Super Bowl: Timing is everything, and it's perfect timing for 49ers QB
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NEW ORLEANS -- The old quarterback sees Colin Kaepernick, sees the tattoos, sees the youth, sees the success, sees himself.
Kordell Stewart's arms are not filled with tats and he looks nothing like the young San Francisco phenom, at least not off the field. On the field, Stewart sees Kaepernick's style of play as the kind he helped usher into the NFL at quarterback when, he says, the NFL wasn't quite ready for it.
"I love it, man, he's fast; once he's out in the open, no one's catching him," said Stewart, who is back in his hometown with his two radio partners broadcasting their daily talk show on Atlanta's 92.9 FM The Game. "Obviously, he's a bigger version than all the quarterbacks.
"I promise you, I love to watch him play. He's as efficient as any dropback quarterback in the game and he's capable of running it."
Like Stewart, Kaepernick was drafted in the second round. Unlike Stewart, his team did not force him to play wide receiver first. Kaepernick came along when the mobile quarterback has not only been accepted by the NFL, but has flourished all over the league.
In Stewart's day, the pocket passer was still in vogue, and the pioneers who tried to change that thinking were rare and often unappreciated.
Had he come along now, he believes he would have fit right in with the changing face of the NFL quarterback.
"I would say it would help my case and my cause a little bit more," Stewart said.
"To see the quarterbacks who made the playoffs this year, even Andrew Luck is a mobile quarterback, and he moves better than people give him credit for, and he's faster than people say he is, and he's a true dropback quarterback."
There is Washington's Robert Griffin (RG III), Seattle's Russell Wilson and Carolina's Cam Newton and others. The colleges produce more read-option quarterbacks, and NFL teams practically are forced to adapt.
West Virginia's Geno Smith has a good chance to be the first quarterback drafted this year, and he comes with a similar style.
Back in the second half of the 1990s and early part of this century, the Steelers and their many, many offensive coordinators just did not know what to do with Stewart. These men grew up with a pocket passer playing quarterback and did not have the playbooks to accommodate the different talents that were Stewart's.
"They knew what they had, they just weren't ready to accept it 100 percent," Stewart said.
He was the knuckleball pitcher managed by men who never had experience with one, never knew what to do with him, didn't have the patience to allow him to do his thing.
"If I were to come in at this time, I don't think the issues we had in Pittsburgh with trying to figure it out and be patient would have ever occurred," said Stewart.
"We would have kept coordinators around, guys wouldn't have been apt to want to run away. It's the fad in the game right now, and defenses are so much faster than they were back then, it would have to be accepted right now.
"The crazy thing is, when Ben Roethlisberger came in, while he was mobile as well as being able to throw the ball, he doesn't seem as mobile as he used to be, not so much because of age but guys are so much faster.
"They're becoming so much faster and bigger."
How far the NFL has come in just the 10 years since Stewart was last with the Steelers illustrates how Kaepernick came to be here.
He threw five passes as a rookie in 2011. He had nine passes after eight games this season.
Then, Alex Smith had to leave the ninth game of the season with a concussion. Kaepernick entered and never left.
The 49ers have gone 7-2 with him as their starting quarterback, including two playoff wins.
He rushed for 413 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season and ran for an astonishing 181 yards and two touchdowns against Green Bay in San Francisco's opening playoff victory.
And after all his touchdown runs, Kaepernick likely never heard his coach scream at him for scoring a touchdown with his feet as Stewart did.
It occurred in 2000 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers had the ball at Jacksonville's 45, third-and-15. Stewart dropped back to pass. He could not see Plaxico Burress, his intended receiver.
"I'm trying to find Plaxico, but it was clogged. I said, OK, I'll step up. Nobody was near me. I'm just being a player. I stepped up in the pocket, and the Red Sea opened. I scored a touchdown."
Forty-five yards up the middle. Congratulations all around, right?
"I came to the sideline, the phone rings."
It was his offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, calling from his perch in the booth upstairs.
"He said 'What are you running for? Why are you running? He was wide open in man coverage!'
"I hung up the phone. Dick Hoak, our running backs coach, came over and told me not to worry about that, to 'keep doing what you're doing, great job.' "
Head coach Bill Cowher fired Gilbride after that season, and Stewart flourished under Mike Mularkey the next.
The Steelers went 13-3 in 2001 and reached the AFC championship game at home. Stewart made the Pro Bowl, and his teammates voted him their MVP.
But then, just three games into the 2002 season, Stewart found himself benched in favor of Tommy Maddox, a classic pocket passer who mesmerized the coaching staff with his pretty passes and who helped to lead the team to a disastrous 6-10 record in 2003.
"How do you go from Pro Bowl, MVP on your team to all of sudden three games later in the next season I'm on the bench?" Stewart wondered.
The Steelers pulled that switch 10 years before Jim Harbaugh did just the opposite, dumping his pocket passer in San Francisco for the mobile quarterback with all the tattoos.
"They went back to the dropback guy, and things didn't work until they got a bigger, mobile guy in Ben Roethlisberger," Stewart said with some degree of vindication.
Stewart is writing a book about it all, that and more. It should be on the shelves this fall.
"I'm going to blow the roof off that thing. It's going to be my story," Stewart promised.
And Sunday, he hopes Colin Kaepernick blows the roof off the Superdome. It would bring him some small satisfaction.
First Published February 2, 2013 12:00 am