Stewart, Steelers at a turning point for better or

It may be only the third game of the season but Pittsburgh already faces its most significant game of 2002 when Cleveland comes to Heinz Field on Sunday. The Steelers, the odds-on favorites in the preseason to reach the Super Bowl from the AFC, cannot afford to open 0-3, not to mention the ripple effects the game could have for this season and the future.<br><br>

Never mind that no team has lost its first three games and won a Super Bowl or that only one team in the past four seasons has done so and made the playoffs, the Steelers face a bigger tumble if they lose to the Browns on Sunday.

With so many expectations from this veteran, talented team, an 0-3 start could drive a wedge right down the middle of it, even cause some players to point fingers. WR Plaxico Burress already was complaining after two losses that the team does not practice the passing game enough and said that is why it is not in sync.

This is a real test for coach Bill Cowher. He took one other team with such high expectations, the 1995 Steelers, all the way to a Super Bowl, where they played well against the heavy favored Cowboys but lost. He has not been able to equal that feat with his team losing AFC championship games at home after the 1997 and 2001 seasons.

He was given a contract extension through the 2005 season at more than $3 million annually before last season even though he was coming off three straight seasons in which his team did not make the playoffs.

Cowher and Kordell Stewart have been the targets of angry fans for the team's 0-2 start and their loss to the Patriots in last year's AFC championship game. Letters to the editor and talk shows have been filled with complaints focusing mainly on those two for the failures against New England last year and their poor start to this season.

In no way is Cowher's job in jeopardy, no matter what happens this season. The Rooney family has stood firmly behind him in tougher times and they will do so now. They believe in coaching stability and unless this team goes in the dumper for at least two straight seasons, they would not even entertain a coaching switch.

The quarterback is another matter. Cowher and management publicly stood firmly behind Stewart last season and he responded by making the Pro Bowl and being elected the team's MVP. There was no question entering this one who their starting quarterback would be. But the Steelers sent out a subtle message when they did not enter negotiations to extend Stewart's contract. He is signed through 2003 but his past two contracts were extended when he had two years left.

The Steelers, in essence, said what many of their fans were saying, that they wanted to see Stewart do it one more time before they would commit to him in a big-time financial way again. After two games, they haven't seen it.

Stewart opened the season in New England by throwing two interceptions in his first two passes, setting the tone for the whole, ugly night. He fumbled on first down at the Raiders' three in the second game and threw poorly in the fourth quarter.

The wrong perception is that Cowher has always been firmly behind Stewart. Not so. He's reluctantly backed him after humiliating him in 1999 by benching him as the starting quarterback and making him play wide receiver instead over the final five games. He installed Kent Graham as the starter in 2000 and only after an 0-3 start and an injury to Graham did Stewart get a chance. He played well and, after Cowher gave Graham a second chance and he failed, only then did he turn back to Stewart, who helped pull the team out of the chasm that Graham helped get them into.

Cowher has shown little patience with Stewart and he won't have any now that his team is 0-2 and Stewart has not played as well as expected. If they come out of the box slowly against Cleveland on Sunday and Stewart is not playing well, Cowher could well turn to backup Tommy Maddox.

The coaches like what they've seen in Maddox in the past two preseasons, in the little he played last season and in practices. They like his demeanor, the way he has handled himself as the No. 2 man and, most important, his pocket presence. Maddox sees the entire field and has a knack for making quick decisions, releasing the ball quickly and hitting his receivers in stride.

And if, for some reason, Maddox does not play well they always have Charlie Batch at No. 3.

Switching quarterbacks would be a drastic move for the Steelers for many reasons. If they do so and Maddox/Batch come through and play well, it would be welcome in many quarters. However, if they do so and they play as a team no better, then Cowher has some real problems on his hands. Quarterback controversies can cause divisiveness on the best of teams and the Steelers would be no different.

If Stewart were to be benched, it likely would signal that his days in Pittsburgh are at an end. They certainly would not sign him to a long-term contract next year and they would not bring him back with a 2003 salary of more than $6 million.

For many reasons, Sunday's game against Cleveland is a pivotal one in Pittsburgh.

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