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Shaking the rust - Stewart returns to form

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

PITTSBURGH -- Kordell Stewart had a season like this once, and the Pittsburgh Steelers made it to the AFC championship game.

If Stewart keeps playing like he is now -- and he hasn't done so since 1997 -- and the resurgent Steelers might not stop at the AFC title game this time.

Stewart kept his remarkable comeback going Sunday night, passing for a career high 333 yards -- remember, he had only two 200-yard games in 2 1/2 years coming into this season -- as the Steelers (11-2) clinched the AFC Central title by beating Baltimore 26-21.

In reality, it wasn't that close. Stewart, who for most of three seasons made even the easiest play look difficult, made it look easy as the Steelers gained 476 yards against a Ravens defense that only last season was called one of the best in NFL history.

"Considering all the things that have taken place and what this game meant, it's one of the best games of my career -- so far," Stewart said.

So far?

"I think his best is still ahead," coach Bill Cowher said. "He's a very focused man, but we're not going to sit back and reflect on it right now."

How could this happen? How could a quarterback whose tenure in Pittsburgh probably would have long ago ended if it weren't for his $27 million contract so thoroughly revive his career only 15 months after being a backup?

"I can't say enough about Kordell," Cowher said. "He's a confident man right now, and he's got some players making plays for him."

Improved receivers

Those players, of course, are Plaxico Burress, who did virtually nothing for the first 1 1/2 years of his career but has looked like a Pro Bowl receiver since midseason, and Hines Ward, one of the NFL's most productive if less-appreciated receivers.

Stewart hasn't had two receivers playing this well together since 1997, when he was throwing to Yancey Thigpen, Charles Johnson and Courtney Hawkins. Having receivers he can count on, and who have confidence in him, has made a significant difference in his revival.

So has first-year offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who has streamlined and simplified what was an extremely complex offense filled with multiple reads and layers of progressions.

By doing so, Stewart can instinctively react rather than being mechanical and robotic. His ability to improvise restored, Stewart is playing again like the extremely confident player who threw for 21 touchdowns and ran for 11 in 1997, when the Steelers went 11-5 before losing the AFC title game to Denver.

And, for all the credit that Mularkey is getting, the transformation actually began late last season as former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride eliminated some of the complex elements of his system late in the season.

Coincidentally or not, the 2000 Steelers (9-7) won four of their final five, a flurry that was barely noticed elsewhere as they missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

For Stewart, however, it was a major change from the end of the 1999 season, when he was benched and moved to wide receiver for the final five games, and the start of last season, when he was Kent Graham's backup. The turnaround carried into this season, and Stewart has now won 16 of his last 19 starts.


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