The most depressing day in recent Pittsburgh Steelers history
was drawing to a close, and the AFC champions stood quietly on
the sideline of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Sunday,
absorbing their season-opening slap in the face and reacting
like zombies. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who normally
displays all the restraint of Robin Williams on an espresso
binge, merely folded his arms and scowled in the final minutes
of his team's 24-9 defeat to the second-year Jacksonville
Jaguars. The Steelers' emotional leader, All-Pro linebacker Greg
Lloyd, was long gone, his season ended in the third quarter by a
torn patella tendon in his left knee. Starting quarterback Jim
Miller stood alone with a football under his arm at one end of
the bench area, while veteran backup Mike Tomczak was on one
knee off by himself at the opposite end.
Only one person, a 23-year-old spot player who may be
Pittsburgh's best hope for resuscitating its offense, showed any
fiery defiance. Kordell (Slash) Stewart, the Steelers'
quarterback/running back/receiver/rabble-rouser, walked around
jawing at teammates, at one point getting up close and personal
with 245-pound running back Jerome Bettis for an amicable but
spirited conversation. "A lot of crazy stuff was happening out
there," Stewart explained later. "You wonder why certain things
happen, you talk about them, and you try to get them resolved."
Stewart did not share the specifics of his discussions with
teammates, but the subject matter wasn't difficult to pinpoint.
Seven months removed from a near upset of the Dallas Cowboys in
Super Bowl XXX, the Steelers were drowning in the wake of
Lloyd's injury and quarterback Neil O'Donnell's off-season
departure, by free agency, to the New York Jets. The leadership
void is daunting, but Stewart's instincts in that regard were
surfacing as the clock wound down against Jacksonville. A
novelty act who made an impact as a rookie, Stewart wants to
"play quarterback only--starting right now."
Stewart has become wary of the multipurpose role he played last
year. He believes opposing defenses have caught on to it, he
thinks it is disruptive to the team's other quarterbacks, he
fears it will delay his opportunity to become the full-time
quarterback, and he has already lost his enthusiasm for it.
"Last year I was like an infant," he says. "This year I know
better. If [the multipurpose role] is not working, all it does
is throw off our offensive rhythm, and I'm just not into it."
Stewart competed for the quarterback job in the preseason, but
Miller was declared the winner of the three-man bake-off. After
the Steelers' poor performance in the season opener, Stewart,
like many of his offensive teammates, believes he is the best
man to lead the club. "Just put the damn ball in Kordell's hands
and let's get on with it," said one prominent Pittsburgh player
as he walked off the field. "He's the guy who people respond to,
and we can all see that, so let's stop messing around."
In his postgame address to the team, Cowher promised he would
"make some choices," meaning he would reduce the lineup juggling
that made the Steelers'offensive unit resemble a hockey team
changing lines every few minutes. Pittsburgh scored like a
hockey team too. The Steelers were held without a touchdown by
the Jaguars' once laughable Teal Curtain defense. Despite a
lively running game--Bettis, the rejuvenated St. Louis Rams
castoff, and Erric Pegram combined for 101 yards on 21
carries--Pittsburgh got no closer than the Jaguars' four-yard
line. That came with two minutes left in the third quarter and
Jacksonville leading 14-6. The ensuing sequence underscored the
Steelers' struggles. On second-and-goal from the four, Stewart
replaced Miller, ran an option that fooled no one and lost a
yard. Miller returned on third down and badly overthrew wideout
Andre Hastings in the end zone. Pittsburgh settled for a field
goal. Miller, who completed 9 of 17 passes for 83 yards, spent
the rest of the day on the sideline.
While Miller bombed in his first NFL start, neither Stewart nor
Tomczak showed much in relief. After filling in at quarterback,
fullback and slot receiver in the first three quarters, Stewart
took over for Miller at the start of the fourth. He handed the
ball to Bettis and threw two incompletions; Pittsburgh punted;
and the Jaguars advanced the ball far enough for Mike Hollis to
boot a 52-yard field goal, making the score 17-9 with 8:25
remaining. In came 12-year veteran Tomczak, whose first play was
a quick sideline pass to Charles Johnson. Jacksonville
linebacker Kevin Hardy, the second player picked in the '96
draft, suckered Tomczak with an inside fake, then darted in
front of Johnson for an interception, and the Jaguars marched to
a game-clinching touchdown.
The Steelers had one last gasp, but Jacksonville turned Tomczak
into Tomsack, dropping him on back-to-back plays. The Jaguars,
who had a league-low 17 sacks in their inaugural season,
produced four on Sunday--one of many signs of progress for a
team that believes it is a playoff contender. "We've got
something special here," said Jacksonville receiver Keenan
McCardell, who beat Pittsburgh cornerback Willie Williams for a
15-yard touchdown catch 16 seconds before halftime. "We just
beat the AFC champions, and it wasn't a fluke."
When the Jaguars just beat the Steelers 20-16 in the first
meeting between the two clubs last October, it was one of the
season's biggest upsets. Sunday's game wasn't even close. "We
got our asses kicked," said Hastings. "I'm embarrassed."
The game began with the Jaguars scoring on their first drive, as
receiver Willie Jackson left Pittsburgh cornerback Rod Woodson
flat-footed and raced down the sideline with a 38-yard touchdown
catch from quarterback Mark Brunell. The game ended with 70,210
fans singing Happy Birthday to that noted party animal,
Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin, who had turned 50 a day
earlier. And the scary thing is, the day could have been even
more festive for the Jaguars.
With the addition of former Pittsburgh tackle Leon Searcy,
former San Diego Chargers running back Natrone Means (who sat
out with a torn ligament in his thumb) and former Cleveland
Browns receiver Andre Rison, who suffered through the worst
season of his career last year, the Jaguars have a more potent
offense than they did in '95. The pairing of the no-nonsense
Coughlin and Rison, who has a reputation for missing or arriving
late to team meetings, would appear to be highly combustible,
but so far, so good. After he was waived in July, Rison, who
caught 93 passes for the Atlanta Falcons in 1992, was seriously
pursued only by Jacksonville. The flamboyant wideout won over
Coughlin during a three-hour meeting in which he wore a coat and
tie and expressed a desire to rehabilitate his reputation.
"I love it here, because I'm wanted," Rison said after catching
four passes for 42 yards on Sunday. "Last year was the worst
year of my life, but Bad Moon"--his nickname in Atlanta--"is
back. This is going to be my best year. I'm being myself. I'm a
leader, and I'm a role model."
However frightening that last prospect may be to some people
around the league, Rison will have several forums for delivering
his message. He says he'll have a book, a TV movie and a rap
album, Black Life, coming out over the next several months. If
the Steelers put out a rap single this week, it will be called
Bleak Life. The loss of Lloyd, their defensive centerpiece and
emotional compass, was as devastating a blow as the team could
suffer. He injured his knee on a seemingly routine blitz in the
third quarter. Lloyd was blocked by Jaguars guard Brian DeMarco,
who earlier in the week had announced his intention to kick
Lloyd in the groin as retaliation for Lloyd's allegedly kicking
DeMarco in the groin last season. A taekwondo black belt, Lloyd
seemed to welcome DeMarco's threat, saying, "Yeah, but he
doesn't realize I'm an expert in those things." DeMarco's block
was clean, but Woodson bumped into Lloyd, and his leg buckled.
He spent the next several minutes on the turf and threw his
helmet in disgust before being helped off the field.
"I know exactly how he feels," said Woodson, who tore an
anterior cruciate ligament in last year's season opener and did
not return until the Super Bowl. "Life's not fair, and
football's a part of life. Greg was our motivational speaker,
the guy who got the guys up."
Lloyd was also the key to the Steelers' pass rush, which
recorded 42 sacks last year but now has the firepower of a
squirt gun. The team's other starting outside linebacker from
'95, sack specialist Kevin Greene, signed with the Carolina
Panthers as a free agent. The two players Pittsburgh had slated
to replace him, Jason Gildon and rookie Steve Conley, both
suffered knee sprains on Sunday and will miss the next several
weeks. Defensive tackle Ray Seals tore his rotator cuff in the
preseason and is out for the year, and another tackle, Brentson
Buckner, played despite a nagging knee injury. What's more,
Woodson is nowhere near the form that made him a member of the
NFL's 75th Anniversary Alltime team before his knee injury last
"When both of your starting cornerbacks give up a touchdown
pass, it's hard to win," Woodson says. "But I look at it this
way: We played like crap, and we still had opportunities to get
back into the game."
The Steelers have started slowly under Cowher before, and if any
coach is equipped to pull his team out of an early-season
crisis, he is the one. But the Steelers' locker room is filled
with talk about the quarterback dilemma, and virtually everyone
shares the opinion that Cowher must make a definitive decision.
"I think we just need to evaluate each position and put the most
experience we have on the football field," Woodson says. In
other words, he believes Tomczak should be the quarterback. But
Woodson is in the minority. The popular choice is Stewart, who
has the strongest arm and the greatest ability to evade pass
rushers. The Steelers have long valued steadiness and
consistency on offense, and Cowher's philosophy is to keep his
quarterback from having to carry the team. After what he saw in
the first week of the season, Cowher may no longer have that
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO James Stewart added insult to injury when he dived one yard for the Jaguars' final score.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Miller buckled under the pressure of Jacksonville's D; Stewart and Tomczak didn't fare much better. [Jacksonville Jaguars player tackling Jim Miller]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Pegram (20), who ran for 44 yards on seven carries, was one of the few bright spots for Pittsburgh. [Erric Pegram in game]