Saga of 'Slash' continues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Shortly after another Ravens training-camp practice, a scene unfolded that would have been sinister had it happened a mere two years ago.

Even today, with Kordell Stewart well removed from being the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers - and consequently public enemy No. 1 with Ravens fans - seeing those same fans chanting Stewart's name and listening to one with a Ravens logo on his T-shirt offer up a heartfelt, "Welcome to Baltimore, Kordell," the picture seemed a little eerie.

But such is the way things work in the NFL these days; a player can go from villain to - if something were to happen to starter Kyle Boller - potential savior seemingly overnight.

Stewart, who signed a one-year contract with the Ravens after a failed season in Chicago with the Bears and stands to be the backup for at least the first six games, thinks his newfound popularity is as funny as it is reassuring.

Autographs and a little schmoozing have become enjoyable again.

"They let me know that they hated me but love me now that I'm here," Stewart said. "If you can't beat them, you've got to join them. They remember the things that happened when we played against them, and now I have the opportunity to come and be part of this ship. And it's a great opportunity."

Stewart, 31, enters his 10th NFL season having been to purgatory and back. His story, from entering the league as a second-round pick to creating the "Slash" role during his rookie season - when he started at receiver, played a little quarterback and even had spot duty as a running back and punter - to being released by the lowly Bears earlier this offseason, could easily fill a book.

Half of it would be a boy-makes-good story, while the other half would be near tragic. There would be the chapter on how Stewart helped pave the way for the league's transition toward more mobile quarterbacks with his strong arm and quick feet, but also the dark chapter about how he performed so poorly during a Steelers home loss to the New England Patriots in 1998 that a fan poured a beer over his head.

There's the Pro Bowl quarterback who led the Steelers to a 13-3 record, a playoff win over the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens and received serious consideration for league MVP honors in 2001, only to be benched after five games the next season.

Then there is the quarterback who a year ago had the city of Chicago and its passionate fans firmly in his corner, only to lose their support as well as the coaching staff's and his job after a 1-4 start. But that situation was doomed from the get-go, according to Stewart.

"Everybody was on the hot seat," said Stewart, who has lost the starting job four times over his career.

"So when everybody else's seat was hot, I walked in on a lukewarm one. Obviously, wins are what they wanted. It just couldn't happen, I don't care what nobody says. It was a downward spiral before I even walked in. I didn't see it because I just saw the opportunity to start."

The Bears cut him with a year left on his contract, believing Stewart was done. The Ravens believe otherwise.

"When I look at Kordell," said Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, "I see a guy with incredible ability whose one shortcoming has got to be consistency throwing the football.

"He's capable of making great plays, but with the exception of his one year when he went to the Pro Bowl, he has not been a consistent 60, 62 percent completion guy. Other than that, he's been competitive and a winner."

And that is just Stewart's life on the field.

There is also the Stewart who grew up in New Orleans, lost his mother to liver cancer before he turned 11, then lost his 27-year-old sister the same way eight years ago.

Not surprisingly, Stewart sometimes has trouble hiding his emotions, and when they spilled over a week after that loss to the Patriots when he was benched in the third quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he and coach Bill Cowher had a public argument in the midst of what would be one of the NFL's most-talked-about love-hate relationships.

Stewart shed a tear that day as he sat away from the team, setting off a firestorm in Pittsburgh that had fans on talk shows using racial slurs against him as well as questioning his sexual preference, showing how ridiculous and unthinking sports can make people at times.

"It got bad," Stewart said. "It got to the point where it was really a lot of hate going on all the way across the board.

"It was an attack. The vultures were out there. But I'm a man. I'm not going to hide from nothing. But when stuff that is foolish comes my way, I don't deal with it. I don't have time. I don't like dealing with ignorance and addressing ignorance. Before I stoop myself down to that level because of someone else's low character, I would turn my shoulder and keep walking."

Faith in himself

After eight sometimes sweet but mostly bitter seasons with the Steelers and one pointless one with the Bears, Stewart comes to the Ravens confident, not broken.

He is not the first former Pro Bowl quarterback looking to revive his career as a backup with the Ravens. While similarities from a playing standpoint exist between Stewart and Jeff Blake, who was the backup to Chris Redman heading into the 2002 season, their attitudes are much different.

Blake seemingly had a chip on his shoulder. Stewart does not, although it would be understandable if he did after what happened in Pittsburgh.

In fact, Stewart is rather accommodating. He is regularly one of the last players to leave the field after signing autographs. His quick wit - asked one time as he walked off the field if he wanted anything, Stewart replied that a Budweiser and some hot wings would be good - has helped him win over teammates.

Fitting in, though, has never been much of a problem, mostly because his status as a starter gave him instant credibility. But for only the second time in the past eight years, Stewart did not come into training camp as the starting quarterback. He is cognizant of his lot, but plans on preparing as though he will be out there every play.

Considering the Ravens' history, that's a wise approach. Every year under coach Brian Billick, the backup has had to start at least two games. The last two years, the starter never regained his job when he returned from injury.

If Boller goes down before Anthony Wright is scheduled to come back midway through the season, teammates seem more than willing to have Stewart run the show.

"Kordell is showing me a lot," tight end Todd Heap said. "You hear a lot about him as a running quarterback, as not being able to throw the ball that well. I've seen otherwise. I've seen him make some good throws and, if anything happens, I think we've got another guy that can step up."

Said Boller: "He's the definition of a veteran. I try to help him out with the offense as much as I can. I think he's getting a good grasp of it, and I think during the season he'll really be able to help me out with game situations and how to deal with certain things. It has worked out really well."

What you will not see, if Stewart has his way, is Slash reincarnated.

Strictly a quarterback

Stewart vows to do all his damage with the Ravens from under center, even if that means sitting on the bench and not getting any playing time.

"It's not happening," Stewart said. "I'm still Slash. But to actually go out and play wide-out - no. That's a role that I created. That was something I did to help the team, and we went to the Super Bowl because of it [in January 1996]."

Don't get Stewart wrong; if he gets the chance to play quarterback, he won't hesitate to run from the pocket, as has been evidenced by his frequent scrambles during training camp. But he says he is done with all the gadget plays, and wants to be viewed as strictly a quarterback.

A career 55.8 percent passer, Stewart has thrown for 70 touchdowns (and had 72 interceptions). While the touchdown figure is rather pedestrian, what he has done, by and large, is win. Stewart owns a 48-34 career record and took the Steelers to AFC championship games in the 1997 and 2001 seasons.

All that is left now, he says, is to lead a team to a Super Bowl win. Who, two years ago, could have envisioned him hoisting the Lombardi Trophy wearing purple and white?

"The book is still open," Stewart said. "I'm still in the middle of the book. Let's just keep going, and hopefully this story will be one that will be electrifying. Give me a Super Bowl and that will take care of itself. That will let you know that Slash can play quarterback; go out there and get it done."

Ravens preseason opener

Opponent: Atlanta Falcons

Site: M&T; Bank Stadium

When: Thursday, 8 p.m.

TV/Radio: ESPN, Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3 1/2

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°