Few, if any Steelers had as long and strange of a trip as Kordell Stewart. Steel Curtain Rising takes this opportunity to offer a look back at the oft entertaining, always controversial quarterback who made “Slash” a household word in Steelers Nation.
Click on the links below to either relive a moment of Kordell’s glory or look back at this times of struggles.
Pittsburghselected Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL draft. With Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, and Jim Miller ahead of him everyone expected Stewart simply stand in street clothes clipboard in hand on the sideline.
Steelers lost Rod Woodson and Neil O’Donnell in the 1995 opener. By mid-season back to back losses to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals had sent the Steelers reeling.
Many expected Kordell Stewart to size the reigns in the 3 way quarterback derby Bill Cowher convened at Latrobe in the summer of ‘96.
Kordell failed to distinguish himself and after quickly benching Jim Miller, Cowher turned to Mike Tomczak. Stewart remained “Slash” and if he improved at receiver, he often seemed hesitant and tentative under center where he’d previously been cocky and confident.
After stabilizing the team during early and mid-season, Mike Tomczak began to find the limits of his abilities. As injuries mounted and the playoffs loomed Cowher sought for a weapon to compensate.
With the Steleers behind late in the first half Kordell came into the game and immediately put the team ahead with an electrifying 80 touchdown scramble.
Kordell stayed in, but couldn’t complete passes. Any passes, unless you count 2 interceptions. The defense kept it close, and on the final drive Kordell found his rhythm and was an end zone drop away from a successful comeback.
Bill Cowher named Kordell Stewart his starter for the 1997 season and the roller coaster ride was on.
Statistically Kordell’s play in 1997 failed to impress. But he did something more important than put up pretty stats – he won, often in dramatic fashion.
Week 5 vs. Baltimoregave an early example. I sat in the stands at Memorial Stadium and Kordell looked cluelessly threw three interceptions, one worse then the next. With the Baltimore up 24-7 at the half, Ravens fans joked that “Kordell is our most valuable player.”
But a different Kordell rallied Pittsburgh to victory in the second half, throwing three touchdown passes and scoring another on a 70 yard scramble.
As John Elway was toasting Donnell Wolford, Kordell was erratic and threw an interception that Denverquickly turned into a touchdown. A side line reporter revealed that Bill Cowher told Mike Tomzack and Mike Quinn to “talk to Kordell and get him to calm down.”
Kordell didn’t calm down.
Instead he exploded to throw to touchdown strikes to Yancey Thigpen and rushing for two more as the Steelers won.
A late Drew Beldsoe interception gave the Steelers a chance to tie a game they’d never led. Kordell helped convert a 4th down on this drive, threw a touchdown and then completed a pass for a successful 2 point conversion which tied the game. Pittsburghwon, and secured a bye in the playoffs.
Although the 1997 playoffs ended with the Kordell’s 3 interception loss vs. the Broncos in the AFC Championship, the sky seemed to be the limit for Kordell. 1998 and 1999 revealed Kordell’s limits to be much closer to the ground….
Instead they brought in Kent Graham who won the job in preseason. The Steelers nonetheless started the 2000 season 0-3 and things seemed to go from bad to worse when Graham injured himself on a late Friday afternoon.
The Steelers were heading to Jacksonville, where once again Kordell would rise from the ashes.
Kordell did it again the next week vs. New York and two weeks later replaced an ineffective Kent Graham. He led comeback victories vs. Cincinnatiand came off the injury cart a week later to rally the team vs. Oakland.
The Steelers were eliminated on tie breakers during the season’s final week that year, but had recovered their mojo. Many players can claim credit for that, but perhaps none more than Kordell.
The 2001 Steelers took the NFL by surprise, finishing 13-3. Kordell had a Pro Bowl year and was voted team MVP, having picked up the slack when Bettis fell injured late in the season.
The Steelers made it to another AFC Championship and they lost again with Kordell throwing another 3 interceptions.
But the loss was not his fault. The Patriots offense shredded the Steelers defense in the first half, while their defense stuffed the Steelers running game. Steelers special teams gave up two touchdowns and that simply proved to be too much for Stewart to overcome.
After the game Cowher seemed to indicate that Stewart would start the next week, but he shifted course, naming Maddox as “the starter.”
A few weeks later when the Steelers played the Colts and the game was broadcast on ESPN Deportes reporter Raul Allegre dropped a bomb, telling his Latin American audience:
Hablé con Bill Cowher sobre Kordell Stewart, y él me dijo que no quisiera cambiar a su mariscal, pero sentí que tendría que hacerlo, porque Kordell Stewart había perdido la confianza del resto de los miembros del equipo.
And therein lies the key to the rise and fall of Kordell Stewart: Confidence.
Success in the NFL at quarterback involves many factors, but none are perhaps more important than confidence and mental toughness.
Ben Roethlisberger once remarked that the true test of toughess for a quarterback was the ability to shrug off throwing 3 interceptions in a playoff game and comeback to play well enough to give your team a chance to win.
Kordell Stewart lost whatever swagger he had as a swashbuckling Slash that allowed him to lead numerous comebacks.
To tap an overused metaphor on this site, when Kordell could rely on instinct and athleticism, he defied gravity with a uncanny cartoon character like ability.
But twin sets of triplet interception AFC Championship performances forced Stewart to look down. And like the Road Runner, Kordell fell.
Most quarterbacks are finished when they lose their confidence.
Kordell, after enduring a particularly cruel two-year purgatory, rebuilt his confidence and earned a second chance to knock on heaven’s door, only to fall short a second time.
Bill Cowher couldn’t afford to give him a third chance because the only thing that allowed Kordell to return to relying on instinct, was removal of the pressure of the starting job.