If you trace back the most important moment in Pittsburgh Steelers history over the course of the past 40-plus years, it’s actually pretty easy to do. It was the moment that they had the opportunity and made the decision to use the 11-overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft to select quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out of Miami of Ohio.
They haven’t had a losing season since then, and won a couple of Super Bowl along the way, ending a decades-long dry spell. Granted, it’s been a dozen years since the last time they won the Super Bowl as well, but it’s not a very easy thing to do.
Doug Whaley was in the front office at the time that they drafted Roethlisberger. He recently told Tyler Dunne and Jim Monos on the Go Long podcast, however, that they actually had their eyes on another quarterback, because they thought Roethlisberger would be gone.
“For us, we didn’t even think we were going to get him. We thought he was going to be up there. The second guy taken right after Eli Manning”, he said. “And then we were going to get Philip Rivers. So we were focusing on Philip Rivers because we thought, no one’s going to really like him because of his release”.
“I know Kevin Colbert was a big fan of Philip Rivers, just with his mental toughness is an acumen for the game”, he added. “The release was a little concern, but as they say that, it doesn’t matter how it gets there, just where it gets to. is it going to be an accurate place where people can make plays on the ball afterwards, especially as a receiver. So we were kind of like, yeah, we’d like to have them. We don’t think we’re going to get him”.
“So we end up getting him. And we just, I mean, it was one of those things when Rivers went, we all looked at each other, like, wait a minute, is this okay? Wait, check that, check that, make sure everything’s okay, someone’s not jumping in on this feed. So we were ecstatic”.
Their plan, however, wasn’t to shove him out on the field right away. They still had Tommy Maddox, with whom they had a bit of success in 2002. Roethlisberger would sit and learn. Fate would have other plans, as an injury put him in the lineup in the second week.
“And guess what happened then”, Whaley said “Once you start winning one, two, three, then you’ve got a veteran team like, oh wait a minute, this kid’s pretty good. We have to step our game up. So our defense is like, oh, we’ve got to play for this guy. Our running game was like, we’ve got to play for this guy. We ended up with I think a top-five running game, and I think our defense was top one in the league”.
Even though he was far from a perfect prospect, and he noted that when they watched his tape, they saw all of the things that he was missing because his mental game still had so far to go to catch up with his physical, what they did see on the tape is the same thing they saw in college.
“What I’m trying to say is, again, it showed that the game made so much sense to him”, Whaley said. “He wasn’t sitting back there making the right reads, getting hot reads, but he was extending the play, or just his natural athletic ability and quarterback skills made him very productive”.
The rest is history, but it’s also the present. In fact, in about a week, Roethlisberger and Rivers will face each other—one wonders if it is perhaps for the last time.