Coach Bill Cowher, unwilling to endure another three-man

By The Associated Press Published:

Coach Bill Cowher, unwilling to endure another three-man quarterback derby

like the one that so disrupted and divided last season's training camp,

confirmed Friday that Stewart will start the Aug. 31 opener against the

Dallas Cowboys.

Stewart, given the nickname by Cowher because he was a quarterback-slash-receiver-slash-running

back during his first two NFL seasons, was told months ago he would start.

But, until Friday, Cowher had never made the commitment public.

``We wanted to have an understanding before camp begins (Monday) where everybody

stood,'' said Cowher, who had two quarterback camp fights during his first

five seasons as coach. ``We want the focus not on one position, but on the

team.''

Stewart, the former Colorado star whose best assets are his versatility

and ability to improvise, has never started an NFL regular season game.

He failed to complete any of his 10 passes after replacing Tomczak during

the Steelers' 28-3 playoff loss to New England in January

Cowher's decision means Tomczak, who recently re-signed with the Steelers

with the stipulation he willingly serve as a backup, and Jim Miller, who

started the season opener last year but no other game, will play only if

Stewart is injured.

Miller has complained he never was given a chance to regain the starting

job he won in a closely monitored competition, only to be benched and replaced

by Tomczak three quarters into a season-opening loss in Jacksonville. Tomczak

went on to start the Steelers' 15 remaining regular season games and two

playoff games.

Cowher has since said it was a mistake to open the job up to so many candidates

because the three-way race did not allow any of the quarterbacks to properly

prepare for the season.

``This was a decision that needed to be made,'' Cowher said. ``That position

is different than any other position, and it's important for people to know

where they stand.''

Stewart won the job based on his progress during his first two seasons,

his big-play ability _ his 80-yard TD run against Carolina last season was

the longest in league history by a quarterback _ and leadership abilities.

Cowher was asked if he might rein in Stewart's penchant for improvisation

in an effort to keep him healthy.

``You don't want to curtail your players ... a player who can scramble and

run 80 yards for a touchdown, it would be foolish of me to curtail it,''

Cowher said. ``I feel very comfortable with him and his decision-making.

Now, he has to experience the situations that go with playing quarterback

and learn from them, positively and negatively.

``But we're not going to restrict him. We want Kordell to do what he does

best.''

With the Steelers facing their biggest rebuilding job since he was hired

in 1992 _ they have lost 11 players since last season, eight of them at

key positions _ Cowher wanted to minimize any potential distractions before

camp began.

The Steelers must rebuild their defense after losing their top three cornerbacks

_ Rod Woodson, Willie Williams and Deon Figures _ and All-Pro linebacker

Chad Brown. They also have considerably less depth at wide receiver after

Andre Hastings, who led them in receptions last season, and Ernie Mills

signed elsewhere.

They also had to cut kicker Norm Johnson and trade running back Erric Pegram,

who gained more than 1,300 yards the last two seasons, to free up enough

money under the salary cap to sign their rookie draft picks.

Cowher is aware the Steelers are regarded league wide as a team on the decline

after losing so much talent and depth from the team that reached the NFL

playoffs for five consecutive seasons.

``With free agency, you're going to have changes,'' Cowher said. ``But our

goals haven't changed. Our only goal is to win the championship of the National

Football League, and we haven't done that yet. Our goals haven't changed,

even if the way other people view us has.''

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