Steelers Pick Graham As Starting QB

Tuesday, August 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Kent Graham signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers mostly because they promised a chance to start. Even he didn't guess it would be so soon.

Graham was pleasantly surprised and, in his words, Kordell Stewart was ``stunned'' when coach Bill Cowher on Monday unexpectedly chose Graham to start at quarterback Sunday against Baltimore.

Three days before, Cowher said the two would split time, perhaps even in the same game. Cowher now seems to be backing off that statement after assuring Graham that, according to the quarterback, ``He won't have a quick hook.''

Try telling that to Stewart.

``I won't say I was shook up, but was kind of stunned a little bit,'' Stewart said. ``At the same time, I understood. You can't do anything but accept it.''

Only 18 months after signing a $27 million contract extension, Stewart faces an uncertain future with a team that felt it couldn't wait any longer for him to play his way out of a two-year slump.

Still, Stewart said, ``My career doesn't stop right here. I still have more time to come and I have to keep myself in shape so, whether the opportunity comes this year or next year or the year after that, I'm prepared.''

Despite not starting the final five games last season, Stewart began the preseason with the quarterback's job to lose.

Apparently, he did exactly that by throwing poorly — he was 1-of-13 for eight yards in a two-game stretch — and by looking uncomfortable in an offense that demands he and his receivers synchronize their adjustments even after a play has started.

Stewart doesn't feel he was beaten out by Graham but, rather, didn't play well enough to keep his job. He also hasn't discussed with Cowher reviving the Slash role — part quarterback, part wide receiver — he filled before becoming a full-time quarterback in 1997.

``I'm not flattered, let's be honest,'' Stewart said. ``The one thing I hate most is leaving it up to the coaches. When you leave it up to the coaches, you never know what kind of decision they'll make.

``If you outright go out and outperform whomever it is you are competing against, hands down ... but I left it up to the coaches. I'm more upset with myself than anybody else because I had the opportunity and I didn't seize it.''

Graham knows all about that. He also began the season as the starting quarterback in Arizona in 1997 and with the New York Giants last year, but couldn't keep his job either season.

``I'm just going to go out and play relaxed, because that's how I play the best,'' Graham said. ``I know in this game, or any game, if things aren't going well and the coach feels he'll need a spark, he'll make a change. I don't think that's different from any other team across the NFL.''

Graham was 31-of-57 for 334 yards, three touchdowns and one interception during a preseason in which he usually was paired with veteran receivers Courtney Hawkins and Hines Ward. Stewart, throwing mostly to rookie Plaxico Burress and second-year pro Troy Edwards, was 19-of-55 for 238 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

The two quarterbacks' styles are as markedly different as their statistics. Graham is a stay-in-the-pocket passer with little mobility who will be tested Sunday by Baltimore's quick pass rushers.

Stewart is a scrambler capable of making a play when his protection or a pass play breaks down. He also has a strong arm, although it often was erratic the last two seasons.

Stewart wasn't the only former Steelers starter who lost his job Monday. Second-year safety Scott Shields also wasn't happy when he learned that Brent Alexander would start ahead of him.

``I thought I deserved to start,'' Shields said.