|Wednesday, October 2
Updated: October 3, 2:10 PM ET
Maddox, Stewart heading in different directions
By Len Pasquarelli
The rise of Tommy Maddox to the starting quarterback spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers is certainly a story of how far one man has come, after a prolonged bout with adversity, but is also a saga-in-the-making of where the player he replaced is likely headed with his NFL career.
Like the ascendant Maddox, demoted starter Kordell Stewart has long been a student at the School of Hard Knocks, some of the setbacks suffered there of his own making. But where Maddox received his masters in overcoming degradation, it seems at times like Stewart is the eternal freshman, perhaps fated to never earn a degree.
Certainly the events of Wednesday, in which Steelers coach Bill Cowher surprised even some of his own staffers by benching Stewart after he had started the previous 30 outings, creates a pall of uncertainty. Not only as it pertains to Stewart's future in Pittsburgh but also as it relates now to the long-term prospects for the game's most critical position.
A team deemed the preseason favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVII, the Steelers have always mirrored the city in which they play, a shot-and-a-beer town where a tough, four-yard run is as valued as a 40-yard pass play. And now here are the Steelers, suddenly incapable of running the football, and turning perhaps to a four-wide receiver "spread" offense out of desperation and as they seek an antidote for an anemic attack.
Forget changing the name of the starting quarterback. If Maddox remains the starter, it means the Steelers have dramatically altered their identity, and that was once considered unthinkable in The Steel City. Throwing the ball on a consistent basis has always been viewed in The 'Burgh as an offense for those white-wine sippers in places like San Francisco.
Hard to imagine the hardy crowd at Heinz Field stocking the cooler with a nice merlot instead of a six-pack of Iron City. Harder still, however, might be divining exactly where the Steelers are headed at quarterback.
The story of Maddox is one of perseverance, as we pointed out Sunday, in our account of his exhilarating relief appearance. This is a guy who, after being released by Atlanta in the summer of 1997, was out of the NFL for three seasons. Maddox played in the Arena Football League and in the XFL before the Steelers signed him last summer.
His agent, former NFL standout safety Vann McElroy, told us Wednesday that he nearly talked his client into heading to the CFL before he caught on with the Steelers last year. Maddox is one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet, but it remains to be seen if he is a starting quarterback. After all, he hasn't logged an NFL start since his '92 rookie season with the Denver Broncos, who drafted him in the first round as a 20-year-old sophomore out of UCLA.
It is one thing to enter a game in the waning and desperate moments, as he did last Sunday, and catch lightning in a bottle. It's a different proposition, Maddox knows, to keep the lightning aglow.
No one knows that more than Stewart, who might at some point this year regain his starting job, but who is essentially finished in Pittsburgh now. Even in the best of times, Stewart was hardly embraced by a city that holds its players to a very high standard, particularly its high-profile performers. One has to wonder, as well, if Stewart was ever accepted by his teammates as the unquestioned and unchallenged Steelers leader.
Remember, it is a city that didn't cotton to Terry Bradshaw until the Hall of Fame quarterback began collecting Super Bowl rings, and Stewart has been a symbol of championship opportunities squandered.
Chances are good now that Stewart, who has this season and 2003 left on his contract, will have to eventually relocate to find a full-time starting job again. There was a big reason, during this offseason in which the Pittsburgh ownership spent millions extending the contracts of key players, that the club did not re-up Stewart. Despite the public support Cowher offered, club management was never certain Stewart was The Man at quarterback. And now he isn't.
More than an hour after last Sunday's game, long after Cowher had publicly noted he was leaning toward starting Stewart for another week, a Pittsburgh executive passed by me in the bowels of Heinz Field. "Well, finally we have a quarterback," he whispered. Time will tell.
In a rather poignant moment last Sunday evening, Maddox was asked if he felt like a starter or a reliever, following what was inarguably the grandest Kodak moment of his roller coaster NFL career. "I feel like a quarterback," he said, smiling.
Tough to tell how Stewart really feels now. He stressed Sunday he would support whatever decision Cowher made. Of course, that was in the wake of the coach all but announcing he would retain the status quo. But now that Stewart is in status go, how long can he keep saying the right things, given that this is a guy who cried on the sidelines a few years ago when he was yanked from a game.
Summoned to Cowher's office on Tuesday evening, the standard off-day in the NFL, Stewart left the meeting smiling, we are told. Smiling even though he had been apprised by Cowher that he had lost his job. If there is any kind of positive to this, at least Cowher hasn't banished Stewart from the team's quarterback meetings this time, as he did four years ago.
There is no talk of resurrecting Stewart's "Slash" persona, of him playing wide receiver.
Instead the chatter is about him playing elsewhere in 2003. And of how the Steelers plan to address the quarterback position for the long-term. One guy not to rule out is Charlie Batch, who remains the No. 3 quarterback for now, and who is signed to only a one-year contract.
There is a reason the Steelers brought Batch, regarded by many in the club's organization as a starting caliber quarterback, home to Pittsburgh. In their minds, some team officials viewed Batch as the potential replacement for Stewart if the latter didn't work out. That scenario could still occur, since a once seemingly stable team has now been transformed into a quarterback carousel spinning wildly.
The only surprise will be if Stewart is still aboard the ride in 2003.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.