered after observing the scene spoke volumes
about the wretched state of Stewart's game and his inability to
demonstrate that he has the qualities essential to a pro
quarterback. "Kordell," Gilbride said moments after leaving the
field, "is letting this crowd destroy him."
So much so that after the game, coach Bill Cowher--who wasn't
exactly having a good week himself, what with rumors flying that
he would quit at season's end--decided it was time for a change.
Cowher announced that 37-year-old Mike Tomczak would start this
Thursday at Jacksonville and suggested that he'd return Stewart
to the rushing/receiving/quarterbacking role that earned him the
nickname Slash, a role in which he was such an electric
performer in his first two years in the league, 1995 and '96.
December 6, 1999
Stewart took the demotion well, maybe too well. He tried to be
cool. He even denied that he was being demoted, though when
you're replaced by a player like Tomczak, a 15-year veteran who
has thrown only 81 touchdown passes during his career (and 100
interceptions), it's hard to call it anything else. Away from
the horde of reporters and cameras, however, Stewart admitted
that the fans may be affecting him.
"Obviously you hear the crowd," he said, getting more worked up
with each sentence. "You can't not hear the crowd. I just want
to shut 'em up. I just want to shut 'em up so bad, you have no
The Steelers, 5-6 after losing three straight and in danger of
missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, have one
heck of a dilemma: Their quarterback stinks, but they're
contractually wedded to him. The players and coaches have little
choice but to publicly support him, even though they have to be
thinking that he's the second coming of Bubby Brister--if only
he were that good. In his 57 starts with Pittsburgh, Brister had
a quarterback rating that is 3.1 points higher than the one
Stewart has put up in his 47 starts (chart, above). Also, since
the start of the '98 season, Stewart is the 28th-rated
quarterback in the league. Asked after Sunday's game if he still
thought Stewart could be a good NFL quarterback, Cowher simply
If that's ever to happen, Stewart has a lot of work to do. He
presses. He doesn't let his game flow the way he did when he was
one of the league's most exciting players. He throws poorly on
the run. On the first series against the Bengals he darted out
of the pocket to his right and threw across his body in the
direction of wideout Will Blackwell. But the ball was three
strides behind Blackwell and went right into the arms of Bengals
cornerback Rodney Heath.
On the Steelers' fourth series Stewart locked on to Cincinnati's
pass rush and tried to float a throw to god knows who. No
Pittsburgh player was within eight yards of the pass. Heath
plucked the ball out of the air and returned it 58 yards for a
touchdown. That put the Bengals up 21-3 and sent Stewart to the
bench. "What he has to learn," says Steelers president Dan
Rooney, "is that he can't look at the rush. We're trying to
teach him that."
Stewart thinks he works hard at his job, but he doesn't work
nearly hard enough. Tomczak gets to weekday morning film
sessions by 7:15 or 7:30. Stewart regularly arrives after 8.
Who's the starter here?
The Steelers have to hope that the Stewart who produced 32
touchdowns in 1997 (21 passing, 11 rushing) reemerges; he has
generated but 21 scores in the 27 games since. "Name me one
quarterback who hasn't gone through this," he says. "There are
none. There's no doubt in my mind, from the depths of my heart,
that I will succeed."
Pittsburgh must have been equally confident during the
off-season. Since the advent of unfettered free agency in 1993,
the club has been notorious for letting its marquee free agents
sign elsewhere, claiming it couldn't match the signing bonuses
that other teams offered. Yet even after a '98 season in which
Stewart ranked 26th in the league in quarterback rating, the
Steelers signed him to a five-year, $27 million extension, which
included an $8.1 million signing bonus. Now if Pittsburgh wants
to cut the cord with Stewart after this season, it will have to
carry $6.48 million of that bonus against its 2000 salary cap.
Whether Cowher is around to help make that decision remains to
be seen. Last Saturday the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette greeted
readers with a front-page, above-the-fold headline that read
COWHER QUITTING? Citing two Internet reports and another from a
radio station, the story said Cowher would leave at the end of
the season for a TV job or another coaching position. A coaching
friend of Cowher's told SI last week that Cowher, who guided the
Steelers to the playoffs in each of his first six seasons before
slipping to 7-9 last year, has complained to him about the
team's repeated failure to sign its own free agents and the
resulting inability to keep a strong team intact. Cowher would
be attractive to either the networks or a rebuilding owner, but
after this season he'll still have three years left on a
contract that pays him about $2 million per. Also, if Rooney
agreed to let Cowher coach elsewhere, the owner would demand
Cowher called reports of his departure "ludicrous." While Rooney
said he was sure Cowher would continue as coach, he did make a
rare negative comment about one of his employees. Alluding to a
Dr Pepper commercial in which Cowher plays a coach who rants and
raves, Rooney said, "I'm not wild about it. Bill should have
turned it down or asked that it be rewritten." Nevertheless,
Rooney added, "If you ask our fans about Cowher, the vast
majority of them would want him to stay."
Too bad they don't feel the same way about Stewart.
MCCAFFREY KEEPS ON TICKING
This is the kind of year it has been for Denver wideout Ed
McCaffrey: One recent afternoon he was playing with his
eight-month-old son, Dylan. When his wife, Lisa, heard Ed yelp,
she ran in to find blood trickling down his face. Seems that
Dylan had dug out a chunk of skin with his fingernail. Great.
Now McCaffrey, the reed-thin old reliable who has wobbled off
the field so often this season, is getting dinged at home.
"You worry when a guy's getting laid out as much as Ed," says
Denver guard Mark Schlereth, who, having undergone 25 surgeries,
knows something about battle scars. "It's like he's got a
bull's-eye tattooed on him. The way he looks, he reminds me of
the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. But every time he gets hit,
I go ask him if he's all right, and he nods his head and just
starts going again."
The list of injuries--hip pointer, deep thigh bruise, a pair of
leg contusions, left knee strain, two concussions--doesn't do
his season justice. You can't watch the Broncos without seeing
the 6'5", 215-pound receiver getting sandwiched or blindsided,
or gasping for air after having the wind knocked out of him.
Week in and week out, the 31-year-old McCaffrey is the toughest
wideout in the league, fearless when it comes to going over the
middle. "It's a small price to pay to play a game I've loved
since I was a kid," he says. "But I'm not sure if I'd have been
able to play this season if I didn't do some extra things, like
seeing the chiropractor and getting massage therapy weekly."
On Oct. 31 McCaffrey suffered his second concussion in eight
days when 468 pounds of Vikings linebacker--Ed McDaniel and
Dwayne Rudd--brought him down with a bang after a catch at the
Minnesota one in the first quarter. Cleared by Denver doctors to
return in the third quarter, McCaffrey hyperextended his left
knee after taking a shot from cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock. A deep
bone bruise and stretched ligaments forced McCaffrey to miss his
first game of the year the following week, but he came back on
Nov. 14 at Seattle to catch six passes for 125 yards and a
touchdown in a 20-17 loss.
McCaffrey is tied for 10th in the AFC with 46 catches and tied
for second in the conference with seven touchdown receptions.
"The guy's an unbelievable football player," says Schlereth. "I
know that I don't consider myself that tough."
Colts Free Agents
POLIAN HAS HIS WORK CUT OUT
Sign of the times: Indianapolis is 9-2 and sitting atop the AFC
East. The long-term outlook appears bright for one of the
league's up-and-coming teams, assuming, of course, that the
Colts can keep their young nucleus intact.
Tight end Ken Dilger, one of the NFL's most underrated players,
is eligible to become a free agent after this season, and if
Indianapolis doesn't sign the fifth-year player to an extension,
look for the Jets, whose offense has struggled without a tight
end threat, to get into the bidding.
Indianapolis president Bill Polian, the architect of the Bills'
Super Bowl teams of the '90s and the expansion Carolina club that
played in the NFC Championship Game in only its second season,
will have other tough decisions to make. "It'll be harder, a lot
harder, than before," he says of life under the salary cap.
On an offense that already includes the high-priced duo of
second-year quarterback Peyton Manning and rookie running back
Edgerrin James, the Colts must find a way to lock up wideout
Marvin Harrison, whose contract runs through 2000. "He's
absolutely essential to our offense," Polian says of Harrison,
who leads the league in receiving yards (1,114) and touchdown
catches (12) and is third in receptions (69). Of course,
Harrison would be a fool to leave Manning's side.
CHARGERS READY TO TEST LEAF
Returning to practice this week after completing his four-game
suspension for insubordination, San Diego quarterback Ryan Leaf
might play as soon as the Dec. 12 game in Seattle. "I might
borrow a page from [Chicago coach] Dick Jauron's book," Chargers
coach Mike Riley says. "I like the way the Bears have put
[rookie] Cade McNown in for a series or two in the games he
hasn't started. I could see us doing that with Ryan. It's
important that he play this season. We've got to get him ready
for our future."...
Kudos to Vikings wideout Cris Carter for not treating his 900th
catch on Sunday against the Chargers as if it were a major
milestone. "All it means," said the 34-year-old Carter, "is I
can try to put my foot on the gas and get to 1,000." Now that's
a milestone. Only Jerry Rice (1,182 receptions) has gotten past
After notifying teams last week that it would fine players who
made the controversial throat-slashing gesture, the league will
dip into the paycheck of Saints linebacker William Whitehead for
the gestures he made while celebrating his sack of Rams
quarterback Kurt Warner on Sunday. Whitehead said he wasn't
making the controversial slash, but rather was sending a message
to God. "Good," one league official said on Monday. "Then he can
consider his fine enforced tithing."...
Linebacker Kevin Greene is 37, and the Panthers kept thinking
they could replace him. But his 2 1/2 sacks in a 34-28 win over
the Falcons on Sunday gave him eight for the season.... The
novelty of Jets quarterback Ray Lucas is wearing off: The
third-stringer turned starter has directed one touchdown drive
in his last 28 possessions.
The End Zone
STUPID PET TRICKS
Ravens defensive tackle Lional Dalton exercises his bulldog on a
treadmill. "I usually set it for 3," Dalton says. "But one time
I set it for 10." What happened? "He went crashing into the
wall," Dalton says.
Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.
The Steelers won four Super Bowls with Terry Bradshaw under
center, but since he retired after the 1983 season, Pittsburgh
has been searching for a quarterback to deliver a title. Only
Neil O'Donnell (above) came close. He directed the Steelers to
the Super Bowl in January 1996, but then he signed a five-year,
$25 million free-agent deal with the Jets. Now Kordell Stewart
is struggling mightily. Here are the four quarterbacks who have
had the most chances to lead Pittsburgh back to the promised land.
QUARTERBACK, YEARS RECORD* TDS INT. YARDS QB RATING
1. Neil O'Donnell, 1991-95 39-22 65 39 12,529 81.3
2. Bubby Brister, 1986-92 28-29 50 52 10,000 71.3
3. Kordell Stewart, 1995-99 27-20 38 45 7,105 68.2
4. Mark Malone, 1984-87 21-22 49 58 7,356 63.7
1. Boy, George! Let's see if we've got this right: In a league
desperate for quarterbacks the man with the best gun and one of
the worst reputations on the free-agent market, Jeff George,
went begging for a job last spring, finally accepting a
one-year, $400,000 contract to be a backup with the Vikings.
After his four-touchdown, 363-yard dissection of the Chargers on
Sunday, George is 5-0 as a starter and is the league's
2. Under the Gun Dan Marino simply got tired--at least that's
what the Dolphins hope. Coming off a neck injury, Marino hadn't
played in 39 days, so the inactivity probably explains why he
looked so over-the-hill in a 20-0, five-interception loss to the
Cowboys on Thanksgiving. He'll start in the pivotal AFC East
match with the Colts on Sunday, but Jimmy Johnson will have him
on a short leash.
3. What Rivalry? The Jets and the Giants meet on Sunday for only
the ninth time since the AFL-NFL merger. (The series is tied
4-4.) The Big Apple isn't exactly abuzz. "It's a newspaper
rivalry," says former Jets and Giants punter Dave Jennings. "How
can it be a real rivalry for the fans if the teams only play
once every three years?" The NFL is looking at giving regional
rivalries a boost when the schedule is revamped in 2002 to
accommodate the expansion Houston franchise. The most popular
proposal: Each team would play six division games, eight outside
the division and two against regional rivals.