Many Steelers fans hate Kordell Stewart. I find that odd since he had a winning record and got us to a couple of AFC Championship games. Hating Neil O’Donnell I understand, but the hostility directed at Kordell puzzles me.
Stewart haters like to point to the upset loss to the Patriots in the 2001 AFC Championship game. Slash threw three interceptions as New England won 24-17. That game essentially ended Stewart’s career in Pittsburgh. Early in the next season the glorious Tommy Maddox era dawned for the Black and Gold.
That’s the history but the history is more fiction than fact. There are many reasons why the Steelers lost to the Patriots and most of them were out of #10’s control.
10. Mike Tomczak. The Steelers back up QB was nothing like Stewart. The offensive playbook could never fully leverage Slash’s skills because the plays had to be run by Tomczak as well as Stewart. We had a Ferrari in the garage but kept low octane fuel in the pumps because our other car was a Sentra.
(After O’Donnell took the money and ran to the Jets, Randall Cunningham was available for a song. Just imagine what the late 90s could have looked like for Pittsburgh if both their QBs had been fast and mobile.)
9. No continuity at offensive coordinator. The AFCC game is seen as proof that Stewart would never fulfill his potential. If so, some of the blame has to go to the Steelers organization. The offensive coordinator’s office had a revolving door during the Stewart era. That’s tough on a young, raw QB. The problem was aggravated because until 2001, the Steelers did not have a quarterback coach.
8. No continuity at receiver. Again, if Stewart looked less than polished in 2001, part of the reason is that there was constant turnover in his receiving corps. His top targets had a way of leaving in free agency (Thigpen, Johnson) to be replaced by highly drafted rookies (Blackwell, Edwards, Buress). Even worse, the coaches kept demoting Hines Ward to get those top picks on the field. Slash never had the chance to find his go-to guy. Manning, Young, Aikman Unitas; Harrison, Rice, Irvin, Berry. QB’s do best when they are part of a deadly tandem.
Even Tom Brady admitted that the loss of Deion Branch knocked him off his stride this season. That’s coming from a guy with three rings.
7. Special teams futility. The Steelers fell behind the Patriots because they gave up two TDs on special teams. This is a recurring theme in the Cowher-era. His special teams put his QBs in a hole in big games.
6. Game plan? Who needs a game plan? For the AFCC loss to really count against Stewart, it would have to be exceptional. Sadly, many different Steelers quarterbacks have lost AFCC games. Maybe this is less a reflection on the guys under center and has more to do with a stubborn coach who can’t prepare and can’t make adjustments against quality opponents.
I think the point I made after the loss in the 2004 AFCCG still stands:
Cowher blamed the QB for the interceptions that led to the loss. I'm not buying it. To paraphrase Goldfinger: One big game lost to interceptions; that's poor play at QB. Two big games lost that way is a bad break. Five big games lost on interceptions by three different QBs-that's play-calling and coaching.5. The interceptions. Yeah, he threw three interceptions. Two of them were in the last three minutes with his team trailing. Take away the disaster on special teams and he ends the game with just one pick and a trip to the Superbowl.
4. One-dimensional players. The late-Cowher formula on offense relied on very specialized players. The running back ran between the tackles. The fullback and tight end blocked for the running back. None of them figured into the passing game. Against good teams, the offense was predictable and easy to stop. The quarterback never had the element of surprise because personnel and formation tipped-off the defense.
3. Drew Freaking Bledsoe. Tom Brady was injured with two minutes left in the first half and the score 7-3. Bledsoe drove the Patriots 40 yards in one minute to take a 14-3 lead. Kordell Stewart was not on the field when Bledsoe made the defense look like chumps.
2. Troy Brown, the best big game player of his era. Sometimes you lose because the other team has better players. The Patriots had Troy Brown. He returned a punt for a TD. He recovered a blocked field goal and then lateraled which resulted in another TD off a return. He caught 8 passes for 121 yards. On the only touchdown drive by the Patriots offense, he caught a 28 yard pass when the Pats faced 3rd down on their 32 with two minutes left in the half.
It wasn’t a fluke game for Brown. He caught big passes on the winning drives in the Super Bowl against St. Louis and Carolina.
No other player in the Super Bowl era had Brown’s versatility. Returner, receiver, defensive backhe could make big plays in all phases of the game. More importantly, he did make big plays in big games.
1. The Bus broke down. The whole point of the Cowher offense was to push people around and beat teams into submission with Jerome Bettis. But #36 was injured and inactive for the five games prior to the AFC title game. He managed only 8 yards on 9 attempts against the Patriots and the Steelers were held to 58 yards rushing.