´ Steel Curtain Rising: Understanding the Rise, Fall, Resurrection and Ultimate Undoing of Kordell Stewart

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Understanding the Rise, Fall, Resurrection and Ultimate Undoing of Kordell Stewart

Kordell Stewart has officially retired as a Pittsburgh Steeler. That’s a strange thing to say for someone who threw his last pass for the Steelers in December 2002 and left the NFL in 2005.

Yet this is a fitting ending.

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.



Pittsburgh selected 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.

Bill Cowher made changes. John L. Williams and John Jackson returned to the lineup. Carnell Lake shifted from safety to corner. Erric Pegram started in place of Bam Morris.

And, on a third and long situation, Kordell Stewart lined up under center. 16 yards later he’d converted a key third down, and a Steelers rally began that only ended in Super Bowl XXX.

Stewart’s role grew. Already used as a decoy in multiple receiver sets, during the next week vs. Chicago he got his first catch – for 27 yards.

A week later, he zig zagged through the backfield throwing his first pass, a 2 yard touchdown to Ernie Mills vs. the Cleveland Browns.

The next week he tore through the Cincinnati secondary for an amazing 71 yard touchdown vs. the Bengals that put the Steelers ahead for good. How impressive was this catch? Take a look (available as of 5/2/12):




And so went 1995 for the Steelers. Kordell Stewart only ran 15 times, only caught 14 balls, only threw 7 passes with one touchdown in each category.
  • Modest but sufficient stats for Kordell Stewart and the “Slash” phenomena take Steelers Nation in force. 
He could do no wrong. But that would change….


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.

Cowher employed a similar strategy for the playoffs. Vs. New England in Fog Bowl II he was an utter disaster throwing 10 passes with no completions…..


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. Baltimore gave 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.
Week 15 vs. the Broncos told a similar tale.

As John Elway was toasting Donnell Wolford, Kordell was erratic and threw an interception that Denver quickly 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 week later in New England, Kordell was at it again.

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. Pittsburgh won, 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….


1998 and 1999 were dark times for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While the Steelers wisely refused to overpay to free agents Yancey Thigpen, John Jackson, and Carnell Lake, their draft picks and free agent replacements proved woefully inadequate.
  • The line couldn’t block for Jerome Bettis
  • Receivers couldn’t get open
  • The secondary became a sieve (anyone remember Travis Davis?)
Below this lay a simmering feud between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe.

Most of this was lost, however, on Steelers Nation.
  • For many, the Steelers problems boiled down to two words:  Kordell Stewart.
Stewart indeed struggled mightily.

Ray Sherman was clueless when it came to using Kordell’s athleticism, and Kevin Gilbride sought to transform him into a pure pocket passer.

At times Kordell looked beyond lost. The long ball, which had been his specialty, disappeared completely. Check down passes of 6 or 7 yards routinely landed at players ankles.

Stewart resisted taking responsibility. He got benched in Tampa. He cried. He finished 1999 as a wide receiver, with Cowher banning him from quarterbacks meetings.

Things got ugly.
  • Kordell received death threats
  • Fans poured beer on him
  • He began playing better on the road than at Three Rivers Stadium
  • Racist comments circulated
  • Rumors about his personal life surfaced
No shortage existed of people ready to assure you “My buddy’s the cop” who found Kordell in some supposedly unsavory and illegal situation.

Further complicating the situation was the huge contract that the Steelers, in a show of confidence, had given Kordell following the 1998 season.

Salary cap realities tied the Steelers to Stewart.


With the 8th pick in the 2000 draft the Steelers had their choice of quarterbacks. Yet Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher optedagainst selecting Chad Pennington.

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. Cincinnati and 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.


Kordell Stewart’s first and second passes of the 2002 season were intercepted and quickly converted into points by the New England Patriots in what would become known as the “Dread the Spread” game.

The next week vs. Oakland Kordell played better but was still unable to lead a comeback.

The following week Stewart again struggled as Pittsburgh found itself locked must win situation vs. the Cleveland Browns. Late in the 4th quarter Cowher needed a spark and sent in Tommy Maddox and the Steelers won.
  • 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.
In a nutshell, Cowher told Allegre that he didn’t want tobench Kordell but felt he had to because Kordell had lost the confidence of the rest of the locker room.
  • 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.

If you want proof, consider that when Tommy Maddox got injured in 2002, Kordell Stewart played some of his best football ever, nearly rallying the team to victory in Tennessee, and going 22-26-236-0-1 with another forty yards rushing the next week vs. Cincinnati.
  • Those were arguable his best two games as a passer.
He followed a similar pattern in Chicago, playing his best when coming off the bench.


As someone whose heart was rooting for Kordell even when his head said he was done, I wished him success after Pittsburgh, and thought he’d enjoy a successful run as a backup.

That was not to be. Kordell held a clipboard for two years in Baltimore, but threw no passes. As late as 2009 or 2010 Steelers Digest reported that Stewart held out hope that his phone might ring.
  • It never did.
So he decided to seek closure in the place where his long, strange NFL odyssey began, and by his account he found it. Good for you Kordell. Good luck and Godspeed in retirement.

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