If there was such an award as AFC Central Division Most Valuable Player, Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart would be a serious contender. Imagine that.
Well, Stewart's revival this season offers a strong lesson for all teams, especially teams such as the Jaguars, who find themselves facing salary cap and roster repair. The lesson is the need for patient development of football talent.
The salary cap era has dramatically eroded the patience of owners and coaches with players who aren't producing to the levels of their contracts. Players have been prematurely jettisoned, only to surface elsewhere as a bargain for their new teams. Meanwhile, the teams that quit on those players were left with regret and the remains of those players' bonus amortizations.
Stewart is the league's poster child for patience. He's not headed to the Hall of Fame, but the Steelers wouldn't be AFC Central champs today without him. The Steelers have won without Jerome Bettis in the lineup, but they absolutely would not have won in Baltimore this past Sunday without Stewart.
Why were the Steelers so patient with Stewart? He had been one of the league's laughingstock quarterbacks for more than two seasons. He was the subject of ugly jokes and was generally considered to be the Steelers' greatest liability, but, today, he is their greatest asset. What did the Steelers see that made them stick with Stewart?
Well, the Steelers obviously saw raw talent. It also aided the Steelers' cause that they are not only a patient franchise, but often stubborn. And when it comes to their draft choices, they are absolutely resolute.
Pittsburgh regards draft picks as pieces of gold. Rarely do they cut a draft choice. They are committed to the development of their young players, and even though they don't always pan out, the formula doesn't change. Draft and develop is the Steelers' mantra, which it has to be for a team that traditionally hasn't been a big spender in free agency and has allowed its own players to leave in free agency.
Now, it must also be the Jaguars' credo. The Jags' cap constraints will forbid them from participating in the free agency market. Meanwhile, the team's cap situation will force the departure of key players for whom there are no truly proven replacements.
Draft and develop; that's what it'll be for the Jaguars over the next couple of seasons. We're even seeing the roots of that philosophy late this season, as young players such as Edward Thomas, Damen Wheeler, Kiwaukee Thomas, Jason Craft, Eric Westmoreland, James Boyd, Elvis Joseph and others are being thrust into prominent playing time.
They will make mistakes. They will, at times, be exposed for lacking the necessary skills to be successful in this league. When it happens, remember Stewart. Development takes time, and time requires patience.