Kordell Stewart in 1995

Kordell Stewart: The Man, The Myth


Kordell Stewart came back to Pittsburgh today to announce his retirement, seven years after he last played a down. photo courtesy foxsports.com

In a strange and unprecedented move, former Pittsburgh Steelers QB Kordell Stewart came back to Pittsburgh today to announce his retirement from the National Football League.  Stewart, now 39-years old, has not played since last suiting up as a backup for the Baltimore Ravens in 2005.  He has spent several years working as a TV analyst for ESPN.  The fact that Stewart chose to retire as a Steeler is no surprise, as he spent the majority of his career in the black and gold.  The manner in which this all happened today was mind boggling, however.  As stated, Stewart has not been an active player in over seven years and for all intents and purposes, everybody thought he WAS retired.  Everybody but “Slash”, apparently.  Stewart signed a one-day contract with the Steelers today to formally retire as a member of the organization.

The name Kordell Stewart still brings a lot of baggage with it in this town.  At times, he was a guy we felt we could ride all the way to the promise land, known back then as “One for the Thumb”.  At times he was beloved by this city, and more often than that he was – shall we say – unpopular.  A player who was ahead of his time – a quarterback with a rocket arm who could run a 4.3 40-yard dash – Stewart was an enigma; best known for his iconic “Hail Mary” touchdown pass to WR Michael Westbrook to give Colorado a win over Michigan in 1994.  The Steelers, looking for the best athlete on the board in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft, selected Stewart 60th overall.  The team was basically set at the Quarterback position with starter Neil O’Donnell and veteran backup Mike Tomczak, making the choice a curious one for a team that was just starting to really develop into an AFC powerhouse.  The general thought was that Stewart would be evaluated in training camp, and the team could then decide where he would fit on the roster.  The Steelers were a deep, young team in 1995 – only seven players were age 30 or older – and were slowly climbing the mountain under Head Coach Bill Cowher.  After early playoff exits in 1992 and 1993, the team had really hit its stride in 1994 – a 12-4 record and the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.  The season came down to an AFC Championship Game match-up against the heavy underdog San Diego Chargers at Three Rivers Stadium.  The Steelers were upset – at home, in January, by a warm weather team – and the loss was at the time considered one of the most heartbreaking in team history.  Despite the free agent losses of Pro Bowl guard Duval Love and Pro Bowl TE Eric Green, the team looked to add some sizzle in the draft to mesh with a roster that had all the pieces in place for a Super Bowl run.

The Steelers were looking to add “wrinkles” to the offensive playbook of coordinator Ron Erhardt, and Kordell Stewart was seen as the type of player who could cause sleepless nights for opposing defenders.  He had a cannon arm, throwing the ball up to 75 yards in game situations.  His speed was off-the-charts fast, and in 1995 he had no equal athletically as far as quarterbacks were concerned.  His hands and footwork were tailor-made for a big time wide receiver.  Kordell Stewart had it all – and nobody, including Erhardt or Cowher, had ever seen a player with as many tangible tools.  The one thing Stewart lacked was the ability to play quarterback in the NFL right away.  For all of his athletic talents, Kordell wasn’t a fast learner.  If the Steelers had plans to make a pro quarterback out of him, it was a goal that would take a commitment over several years to accomplish.  However, there was no way the team was going to allow him to languish as a #3 QB on the sideline – the Steelers were going to use that size and speed immediately.  The brain trust would meet in dark film rooms and late-night think tank sessions and come up with a select few plays that would confuse and frighten defensive coordinators all over the Country.  It took half a season for the team and coaches to begin bringing their experiment to life, and on a chilly Week 9 afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium the Steelers welcomed the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars to town.  The NFL was about to be introduced to “Slash”.

In the game against Jacksonville, Stewart saw his first regular season action by rushing two times for 16 yards in a 24-7 Steelers win.  The following week at Chicago, the team utilized Stewart as a running back and wide receiver.  “Slash” made his first NFL reception, a 27-yard toss from QB Neil O’Donnell.  He also ran the ball once, and the Steelers used him as a decoy all afternoon.  The Steelers again won, this time on a Norm Johnson FG in overtime that propelled them to a 37-34 victory.  Although he had yet to have a huge impact on the game, the NFL was abuzz about the Steelers new weapon.  Defensive Coordinators league-wide now had to account for a player who was quite possibly the most gifted athlete in the league, and they had no idea where the Steelers were going to use him.  A decade before anybody had ever heard of Devin Hester or Joshua Cribbs, the first true all-purpose NFL player was born.

Stewart during a game against Cleveland in 1999

After starting out the season a disappointing 3-4, the Steelers rode their new weapon to win eight of their final nine games and finish 11-5.  They won the AFC Central Division and finally hurdled the rest of the conference to win the AFC Championship.  Kordell Stewart was the added dimension that made the Steelers the force they were in 1995, and all told he collected 381 all-purpose yards and scored via the run, the catch, and the pass.  For a fanbase that had been raised on the smashmouth style, Stewart became an immediate smash as “Slash”.  Within a few weeks of his debut, #10 jerseys were all the rage at Three Rivers Stadium and every national pregame show was talking up Stewart as the “next generation” of NFL player.  When the playoffs began, Stewart was the most feared player to take the field.  In the Divisional playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, he would add punting to his repertoire – booting a 41-yard pooch punt that caught the Bills completely off guard.   His touchdown catch in the AFC Championship Game against Indianapolis was a thing of beauty, and turned the tide of the game back into the Steelers favor just before halftime.  Although the Steelers would lose to Dallas in their first Super Bowl appearance since 1979, the 1995 season was the most successful of the Cowher era thus far – and Kordell Stewart was one of the main players who triggered that success.

After spending another season in the “Slash” role in 1996, Kordell Stewart became the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1997.  He immediately became the hottest signal caller in the game, leading the Steelers to an 11-5 record, another AFC Central division title, and another trip to the AFC Championship Game.  He completed 236 passes for 3,020 yards and 21 touchdowns, and added 476 yards rushing with 11 touchdowns.  In the top overall single player performance of the entire season, Stewart threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more in a 35-24 in a Week 15 win over the Denver Broncos.  He finished the season with a QB Rating of 75.2% and led the league with four comeback victories.  In a very tight AFC Divisional Playoff game against New England that the Steelers would win 7-6, Stewart rushed for 68 yards and scored the only touchdown of the game on a 40-yard sprint to the endzone.  Just as the Steel City was becoming overrun with Kordell Fever, the team fell to Denver in the AFC Championship Game 24-21.  Stewart was considered the primary reason for the loss, throwing three interceptions and completed only 18 of 36 passes.  He did score once again on a 33-yard scamper, but his overall play left a lot to be desired.

From 1998-1999, Kordell Stewart remained the Steelers starting quarterback despite poor play and back-to-back losing records for the team.  In 2000, the organization attempted to move forward by signing veteran QB Kent Graham to be the starter.  Besides a 1-3 start to the season, watching Graham play quarterback was the polar opposite of Stewart.  The slow-footed Graham lasted just four games before the team turned back to Stewart in an attempt to salvage their season.  The team rebounded and finished 9-7 in the final season at Three Rivers Stadium, narrowly missing the playoffs.  As the Steelers were preparing to move onto a new chapter in their storied history, it was all but set in stone that Kordell Stewart would be the man at the helm.  Fans and media speculated as to whether Kordell would ever be able to lead the Steelers again after his demotion, and horrible rumors about Stewart’s social life began to make life unbearable for the now veteran player.

As the 2001 season approached, the Steelers hired their third offensive coordinator in four years.  Following Chan Gailey and Ray Sherman would be Mike Mularkey, a former Steelers player and the tight ends coach from 1996-2000.  The addition of Mularkey and new Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements reinvigorated Stewart.  In the first year at beautiful new Heinz Field, Kordell Stewart put together his best overall season and led a dominate Steelers team to a 13-3 record and the #1 overall seed in the AFC.  Stewart racked up 3,109 passing yards (his second 3,000+ season) and threw for 14 touchdowns.  On the ground, he ran for 537 yards and 5 touchdowns.  He was voted to his first and only Pro Bowl, was the Steelers Team MVP, and was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Year.  Once again, the NFL was infatuated with Kordell Stewart and his image graced the covers of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.  To Steelers fans who had been waiting for a quarterback that could lead the team back to its past greatness, it seemed that once again Stewart might be that guy.  The Steelers once again won a home playoff game, this time defeating the Baltimore Ravens in a game that helped mold the beginnings of the NFL’s bloodiest rivalry.  The Steelers were heavy favorites to reach Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans, so much so that fans were planning their trips to the “Big Easy” and lining up which opponent from the NFC their team would match up better against.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.  The New England Patriots, led by their suddenly superstar quarterback Tom Brady and a defense with a “bend but do not break” mentality, ended the Steelers 2001 season in the AFC Championship Game.  Once again, it was Kordell Stewart who took the loss on the chin by throwing three interceptions and looking lost for most of the game.  In reality, the Patriots – who entered the game as double-digit underdogs – were on their way to a stunning mini-dynasty and (possibly) had some help from videotaped practices.  The Steelers lost 24-17 and were outplayed in every facet of the game, and that cold night at Heinz Field would turn out to be the ultimate turning point in the Steelers career of Kordell Stewart.  Losing another home AFC Title game to a huge underdog was a major strike in the eyes of Steeler Nation, who had now seen the Steelers lose two of these games with #10 manning the wheel.  The Patriots went on to upset the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl by playing the type of low-scoring affair that the Steelers excelled at – making it feel as if a fifth Lombardi Trophy had been stolen from the franchise.  Whatever slack the fans and media had been giving Kordell Stewart for having such a great bounce-back year was officially gone.

Stewart celebrates a touchdown run by RB Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala during a Week 4 win over Seattle in 1998.

The 2002 season would signal the end of the road for Kordell Stewart in the black and gold.  After losing the first two games of the season, the Steelers had a strange Week 3 bye week and by that point the coaching staff had seen enough of a Steelers offense that could only muster 31 total points in two games.  After being sacrificed to the New England Patriots in Week 1 for the opening of Gillette Stadium, the Steelers came home to play Oakland in a Sunday Night Football match-up.  The Steelers kept it close through three quarters before the special teams allowed the Raiders to blow the gates off in the fourth with a 96-yard kickoff return TD.  A couple of fumbles killed Pittsburgh drives that had promise despite an erratic quarter by Stewart.  The loss was the worst regular season defeat at Heinz Field, and the Steelers looked like a shell of the team that had dominated much of 2001.  A Week 4 match-up against the Cleveland Browns was Stewart’s last chance to show he was able to rebound the Steelers from their lousy start, and after a lackluster performance put the team in a 13-6 hole the coaching staff turned to backup QB Tommy Maddox.  After leading the team to a 16-13 overtime victory, it was clear that “Tommy Gun” was the new starting quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Kordell Stewart would make four more appearances as a Steeler, including two late season starts that helped keep the team in playoff contention after an injury sidelined Maddox.  It was the swan’s song for his Steelers career, and once the season was over the Steelers released Stewart.  Maddox would remain the starter for 2003 and was the bridge to gap the franchise until the 2004 drafting of Ben Roethlisberger.  Once Big Ben took over for the injured Maddox in the third week of 2004, the “Tommy Gun” era quickly ended.  Kordell Stewart would sign with the Chicago Bears and play there in 2003, then was brought in as a back-up for Baltimore in 2004-05.  After a few starts with the Bears in his only season there, he was replaced by Chris Chandler and never started another NFL game.

The surprise “retirement” party that was thrown today for Stewart was something nobody could have predicted.  The Kordell Stewart era of football in the Steel City isn’t looked back on as being special nor did it have a storybook ending.  However, the Steelers enjoyed two very good seasons with Stewart under center, and he was a major part of the 1995 Super Bowl XXX team.  Many fans remember the frustration they felt when Kordell was the quarterback here, myself included.  I also remember a player that redefined the quarterback position in the NFL, and a player who at times looked like he was unstoppable.  Superstars today such as Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III have Stewart to thank for changing the way the league looks at mobile quarterbacks, much like Stewart had Randall Cunningham to thank for opening the door to his career.  While the Steelers didn’t collect any hardware – the way we define winners and losers in Pittsburgh – he did have a large effect on the franchise and on numerous Steelers legends.  Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward each benefited from having Stewart around in the primes, a fact that both have stated numerous times.

It was just another example of the class organization the Steelers are by allowing Kordell Stewart to have his very-late moment in the sun today.  For better or for worse, when you are a Steeler – you know you have a home for life.

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Tags: Bill Cowher Kent Graham Kordell Stewart Kordell Stewart Retirement 5/30/2012 Tommy Maddox

  • Kimmy

    Excellent post Jeff!  Steeler Nation truly had a rocky relationship with Kordell, but it’s kind of nice to see that he was allowed to do this and retire a Steeler, even though it is pretty bizarre.  I was a freshman at Pitt in 98 when Kordell came to Oakland for a book signing with his agent.  I bought the stupid book because they wouldn’t let Kordell sign anything other than the book but I’ll never forget standing there like an idiot without uttering a word while he was signing my book because I was totally star struck at meeting my first Steeler and it being “Slash”.  Years later my parents were at a Steelers game in Tampa, the game notorious for Kordell crying on the sidelines for being benched.  To me, that pretty much sums up Kordell’s career as a Steeler. 

  • KDO

    Thanks for this — I came of age as a Steelers fan in the Maddox years, and didn’t know much about Kordell’s career.  Very helpful!