Ravens' Stewart at a crossroads

OWINGS MILLS - Kordell Stewart consults his mental road map as he searches for his ultimate destination, a working knowledge of the Baltimore Ravens' playbook. <br><br> The former Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback finds himself in an unusual situation as the backup on the football team that has only defeated him once, in the city where he's undefeated.

"It's like going south on I-695 doing 150 mph, and you're new to this country so you have to read every single sign," Stewart said. "You have to make a U-turn. I'm trying to see them on the go. Some of them I have to reverse and take a peek at before going again. Eventually, I'll get it." 

His directional analogy for grasping a new offense could also apply to a once-burgeoning career.  After reaching the NFL pinnacle of the Pro Bowl three years ago, Stewart is, at the very least, a crossroads. At worst, he's careening toward a dead end. 

Three years ago, Stewart, 31, was the Steelers' starter. He built an 8-1 mark against the Ravens and was 5-0 in games played in Baltimore. 

Two years ago, Stewart was replaced in Pittsburgh by Tommy Maddox, a former insurance salesman and XFL star. 

And Stewart found himself out of favor again last year after seven starts for the Chicago Bears. His downward spiral left him as the lowest-ranked passer in the NFL with a 56.8 quarterback rating. 

His contract was terminated after the season. For the athletic former Colorado quarterback, it has been a mighty fall.  "It is kind of strange," said Anthony Wright, the reserve quarterback whose shoulder injury prompted the Ravens to sign Stewart to a one-year, $760,000 contract. "I think anybody would see it as being strange, especially if you've seen the things he's capable of and what he's accomplished.  "That's the nature of our business, the nature of our sport. It's about what have you done for me lately and what can you do for me now." 

The Ravens have assured Wright, the recipient of a two-year deal worth $3 million after winning an AFC North title and a former third-string Steeler behind Stewart, will regain his job backing up starter Kyle Boller once he recovers.  That means Stewart, in all likelihood, is only slated to be in Baltimore for this season. 

For a quarterback as gifted physically as Stewart, it's a predicament that doesn't entirely surprise him. He considers it a natural evolution in a league where quarterbacks who struggle with their consistency and accuracy, are always replaceable.  "I don't think it's an indicator of anything, just a transitional mode that everyone is going to go through," Stewart said. "Kyle will go through it one day, too. I'm confident in myself. The game is what I love." 

Right now, though, the game isn't showing Stewart much affection.  Stewart is a Raven after drawing virtually no interest from other teams other than cursory looks from the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills. He will count only $450,000 against the salary cap.

 Stewart completed 50.2 percent of his passes last season for 1,418 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Will he ever regain his 2001 form? 

"I don't worry about the people who doubt me," Stewart said. "The people who aren't in the mix and speculate about me aren't a part of the wins and losses. I know what I can do. I wouldn't be here if my skills weren't proven and good enough." 

Stewart regularly evaded defenders during minicamp with his trademark speed and darted spirals to the proper locations most of the time.  "He surprised me," Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap said. "You hear all kinds of things about him, how he can't do this, how he can't do that. He's a much different quarterback than I thought he would be. If he didn't have the skills, he wouldn't still be around." 

"He looks good to me," senior consultant Jim Fassel said. "I've always liked him. It's a matter of incorporating him into the system." 

Although Stewart said his mind isn't closed toward revising his multi-dimensional "Slash" role, Ravens coach Brian Billick said he's not inclined to risk his backup passer at other skill positions. 
Stewart knows his future path is still uncharted and another job search remains a probability after this season. 

"It's really about finding a home, taking a deep breath and unpacking all your bags," Stewart said. "All you can really do is stay in the moment and prepare yourself. You never know what can happen." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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