Making the rounds following the publishing of his new book “Heart and Steel,” his autobiography written in collaboration with author Michael Holley, former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and Class of 2020 Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Cowher made an appearance on the Jim Rome Show Wednesday to discuss the book, the writing process, and some memories from his time as a head coach.
One topic that Cowher broached with Rome was the initial draft evaluation process in 2004 with the three QBs available in Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. As we all know, the Steelers eventually selected Roethlisberger 11th overall, going on to win two Super Bowls (one under Cowher) and appearing in a third under the guidance of Roethlisberger, who will join Cowher in Canton one day soon.
Cowher recalled first meeting Roethlisberger with Rome, seeing him in pads at his initial rookie minicamp and OTAs, and then having to thrust the rookie into the starting lineup due to injuries to Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox early in the 2004 season.
When Cowher and Steelers’ General Manager Kevin Colbert first began scouting the QB class in 2004, Cowher said he noticed Roethlisberger had a chip on his shoulder — and understandably so — coming out of Miami (OH).
“Well, you know, we had, we reviewed all three of the quarterbacks,” Cowher said to Rome. “We interviewed Philip Rivers, uh, Eli Manning and Ben and I would have thought with three coming in there — we were picking 12 — I wasn’t sure if somebody was going to fall down to us, I didn’t think that they would. But I think when you looked at Philip and you looked at Eli at the time, you know, they were very mature.
“Their fathers were coaches and they were four-year players. They could be the face of your franchise, no question. Ben came in first and you question, Ok, Miami of Ohio…quality of play. You watched him and you know, Ok, he’s got a strong arm, he’s pretty athletic. But then when you talk with them, you know, he had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder and understandably so.”
Coming out of Miami (OH) Roethlisberger wasn’t quite viewed at the same level as Manning or Rivers, largely due to level of play and the relative obscurity with which Roethlisberger found himself in compared to Manning and Rivers coming out of Power 5 programs.
Fortunately for the Steelers, Roethlisberger fell to No. 11 overall, and the rest is history.
However, it was a bit rocky early on for the Steelers, Roethlisberger and Cowher, who had to go through some growing pains with the rookie despite reeling off 15 straight wins.
“…The only prep for him was to sit behind Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox,” Cowher said of Roethlisberger. “Well, Charlie Batch gets hurt in the pre-season. Ok. Well, he’ll be back by Week 4 and OK, well then, you know, Ben was limited in the amount of plays. He can back up Tommy Maddox for the first four weeks and we’ll just make sure he doesn’t have to do too much. Well then Tommy Maddox goes down in the Week 2, and then Week 3 and 4, we put Ben into the lineup. You know what Romy, it just…we gave him little bit of a time, but the one thing you saw with him when he first got on the field was his ability to see the field without failure. Not to have anything big, too big for him.
“You know, he did have a little bit of that chip on his shoulder and he made it, he played street ball so many times, and yet he was always making pretty much the right decisions. And so, you know, we took him and as he comes in and won his first 15 games, and we try to continue to give him some instruction about, you know, you should be doing this and this,” Cowher added. “Like, I’d be critiquing them about, you should see the check down to go to and you didn’t go through right progressions. He walked out. He goes, ‘we won, right coach?’ Yeah, we won but just listen to what I’m saying, then I’d get done. I’d tell Kevin what’s happening. So he’d tell Ben I’m not that upset. So just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep going, go for it. And run to your right. Throw the ball across the field to Plaxico Burress. It wasn’t by design; improvisation was a big part of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to play the game. And he did give us plays that were off script. And just for the first time having a quarterback that was comfortable enough, competent enough and made those right decisions. I’m like, wow, it’s kind of nice to have a guy who can make a play that wasn’t scripted.”
Together, Roethlisberger and Cowher won 29 regular season games and reeled off five postseason wins, including a perfect 4-0 record in 2005 in the playoffs — all on the road — winning Super Bowl XL as the first-ever No. 6 seed to do so in NFL history.
It’s quite remarkable to hear stories like this from Cowher, who was a no-nonsense coach throughout his illustrious career, but had the foresight to eventually let Ben be Ben. The rest is history.