QB change signals bigger shift for Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers will enter a new era in New Orleans on Sunday and it's not just because Tommy Maddox will take over as quarterback. By benching Kordell Stewart, the Steelers are acknowledging they no longer can win purely by running the ball.

Indeed, they haven't been able to run the ball at all and that is one reason they will switch to Maddox. They will have to rely more on the passing game and Maddox does that better than Stewart. With Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue playing like poor imitations of themselves and their offensive line showing up only on occasion, Pittsburgh no longer is the power running team of old. Last year, they led the NFL with 173.4 yards rushing a game. They're nearly 100 yards a game under that this year.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who has been injured more often than Evil Knievel, is back on the bench with torn cartilage in his ribs. This came after coach Bill Cowher replaced Bettis and inserted "Fu" in the second half of last Sunday's game. It was Fu's big chance and he came up injured again.

Cowher has no choice now. He has Bettis and he has Zereoue, who just isn't the same since he lost more than a dozen pounds this spring after a cyst was discovered on his liver. That did not stop the Steelers from giving him a new $8.8 million contract that looks foolish now. Zereoue does not have the zip he once had and also does not look as big as he did last season. There is always rookie Verron Haynes, who had a good senior season at Georgia. The Steelers liked how he ran so much that they drafted him and made him a fullback. That could change, though, because he took reps at halfback this week. But Bettis still has it in him, if they are willing to commit to that.

Maddox also can change the dynamics. His could be another Kurt Warner-like story, not that he's going to win two league MVPs or lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. But he's already a great story and the way he has played, he looks like the real thing. Sunday in New Orleans will be his first start in 10 years, or since his rookie season with the Denver Broncos. They drafted him as a 20-year-old out of UCLA to take over several years down the road for John Elway, when he retired. Injuries to Elway in 1992 forced the rookie into four starts. Coach Dan Reeves was fired after that season and the Broncos soured on Maddox without ever giving him much of a chance.

He never did get a chance to start again as he drifted from St. Louis to the Giants to the Falcons and then into the insurance business in Texas for three years. After the Falcons cut him in the summer of 1997, he did not play football again until 2000, when he played for the New Jersey Red Dogs of Arena football. He was XFL MVP the following spring and then the Steelers signed him after they were the only team to give him a look.

Now this unlikely candidate is being asked to resurrect the Steelers' Super Bowl hopes. Can he do it? The Steelers believe he can. He's done everything they've asked, starting last season when they signed him in June and brought him to training camp. He won the backup job to Stewart after playing well in the preseason.

He was their best quarterback this summer, at least throwing the ball. He gets the pass off quickly and accurately, hitting his receivers in stride. Switching to him was not a controversial topic among the players, many of whom thought Stewart had lost some confidence for some reason this year.

Unless there is an injury or something else unforeseen, it's the beginning of the end for Stewart in Pittsburgh. He had one year left on his contract at $6.3 million and they certainly won't bring him back at that price, or any other. He most likely will have to sign on with someone as a backup and hope that someday he gets a shot at a starting job again. Stewart's a tough guy who has plenty of talent. He's been the starting quarterback of two teams that reached the AFC championship game. He's never missed a game with an injury. He turns 30 next month. Maybe a change of scenery is what he needs. But he needs to find the right one.

There's also the chance the Maddox fairytale will turn into a pumpkin and he will fall flat on his face. Those who have seen him over the past two years don't think so, but it's not like he's played that much. There's practice and exhibition games, there's fourth-quarter relief pitching and then there's becoming THE MAN with all the pressure that goes with it. If he comes through it all and plays well, it will be one of the biggest comeback stories in NFL history. If he fails, the Steelers may have to turn to Charlie Batch, and that's not a bad alternative either.

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