Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t supposed to play during his rookie season in 2004, but after injuries to Charlie Batch and then Tommy Maddox, the 11th overall pick was thrust into a starting job. He never looked back from there, becoming the first NFL quarterback to go 13-0 as a starter during the regular season. On the latest episode of his Footbahlin podcast with former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, Roethlisberger detailed how he didn’t think he was going to take more than one snap in his first NFL game, while Cowher talked about his issues with the rookie quarterback.
Roethlisberger first took over after Maddox suffered an injury following a hit by Bart Scott before halftime in a Week 2 game against the Baltimore Ravens.
“I remember thinking it was just one play,” Roethlisberger said. That one play become one more drive, and eventually, it became the rest of the game after Maddox was ruled out. With 2:56 left in the game, Roethlisberger threw a pick-six due to a miscommunication that sealed a 30-13 Ravens win.
“We were coming back and all of a sudden it was like 10 and 10 is actually a go. But Ben thought it was the stop, and he throws the stop. Pick-six,” Cowher said.
Roethlisberger started the next week against the Miami Dolphins on the road, a game that was postponed because of a hurricane. Pittsburgh won that game, and then the Steelers saw glimpses of the Roethlisberger they came to know and love.
“You’re getting more comfortable, but mostly really comfortable out of the pocket and just kind of running around, as I would call it streetball,” Cowher said. “Drove me crazy, crazy, crazy. Because you were getting away with it.”
Ultimately, a conversation between Cowher and then-offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt led to Cowher letting Roethlisberger trust his instincts.
For the majority of his career, that was the quarterback Roethlisberger was. He was able to create out of the pocket, extend plays and lead the Steelers to a lot of wins playing what Cowher had deemed to be streetball. It was one of his defining traits, and there’s no shortage of highlights of Roethlisberger making something happen when he really should’ve been sacked or thrown an incompletion.
Toward the later part of his career, he lost most of that mobility, but he still was able to play winning football, leading the Steelers to the postseason in his last year with the team. Cowher also didn’t think Roethlisberger was going to be ready to play at all during his rookie season.
“We’re drafting Ben Roethlisberger for another coach,” Cowher said of what he believed. “He’s not going to be able to play year one.”
That belief, coupled with the streetball play and not going through his progressions, surely made Cowher wonder whether Roethlisberger was truly going to be the guy, despite him racking up wins as a rookie. But that streetball really defines the Ben Roethlisberger experience. Cowher ultimately learned to let Roethlisberger trust his instincts and become the quarterback who led the Steelers to two Super Bowl victories.
During the first Super Bowl victory, and the only one with Cowher as head coach, Roethlisberger’s “streetball” led to one of the most iconic pictures and plays in Steelers’ history, with Cowher and Roethlisberger laughing as Cowher grabbed the scruff of Roethlisberger’s neck.
On a third down play, Cowher thought Roethlisberger changed the play before running for a key third down conversion late in the game. In reality, there was a mistake and Roethlisberger took the aborted play and made it successful.
“I thought, how ironic,” Cowher said. “There he goes playing streetball, and here we are winning the championship. It was just like, damn I love you.”
Here’s the play Cowher is referencing.