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Inside The NFL

Dec. 11, 2000
Dec. 11, 2000

Table of Contents
Dec. 11, 2000

Inside The NFL

King for a Day
Kordell Stewart led the Steelers to a surprise win over the
Raiders and won over Pittsburgh fans--for now

This is an article from the Dec. 11, 2000 issue

Kordell Stewart held the game ball tightly in his right arm as he
practically skipped across the Three Rivers Stadium field on
Sunday, having just engineered the Steelers' 21-20 upset of the
Raiders. What the game meant to Stewart: The weight of the world,
in his case football-mad Pittsburgh, had been lifted from his
shoulders. What the game meant to the 7-6 Steelers: Stunningly,
they appear to have found their quarterback--again.

"It's been hard," Stewart said later of his four up-and-down
seasons as the passer Pittsburgh fans at first loved but then
loathed. "It's been sooooo hard. Nobody could know how hard.
Today was just, well, just fun. A lot of fun."

In this game Stewart showed guts, in coming back from a painful
calf injury that sidelined him for the second quarter; pinpoint
passing, in making two touchdown throws, one a 19-yard rainbow to
wideout Bobby Shaw; athleticism, in breaking four tackles on a
17-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown; and moxie, in challenging
Oakland's All-Pro cornerback, Charles Woodson and beating him
repeatedly.

By clinging to the ball, Stewart held on to his great feeling of
accomplishment, and the crowd stood and cheered as he approached
the players' tunnel. Then he was so overwhelmed by the moment of
redemption that he tossed the ball into the crowd that for two
years has eaten him for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Many strange things have happened in this NFL season, but the
revival of the 28-year-old Stewart has to be one of the
strangest. He lost a training camp battle with free-agent pickup
Kent Graham this summer, and got his job back only after Graham
struggled early on.

There is no guarantee Stewart will be Pittsburgh's quarterback on
opening day 2001, when the team moves into the new stadium being
built next to Three Rivers, but coach Bill Cowher said last
Saturday that Stewart's play has been so impressive of late that
"I don't see how you wouldn't see him as your quarterback of the
future. I don't want to pass judgment with a month left in the
regular season, but I look at all the quarterbacks who've been
down at one time and then went on to play very well--Rich Gannon,
Vinny Testaverde, Chris Chandler--and I can see Kordell in them.
He's playing with confidence. He's playing with the trust of his
coaches and teammates. He's come back from hard times and earned
it."

In 1997, his third year as a pro but his first full season at
quarterback, Stewart threw for 21 touchdowns and ran for 11 more.
He was the poster child for future NFL quarterbacks--strong-armed,
athletic, a terrific runner. But the offensive coordinator who
was instrumental in Stewart's conversion from a reserve QB/WR/RB
to a successful starting quarterback, Chan Gailey, left to coach
the Cowboys in 1998 and seemingly took the magic with him.

The Stewart who labored under new offensive coordinator Kevin
Gilbride in 1998 and '99 (a combined 17 touchdown passes, 28
interceptions, zero confidence) forced too many throws and chafed
at the constraints of being turned into a pocket passer. Late
last season Cowher yanked Stewart from under center and played
him almost exclusively at wide receiver, and Stewart hit rock
bottom. "I figured that was it for me here, that I'd never have a
real chance to be the quarterback again," he says.

But after Graham faltered, Stewart got another chance. Though his
numbers are still mediocre--he has completed only 52% of his
passes--Stewart has a better understanding of when to leave the
pocket and when to stay, when to force a ball into coverage and
when to throw it away. When Stewart returned in the third quarter
on Sunday, he marched Pittsburgh 91 yards in 16 plays, capping
the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark
Bruener.

One of his most impressive plays came during a fourth-quarter
drive that did not lead to a score. On third-and-one from the
Oakland 47, he rolled right, was pressured by two rushers,
waited, waited and finally lasered a pass into the gut of wideout
Hines Ward, who had Woodson draped on his back. First down.
"Kordell," said Ward, "is starting to throw the ball consistently
where only we can catch it."

Trying to explain his journey back to respectability, Stewart
said, "Sometimes you get caught up in playing the way you think a
coach wants you to play. Now I'm just going out and playing for
myself and for my team. I'm doing something I love."

He does not have a lock on the quarterback job. Not by any
stretch. "But that will come over time," Cowher said after the
game. "I think he's going to get there."

Washington Shake-up
Robiskie: Right Man for the Job

Redskins passing-game coordinator Terry Robiskie could have
bitten his tongue when team owner Daniel Snyder told him in the
wee hours of Monday that he was probably going to fire coach Norv
Turner and replace him with 69-year-old business crony Pepper
Rodgers, who coached at Kansas, UCLA and Georgia Tech in the
1970s and later in the USFL and CFL. Robiskie could have wished
Snyder and Rodgers well and said he would do whatever he could to
help Washington win. But that is not Robiskie's way.

"I am heartbroken," he told Snyder, and then added that the owner
was making a big mistake. Robiskie said the Redskins wouldn't
play for Rodgers, and according to a source told Snyder that he
wouldn't call plays for the new coach. Surprised, Snyder sent
Robiskie away. Later that morning Snyder changed his mind and
gave the job to the 46-year-old Robiskie, a former NFL running
back and a career assistant who, as a black man, has been
outspoken in the fight to get minorities more head-coaching
opportunities.

Robiskie's candor prevented Snyder from making a terrible
mistake. Although Snyder hired Rodgers as vice president of
football operations later on Monday, at least Rodgers won't be
trying to make a postseason run with players who would have had
no respect for him. Robiskie already has that respect, and he
isn't afraid to put the hammer down on immature or underachieving
players. He followed brooding wide receiver Michael Westbrook out
of the team's complex in 1998 after a verbal confrontation and
wouldn't stop until the player looked him in the eye. "I'm going
to coach you to be a good player," Robiskie told Westbrook, "but
I'm not going to coach you the way you want to be coached. I'm
going to coach you the right way." Westbrook came around. Last
year he caught 65 passes for 1,191 yards and nine touchdowns. He
went on injured reserve after Washington's second game this
season.

Robiskie has no guarantee to be kept as coach beyond the
remainder of this season, but he believes that if the Skins (7-6)
play consistent offense in their last three games, they can not
only make the playoffs but also be a force in them. "I will be a
communicator, and I will be truthful with the players," he said.
"The notoriety and money have changed players, but I believe they
can be coached. They have to be kicked in the butt, but they also
have to be hugged."

An Early Take on the Draft
Who's No. 1? Who Knows?

"The worst thing to have in [next April's] draft is a top 10
pick," one veteran NFL scout said last week. "There's no sure
thing." Take Mississippi running back Deuce McAllister. A speedy,
versatile 6'1", 222-pounder with great hands, he would seem to be
a good candidate for the top choice. However, he's had clavicle,
hamstring and ankle injuries this year, so his durability is a
concern.

Both NFL scouting services--BLESTO and National--are meeting this
week to grade out seniors. They won't rate players like Virginia
Tech sophomore quarterback Michael Vick and Michigan junior wide
receiver David Terrell, both of whom would likely be top 5
selections, unless they declare for the draft. According to
scouts from eight NFL teams polled by SI last week, a preliminary
top 10 of seniors looks like this:

1. Leonard Davis, T, Texas. Athletic left tackles are hard to
find, particularly 355-pounders as good as Davis.

2. Richard Seymour, DT, Georgia. At 6'5" and 295 pounds, he still
has room to fill out. Reminds some of Warren Sapp in the way he
knifes past guards.

3-4. Jamal Reynolds and Roland Seymour, DEs, Florida State. A
pair of speed rushers who will fit well into 4-3 schemes, though
Seymour's knee surgery last winter might be a concern.

5. Chris Chambers, WR, Wisconsin. The good news: He runs the 40
in 4.37. The bad news: He's only 6'1" and played in a
run-oriented offense.

6. McAllister. TCU's LaDainian Tomlinson may have been more
durable and productive, but he's not as gifted as McAllister.

7. Santana Moss, WR-KR, Miami. He's faster and has better hands
than Peter Warrick, the fourth pick in last year's draft, by the
Bengals. But Moss has to stretch to get to 5'10".

8. Andre Carter, DE, Cal. The 6'4", 260-pound son of former
Broncos nose tackle Rubin Carter has good pass-rush instincts.

9. Gary Baxter, CB, Baylor. What's not to like about a 6'2"
cornerback who runs a sub-4.5 40 and has good cover and tackling
skills?

10. Drew Brees, QB, Purdue. So you think a six-footer can't be a
good NFL quarterback? A pair of them, Mark Brunell and Jeff
Garcia, are dispelling that myth with their accurate tosses.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES His stats are nothing special, but Stewart is finally making smart decisions.

Dispatches

The Broncos are bracing themselves for the retirement at season's
end of 59-year-old offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, who annually
takes one of the league's smallest lines and makes it one of the
NFL's best....

Keyshawn Johnson, tied for 36th in the NFL with 54 receptions,
is frustrated by the Bucs' inability to get him the ball. "I'm
looking to 2001," he said last week. In a 27-7 win over the
Cowboys on Sunday, Johnson caught four passes for only 28
yards....

The Eagles have held three opponents (the Packers, Bears and
Titans) without a touchdown this season--and lost two of those
games, most recently a 15-13 last-second defeat to Tennessee on
Sunday....

The final five weeks of the Monday night schedule turned out to
be polluted with games like Packers-Panthers, Chiefs-Patriots
and Cowboys-Titans. Consequently, in the off-season the league
will urge the other networks to consider allowing the Monday
night game, in the final four to six weeks of the season, to be
picked in the weeks leading up to airtime....

While Soldier Field is being renovated in 2002, the Bears will
probably play their home games 135 miles south of Chicago in
Champaign, home of the University of Illinois....

Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein accidentally lined up under
left guard Matt Campbell instead of center Frank Garcia during a
16-3 win over the Rams on Sunday, prompting Campbell to say
afterward: "Next time we're going to draw a big C on Frank's
butt." Perhaps Campbell should reconsider. Beuerlein also made
the mistake during a game last year. The Panthers won that one,
too.