If you’re into Pittsburgh Steelers history, you probably know the story. As the late Dan Rooney wrote in his book, “My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL,” he helped push the team to take QB Ben Roethlisberger 11th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft instead of offensive lineman Shawn Andrews.
And if you listened to our recent interview with Dick LeBeau, you’ll recall him telling the story of the Steelers having Philip Rivers ranked higher on the team’s board than Roethlisberger with LeBeau as the main coach adamant that Roethlisberger was the best quarterback in the draft. There was also Eli Manning, viewed as the top arm in the class.
If there’s another perspective worth hearing from, it’s Bill Cowher, head coach of the team during that 2004 draft. He joined Ben Roethlisberger as a special guest for the latest episode of Roethlisberger’s Footbahlin podcast and gave his view of the discussion and debate over who the team would take that year. Essentially, he says there’s truth to all sides.
“[Manning and Rivers] were, to me, they were ready,” Cowher told Roethlisberger. “They were ready to play the first year that they go to their team. When [Roethlisberger] came in, I said, ‘Ben has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.’ I said, ‘I wanna get to know him a little bit better.’ I watched your workout. We were thinking, okay, we need offensive linemen. Shawn Andrews was the guy that we were talking about. He was an offensive lineman from Arkansas.”
It led to a conversation with then-Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert about the odds that any of those quarterbacks would be around when the Steelers came on the clock at #11. Colbert knew Manning would be gone and Rivers probably would too but Roethlisberger might have a chance to be on the board.
“So I went back and watched every one of your games,” Cowher told Roethlisberger. “I said, ‘ Let’s bring him back in here.’ You came back in, we sat down with you, talked with you, and I said, ‘Okay, wow.’ So let’s look at the board. And I remember saying before, we need linemen. And I told Mr. Rooney that ‘We’re gonna take a lineman, but if one of these quarterbacks gets to us, we’re taking them because they’re too good.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I would trade up for any of them.’ I said, ‘I think we’re okay with Tommy.'”
It’s easy to forget but the 2004 NFL Draft was one of the wildest in football history. It centered around the QB class, accurately viewed as historically good, and Ole Miss star Eli Manning’s desire not to play for the then-San Diego Chargers. Ultimately, the Chargers still drafted him, leading to a very awkward photo-op and interview instead of the standard celebration of being the top pick. From there, the New York Giants selected NC State’s Philip Rivers and then sent him to the Chargers in a draft-day trade (that involved a handful of other trade pieces, too). From there, Ben Roethlisberger slipped down boards to #11 and into Pittsburgh’s lap. Had he not been there, then Andrews would’ve been the pick. Instead, he went 16th to the Philadelphia Eagles.
So from Cowher’s viewpoint, the Steelers were going to take any of the top three quarterbacks if they were there, though the odds of Manning falling that far were almost zero. Reportedly, the Giants liked Roethlisberger more than Rivers but sensing the chance to acquire Manning, took Rivers to make that trade possible.
Cowher went on to say that Rooney didn’t attend the draft room meetings on a regular basis like the coaches or the scouting staffs. He only wanted a general feel for the Steelers’ draft plan.
“Mr. Rooney was never walking into any of those meetings…he wanted to know where we were stood on on certain things.”
And Cowher joked that the story Rooney told might have been a bit “embellished.” It’s a bit of a contrast to today where Art Rooney II has more sway about the team’s general direction, at least at the top of the draft. And he sits front and center of the draft room next to Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin in the team’s war room.
In Cowher’s view Roethlisberger was rawer than the other two players in the class. He didn’t play quarterback until his senior year of high school, declared early, and played against lesser competition. It made Pittsburgh, with veterans Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch, the ideal landing spot. Of course, that plan went out the window by Week Two after Batch was lost in the summer and Maddox in the second game against Baltimore, leading Roethlisberger to be handed the keys and begin his Hall of Fame career. But even before Roethlisberger became the sudden starter, Cowher sensed the athlete and player he could be.
“I remember telling [quarterbacks coach] Mark Whipple, I said, ‘Wow, Ben’s a lot bigger than I thought he was. And the guy’s athletic…he’s kicking left-footed. He can punt and he’s left-footed.’ And you start running around and doing some of the bootleg stuff. I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh…this is gonna be kind of fun to watch this evolve.'”
Fun it was as Roethlisberger and the Steelers won a Super Bowl the next year, finally netting a Lombardi for Cowher, Jerome Bettis, and one of the organization’s thumb.
Obviously, no one wants to be the guy who says he didn’t want Roethlisberger and wanted to take Andrews (who had a very nice career) instead. So I don’t know if we’re ever going to have the real story. But regardless, Roethlisberger was the pick and it sure was the right one to make.
You can catch the whole interview with Cowher below.