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Recognition for Stewart a year late

| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2002

The Steelers MVP award bestowed upon quarterback Kordell Stewart on Wednesday can be perceived as a testament to Stewart's mental toughness, his intestinal fortitude and his determination not to be denied, deterred or otherwise defeated.

If that's the case, the recognition is a year late in coming.

Stewart demonstrated that he possessed more of those qualities than perhaps even he knew he had last year. He did so at first by biting his lip after being banished to wide receiver late in the 1999 season. He did so when he refused to seethe or sulk after being benched in favor of Kent Graham at the conclusion of training camp the following season. He did so when he stood up to the very Three Rivers Stadium fans that had vilified him for so long once the Steelers finally came to the conclusion that Graham wasn't the answer after all. In doing so, Stewart proved his mettle.

The Steelers knew then, after the comeback win against the Raiders, after seven wins in 11 starts, after 9-7 had been achieved from the ashes of 0-3, that Stewart was their quarterback.

"At the end of last season, he had established himself as the starter," director of football operations Kevin Colbert said in late November.

Considering what Stewart had gone through between the end of 1997 and the end of last season, they should have given him an award just for that.

What made Stewart's continued resurrection this season and ultimately a day such as Wednesday possible was the Steelers reaching that very conclusion and acting upon it.

The MVP award voted to Stewart by his Steelers teammates and the Pro Bowl recognition acknowledged by his AFC peers are as much a confirmation that the Steelers did the right thing by making Mike Mularkey their offensive coordinator and Tom Clements their quarterbacks coach as they are a coronation of the quarterback formerly known as "Slash."

They're also a testament to what can happen when teams stop force-feeding offensive coordinators onto players and start adapting their offensive philosophies to fit what their players are capable of.

Ray Sherman was simply in over his head in 1998. And Kevin Gilbride was misdirected in 1999 and 2000. Stewart made plays and won games, especially in the second half of last season, when he started doing more of what he thought he could do and less of what Gilbride wanted him to.

This year has simply been an extension of that because at long last the quarterback and the offensive coordinator are finally on the same page.

Stewart is the same quarterback and the same person he was a year ago. He has the same physical skills, the same personality and charisma, the same will and dedication. The hard part was doing what he did then.

Two major adaptations by the Steelers have helped make elevating his game this year the easy part for Stewart.

The first is Mularkey's approach. Option routes have been scraped. The quarterback no longer has to guess or hope a receiver will see things as he does and be in the right spot. And the receivers, especially Plaxico Burress, are much better. Knowing that, Stewart has been able to make his reads and fire away to a spot on the field. Stewart has also been encouraged to run the ball for a change under Mularkey, an alternation that's as revolutionary as it is obvious.

The second is Clements' presence and his ability to keep Stewart mechanically sound. It's a small but significant aspect of Stewart's development.

The team's MVP award and the Pro Bowl are more than that, but they're not the ultimate.

"I'm not done yet," Stewart insisted on Wednesday. "It doesn't stop right here."

If it didn't last season, there's no reason to believe it should any time soon.

Mike Prisuta is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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