Last week, Kordell Stewart officially retired from the NFL as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers after not actually playing for his old team since 2002 and not playing for any team since 2005. Like most fans, I was a little surprised by the announcement because I had just assumed that Stewart's retirement was made official years ago.
As this article from Neal Coolong points out, Stewart didn't have a great career in Pittsburgh, and he'll never go down as one of the all-time greats at his position, but he was a player that was popular and beloved by Steelers fans at one point before he fell out of favor. The fact that he chose to officially call it a career as a member of the Black and Gold has to be at least somewhat endearing to Steelers fans.
When Stewart was drafted in the 2nd round out of Colorado back in 1995, I was pretty happy. I had watched him play throughout college, and I liked the potential that I saw in him.
Neil O'Donnell was fully entrenched as the team's starting quarterback in 1995, and Kordell was the 4th string rookie qb; generally, those guys just walk around holding a clipboard. However, Stewart wasn't your typical quarterback--he was extremely athletic--and starting in week 8, the Steelers, 3-4 and on the verge of seeing their season collapse, decided to start using the first year player in a utility role on offense that took advantage of his great abilities and unique skill-set. Stewart didn't produce much in the way of yardage, but he did create his share of splash plays that season, like this 22 yard run off of an O'Donnell pitch-out in a game against the Patriots.
Other memorable plays by Stewart that year included a 71-yard touchdown catch from O'Donnell in a victory over the Bengals and a 2-yard touchdown pass in a game against the Browns in which Stewart ran all the way to his right before reversing course and running all the way to the left side of the field and finding Ernie Mills in the corner of the end zone.
Kordell's versatility as a wide receiver/running back/quarterback in '95 earned him the nickname of, well, Slash.
Slash even continued to contribute in the postseason, and his touchdown catch near the end of the first half of the AFC Championship game against the Colts was one of the key plays in a 20-16 victory that sent the Steelers to their first Super Bowl since the 1979 season.
Stewart quickly became a popular figure in Steeler Nation as number 10 jerseys started popping up all over.
Stewart continued to perform his Slash role in '96, but it became apparent towards the end of the season that the Steelers were grooming him to be their starting quarterback in 1997. Stewart played the majority of the last game of the '96 regular season in place of starting qb Mike Tomczak, and he continued to dazzle and amaze Steelers fans by reeling off an 80 yard touchdown run.
Stewart was indeed named the starter in '97, and even though he was inconsistent, he sure provided plenty of excitement as he would often dig a hole for his team early before riding to the rescue with late game heroics. Of the Steelers 11 wins that year, five came after the team was trailing by 10 points or more, including a 42-32 win against the Ravens in week 5. After struggling in the first half with three interceptions that helped put Pittsburgh behind, 21-0, Stewart brought his team back in the second half by throwing three touchdown passes and cementing the victory with a 74 yard touchdown run in the 4th quarter.
For the year, Stewart passed for 3020 yards, 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He also added 476 yards and another 11 touchdowns on the ground.
The Steelers made the playoffs for the sixth straight year and advanced to the AFC Championship game at Three Rivers Stadium before falling to the Broncos. In the game, Stewart ran for a 33 yard touchdown, but he also threw three interceptions as the Steelers blew a 14-7 lead and lost, 24-21.
Nobody knew it at the time, but the Steelers playoff run was about to come to an end. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey left to become Head Coach of the Cowboys following the '97 season, and Ray Sherman was brought in to replace him. Stewart struggled mightily in '98 as the Steelers finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1991. Stewart struggled not only on the field, but he also had to deal with off-the-field rumors about his personal life. It is unclear where these false rumors started, but they just compounded the problems for Stewart, and his relationship with the fans began its irreversible descent.
In 1999, Stewart had to deal with his third offensive coordinator in his three years as a starting quarterback when Sherman was replaced with Kevin Gilbride.
Stewart's difficultiies continued that year as he only threw six touchdown passes to go along with 10 interceptions. He finished the year on the bench, and if my memory serves me correctly, he wasn't even allowed to attend quarterback meetings.
Kent Graham was named starting quarterback before the start of the 2000 season, and the Steelers started out 0-3. In place of an injured Graham, Stewart led the Steelers to victories vs. the Jaguars and Jets and was soon named the starter for the rest of the year. The Steelers missed the playoffs for the third straight season, but with Stewart under center, they rebounded from their 0-3 start to finish 9-7.
2001 would be Stewart's career year as he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Year, was voted team MVP and made his only Pro Bowl. With Stewart leading the way, the Steelers went 13-3 and made the playoffs for the first time since '97. Despite his improved play in '01--he completed 60.2 percent of his passes--Stewart never fully won the fans over. The general sentiment was that Pittsburgh's successes were more in spite of number 10 than because of him.
The Steelers advanced to the AFC Championship game for the second time with Kordell Stewart as a starting quarterback, but they fell once again, this time to the surprising New England Patriots, 24-17.
Even though the Patriots scored 14 of their points on two special teams touchdowns, Stewart, predictably, took most of the blame after throwing three interceptions, including a critical pick late when the team was trying to complete a second-half comeback.
The Steelers started out 0-2 the following year as both Stewart and the Steelers defense struggled early-on. Down 13-6 in the fourth quarter of their week 3 match-up against the Browns, Bill Cowher replaced Stewart with Tommy Maddox, and Maddox led the team to an overtime victory.
Tommy Gun was soon named the starter and quickly became the toast of the town with his ability to sling the football up and down the field.
However, in a week 10 match-up at Tennessee, Maddox suffered a scary spinal injury and would have to miss some time. With the Steelers at 5-4-1, Stewart started the next two weeks and quietly led the team to important victories over the Bengals and Jaguars. They would be the last two games Stewart ever played for the Steelers, but as a fan of his, they were maybe my favorite because of how he handled himself professionally.
Stewart was out of Pittsburgh by '03 as the love-affair with Maddox was in full bloom. Instead of number 10 Stewart jerseys, fans walked around wearing "Slash Who?" t-shirts.
Stewart played another few years with the Bears and Ravens before fading into obscurity.
Only a fool would suggest that Stewart had a great career as a quarterback, and there is no getting around his inaccurate arm, nor his inability to come through in the two AFC Championship games, but I've always been of the belief that Kordell Stewart's main problem was that he became the Steelers' starting quarterback during a time of transition for the organization.
The Steelers had an impressive run in the 90's, but with the free agency defections of Rod Woodson, Chad Brown, Leon Searcy, Kevin Greene, John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen, it was just a matter of time before the wheels fell off the wagon. You could see it a bit in '97 despite the team's success, and by the middle of the '99 season, the Steelers were in full rebuilding mode.
It would have been an impossible situation for any young quarterback to excel in. You had the revolving door at offensive coordinator that I mentioned earlier as well as the front office unrest between Cowher and Tom Donahoe.
And let's not forget about what Stewart had to deal with off the field. Terry Bradshaw often talks about the tough times he had to endure early in his career with the name calling and the questioning of his intelligence. What Bradshaw had to go through was nothing compared to what Stewart had to deal with. I would listen to the talk shows and the many phone calls from fans who would get cut-off after making God knows what kind of derogatory statement about Stewart.
Stewart was an inconsistent quarterback, at best, but I often wonder how much better he may have been under a different set of circumstances.
Sadly, we'll never know, but what impresses me about Stewart's career in Pittsburgh was how he bounced back in the 2000-2001 seasons after he could have very easily crumbled under the intense professional and personal pressures he surely must have been feeling in the late 90's.
No, Kordell Stewart was not a great quarterback, but the two AFC Championship game appearances were still pretty impressive in my mind. And he did provide us with some exciting moments during his career--how many professional football players can boast of throwing a 90-yard touchdown, catching a 71 yard touchdown and rushing for two 70-plus yard touchdowns?
Thanks for some pretty cool memories, Slash.