Last month Kordell Stewart proved he had a unique talent that no one could dispute: Stirring up controversy within Steelers Nation.
Kordell’s surprise “retirement” puzzled, amused, and rekindled old arguments among the faithful.
I wrote an in-depth retrospective on Kordell’s career as a Steeler, but 2020 words later I felt that, while I had a good analytical grasp playing career, I was still left struggling to understand “what it all meant.”
My moment of insight came when I stumbled upon Ron Cook’s claim in the Post Gazette that “[Kordell] was the Steelers’ best quarterback between four-time Super Bowl winner Terry Bradshaw and two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger.”
Even after having defended Kordell ad nauseam in watering holes throughout Steelers Nation, Cook’s contention struck me as preposterous.
But the more I wrestled with it, the more Cook’s contention made sense.
It doesn’t matter that hard statistics indicate that at Neil O’Donnell (and perhaps Tommy Maddox) were better than Kordell. Neither is it important that O’Donnell, unlike Stewart, rallied his team from behind in an AFC Championship game and at least gave Pittsburgh a shot at One for the Thumb.
None of that is really relevant because, at the end of the day, a single word defines Kordell Stewart’s legacy.
Emotion defined everything about Kordell Stewart, both on and off the field. Emotion fueled front office and coaching decisions, and emotion lay at the core of every conversation that two Steelers fans had about Number 10.
Remember “Slash’s” days of glory in 1995? Number 10 was the toast of Steelers Nation. He could wrong and was the man credited with loosening up Ron Erhardt’s stiff offense.
Never mind that the loosening up process began in 1994 during O’Donnell’s mid-season benching. Emotion trumps rationality in memory.
And so it should, sometimes, as Kordell certainly gave the Steelers offense a dynamism that it never would have attained he remained a 4th string quarterback in street clothes.
But if emotion can help fuel a run to the Super Bowl it can also delude under other circumstances.
Mike Tomzcak played uncharacteristically well at the outset of 1996, but by season’s end he was finding mediocrity. Bill Cowher knew this but felt Kordell Stewart gave him the weapon he needed to rebalance the scales in Pittsburgh’s favor. Kordell’s 80 yard touchdown run in relief of Tomzack the season finale seemed to vindicate The Chin’s gut instinct.
During the playoffs Cowher’s secret weapon ran aground against the harsh reality gimmick offenses do not result in Super Bowls, as illustrated by Kordell playing for an entire half and failing to complete a single pass during Fog Bowl II.
1997: Stewart Starts and The Roller Coaster Continues
No coach of his generation wore emotions on his sleeve more prominently than Bill Cowher. And Cowher’s most emotional sideline moment was his planting a kiss squarely on Kordell Stewart’s cheek on a September Sunday in Baltimore.
It’s easy to understand why. Kordell began the game throwing four interceptions, each interception more terrible than the one that preceded it. Yet, Kordell rallied the team to four touchdown drives, the go ahead score coming on a 70 yard scramble, followed by Cowher’s kiss.
Memory tells us that this game was characteristic of the entire season – Kordell faltering only to lead the team back from the brink. I’d swear that the late season match up vs. Denver, the game marked by Carnell Lake’s second shift to corner, unfolded exactly as the Baltimore game did.
Except it didn’t.
Kordell did throw a pick and erratic passing did lead to some three and outs early in the game, but it was John Elway’s scorching Donnell Wolford that put Pittsburgh in the hole that Kordell led them out of.
But we remember Kordell as both the antagonist and hero of that game, and almost every close game of the 1997 season, because it fits our narrative.
The Steeler-Broncos rematch in the AFC Championship reveals the flip side of how our memories spin these emotional yarns.
Does anyone remember Kordell capped a late game drive by throwing a touchdown to Charles Johnson to bring Pittsburgh within a field goal of tying? Do we recall that it was the defense failed to prevent Denver from running out the clock?
- Instead we remember Kordell throwing multiple interceptions at the goal line.
While Kordell certainly shouldn’t be excused for the interceptions, his performance in the game that marked his first big career downturn was far more balanced than the fans, and perhaps Stewart himself, credited him for.
Emotions ran raw throughout the 1998 season, most notably Kordell’s sideline confrontation with Bill Cowher, his benching, his crying and then inexplicable reinsertion back into the game.
1999: No One is Immune
But it was the front office that showed that it was not immune from the bug that off season.
The Steelers had extended Stewart’s rookie contract in 1997. That meant that the Steelers had him under contract at a relatively low salary cap number for only two more years at that point, giving the franchise a lot of flexibility for dealing with their faltering starter.
Instead of hedging their bets, the front office ignored the signs that Kordell was regressing, tore up Kordell’s contract and extended it through 2003 with a then unheard of 8.1 million dollar signing bonus and 22 million plus in new money.
Dan Rooney seemed to acknowledge the franchise’s leap of faith at Heinz Field’s ground breaking by commenting something along the lines that: “We’d like this to become the ‘House that Kordell built’ but we’ll see.”
The only thing Kordell built in 1999 was frustration, as he regressed even further. But so did the Steelers offensive line, wide receiving corps, defensive line, and secondary.
- A large swath of Steelers Nation refused to accept the later reality.
On December 12, 1999 when Qadry Ismail was burning the Steelers defense for a record 258 yards and 3 touchdowns Scott Brown, then Dean of the PSFCOM’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon, sarcastically joked “Its Kordell’s fault.”
Many of the venerable bar’s patrons missed Scotty’s sarcasm, never mind the fact that Kordell had been relegated to wide receiver by that point.
(And we won’t even begin to fathom the layered irrationality that led untold hundreds in Steeler Nation to swear that “My buddy’s the cop who…” caught Kordell in any number of illegal and unsavory situations.)
Resurrection and End Game
Kordell Stewart would of course rise for the ashes of 1999, first helping restore the Steelers self-respect in 2000 and then taking them to another losing AFC Championship game which he took a disproportionate share of the blame.
After winning the Steelers MVP award and going to the Pro Bowl in 2001, Kordell Stewart’s time as a starter ended in just three games into 2002. The suddenness and permanence of the benching caught many by complete surprise, up to and including Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola.
During ESPN Deportes Latin American broadcast of the Steelers-Colts MNF game later that year, Raul Allegre reported that Cowher had confided in him that he hadn’t wanted to bench Kordell, but felt he had to because Stewart had lost the confidence of his locker room.
I’ll let you decide if that amounts to a final, gut instinct decision.
But I do know that there was no objective benefit or logical reason for Kordell Stewart to fly into Pittsburgh to file his retirement papers at the South Side.
Instead it was purely a decision from the heart. A perfect ending for a player whose legacy was defined by emotion.
Source: Behind the Steel Curtain
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