"I'm a starter," said Stewart, who was benched after the third
game of this season in favor of Tommy Maddox. "I want to be a starter.
That's the key. I want to have the opportunity to be a starter. Obviously,
that's not here. ... It's been a great ride, a great run here. I've had some ups
and downs, just like every quarterback in the league has had. I wish I could
have had the opportunity to bring (a fifth Super Bowl) ring back here to this city,
but if I don't get the opportunity, it's been an experience I know I'll never,
Stewart, the Steelers' second pick in the 1995 draft, has been their on-again, off-again starting quarterback in every season since 1997, leading the team to a 45-29 record in games he started and berths in the AFC Championship game in both 1997 and 2001. He struggled at times between 1998 and 2001, drawing the ire of Steeler fans and head coach Bill Cowher alike, the latter of whom benched him in favor of Mike Tomczak in 1998 and 1999 and Kent Graham in 2000.
Stewart turned things around in 2001, having perhaps his best overall season and earning a spot in his first Pro Bowl. But Stewart never seemed to get into a good rhythm throwing the ball early this season and was replaced by Cowher after the team's third game by Tommy Maddox.
Stewart started two games when Maddox was injured, winning both, but the Steelers appear ready to move on with Maddox as their starting quarterback. And with Stewart heading into his final contract year with a base salary of $6.3 million and a salary cap total of $7.92 million, the Steelers are highly unlikely to keep him around to be their backup.
Since he only has one year remaining on his contract, the Steelers would gain no advantage financially whether they trade him or release him. He will count just over $1.6 million against their 2003 cap - the prorated portion of his signing bonus - no matter what they do with him or when they do it.
"We're really not ready talk about that now," said team president Dan Rooney.
When the Steelers do release or trade Stewart, it will be fine with him. While he hasn't said so publicly, he and Cowher have had a strained relationship since Cowher demoted him as the starting quarterback at the end of the 1999 season, making him a wide receiver and banning him from the team's quarterback meetings.
"It all starts in-house," Stewart said, alluding to the fact he didn't always feel he had the support of Cowher. "If in-house is supportive and being there, and is going to keep the guys on track, and understanding that it's about us and not them, then everything can be great (in Pittsburgh).
"But fans are fans. If you're not giving them what they want, whether it's here, Colorado, or Hong Kong, you're going to get the boos. What I can say about these fans is that they are loyal to this organization and they love the Steelers."
Stewart will finish his career in Pittsburgh as the team's second all-time leading passer in both total yards (13,328) and touchdown passes (70). Only Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw has more. Stewart is also 13th on the team's all-time rushing list - and tops among quarterbacks - with 2,540 career rushing yards. His 35 career rushing touchdowns are third on the team's all-time list behind only Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.
Only linebacker Jason Gildon has been with the Steelers longer than Stewart, a fact that wasn't lost on him Monday.
"I never thought it would come to this," said Stewart of his imminent departure. "It is coming toward that, it seems that way. But we still have to wait and see. But I just want what's best for myself and this organization."