Steelers Challenge: Making the Most of Big Ben’s Final Years
The Steelers couldn’t find a franchise quarterback between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger. Now, with Roethlisberger as the sole remaining link to the team’s Super Bowl success, the time for another championship run is now — or it might not be for a while.
Editor’s note: This article was first posted in August of 2019, weeks before Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger season was ended by surgery on his right elbow.
It took two championships for Ben Roethlisberger to see himself as that most precious of NFL commodities: The franchise quarterback.
“I think after the second Super Bowl, that touchdown to Santonio, that drive, that kinda made me feel like, ‘Man, I can do this,’” Roethlisberger says at the dawn of his 16th NFL season.
When he was young, he held one of the great quarterbacks as a model — both in terms of late-game heroics and in-huddle psychology.
“I remember growing up thinking about Joe Montana, right? ‘Hey, isn’t that John Candy in the front row?’ Or whatever his comment was. You just think, ‘Man, as a kid, he was winning Super Bowls on last-minute drives,’ and I got to do it.”
Embed from Getty Images
Montana, the legendary quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, noticed Candy in the stands on Jan. 22, 1989, during Super Bowl XXIII at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. With 3:20 remaining in the game, the 49ers were pinned at their own 8-yard line with the Cincinnati Bengals leading, 16-13. To break the tension in the huddle, Montana pointed out Candy to his teammates.
The legendary quarterback then directed an 11-play, 92-yard drive that culminated in a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Taylor for the game-winning score with 34 seconds left in regulation.
That’s what a franchise quarterback does. It’s what Ben Roethlisberger has done for the Steelers, like Terry Bradshaw before him. It’s what will be needed, perhaps more than in recent campaigns, over the next two seasons — Roethlisberger’s final years under contract.
After that — if history is any indication — it could be some time before the Steelers find another franchise quarterback.
Embed from Getty Images
On Feb. 1, 2009, with 2:30 left in Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, the Steelers trailed the Arizona Cardinals, 23-20. Roethlisberger orchestrated an eight-play, 78-yard march that ended on a thread-the-needle pass and a miraculous, toe-tapping catch by wide receiver Santonio Holmes for the 6-yard, game-winning score with 35 seconds left in the fourth quarter. In that moment, Roethlisberger re-created all those last-minute miracles he’d imagined while imitating Montana as a kid in the backyard.
Welcome to the franchise quarterback club.
“That kinda does something for you,” Roethlisberger acknowledges.
He’d been in the NFL for five years by then. He’d even been to a Super Bowl — and won it (on Feb. 5, 2006 in Detroit, 21-10, over Seattle in Super Bowl XL).
But Roethlisberger has never done anything like he did that night in Tampa. Few NFL quarterbacks have. For the Steelers, only Terry Bradshaw had until that point — and the gap between Brad and Ben took more than 20 years to navigate.
Franchise quarterbacks can be agonizingly hard to find. That’s an absolute of life in the NFL, and one the Steelers might be reminded of sooner rather than later. As quickly, perhaps, as the conclusion of the 2021 season.
Why can’t the best NFL quarterbacks be scouted and identified in advance? “I think guys distinguish themselves once they get in the league,” Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert says. “We can identify skill sets. We can identify statistics. What you really can’t identify is who’s going to make those plays in critical moments.
“You can look at history, watch what they do at the collegiate level and hope that projects forward. But until they have to do it in this environment, you really don’t know.”
That’s one reason why the Steelers selected Tee Martin during the fifth round of the 2000 NFL Draft — the same year Tom Brady went to the New England Patriots in the sixth round (199th overall).
Brady won his NFL-record sixth Super Bowl in February — as many as Ben Roethlisberger and Terry Bradshaw have collected, combined.
PHOTO BY DIAMOND IMAGES
In between Bradshaw’s last pass on Dec. 10, 1983, against the Jets at Shea Stadium, and Roethlisberger’s first start on Sept. 26, 2004, at the Dolphins, the Steelers’ would-be solutions at QB wrote chapters wrought with flirtation, frustration and, ultimately, failure.
The team turned to 13 different starters in that interim, from Cliff Stoudt, in the 1983 season finale, to Tommy Maddox, who opened 2004 at the helm but was lost to injury during the season’s second week.
Only five times from 1984 through 2003 was a Steelers quarterback able to start all 16 games in a season (Bubby Brister in ’90, Kordell Stewart in ’97, ’98 and ’01, and Maddox in ’03). The tenures were often brief — Jim Miller started but didn’t finish the 1996 opener at Jacksonville — and/or forgettable — Scott Campbell went 0-2 in 1985, Todd Blackledge 2-3 in 1988-89 and Kent Graham 2-3 in 2000.
The list includes Steve Bono, who went 2-1 in replacement games in 1987 as the NFL attempted to play on through a labor dispute, and Mike Tomczak (15-12 as a sometimes starter from ’93-’99), who shone occasionally but was never able to sustain.
Even when the Steelers thought they’d finally found their man, they hadn’t.
Neil O’Donnell (39-22 as a starter in the regular season from ’91-’95) got them to the 1994 AFC Championship Game as a heavy favorite against the San Diego Chargers. But a 13-3, third-quarter lead turned into a 17-13 deficit; O’Donnell’s fourth-and-goal pass from the San Diego 3-yard-line was batted away by linebacker Dennis Gibson.
Embed from Getty Images
The loss was staggering for the Steelers. It was also an appropriate precursor to what awaited them the following season in Super Bowl XXX.
Trailing the Dallas Cowboys, 20-17, with 4:08 remaining in Tempe, Ariz., O’Donnell dropped back on second-and-10 from the Steelers’ 32 and fired for wide receiver Andre Hastings on an underneath route.
The ball was intercepted by Cowboys defensive back Larry Brown, one of three interceptions O’Donnell suffered in what turned out to be his last game with the Steelers.
Stewart, 46-29 as a regular-season starter with the Steelers, reached the AFC Championship Game in 1997 and again in 2001. On each occasion he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.
The quarterbacking wasn’t consistently awful between Brad and Ben. More often than not it was good enough to win.
But it was never good enough.
Roethlisberger, drafted 11th overall in 2004, wasn’t immediately good enough, either. He also lost his first AFC Championship Game.
But in the 2005 playoffs, Roethlisberger threw for a combined 680 yards, with seven touchdowns and just one interception, in successive road victories at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver before surviving Seattle at Ford Field. His storied career has to date included two more trips to the Super Bowl, including the personally transformative ending of the tilt with Arizona.
Now, 15 years after he was drafted, the Steelers might find themselves leaning on Roethlisberger more than ever.
The team he inherited from Maddox in 2004 had a defense led by the likes of Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Joey Porter and Troy Polamalu. Roethlisberger had Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward to get the ball to on offense.
The Super Bowl Steelers of 2008 had Ward, Holmes and Heath Miller on the receiving end of Roethlisberger’s passes and a defense that had added James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Brett Keisel.
This season’s Steelers don’t have the been-there, done-that street cred of their predecessors.
On offense, the line is rock solid. Running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are exciting, developing stars. But Conner and Smith-Schuster aren’t Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown — at least not yet.
On defense, end Cam Heyward was a first-team AP All-Pro in 2017, and outside linebacker T.J. Watt appears on the verge of earning such a distinction. But the rest of the defense will be trying to figure it out as they go along.
The 2019 Steelers appear to be Roethlisberger’s team — more than ever before.
It’s almost, he says, as if all he’s achieved and experienced over the years “has been set up for this? I hope so.”
“I have a lot of guys that come onto this team, into this locker room like, ‘Man, I’ve been watching you since I was in elementary school,’” Roethlisberger says. “‘Thanks, I appreciate that; don’t ever talk about that again.’”
Roethlisberger, who turned 37 in March, is now the only player on the roster to have won a Super Bowl in a Steelers uniform.
“When you’ve been here as long as I have and you’ve been through so much, I think guys look at you and lean on you,” he says.
“It’s my responsibility as a guy that’s been [to the Super Bowl] to speak to them and let them know what it’s like.”
Roethlisberger’s plan is to be that guy for three more seasons and “try to win at least one more [Super Bowl],” he says. “I’m never gonna predict anything moving forward past that, but I’m gonna honor the three years [on my contract] and give it everything I have.”
Colbert knows the end is coming — and understands the urgency that imparts.
“There have been periods where we haven’t had Ben and we’ve survived it,” he added. “But it’s critical that he’s with us for the time he is and it’s critical for us to make the most of it.”
PM columnist Mike Prisuta is a veteran of Pittsburgh sports reporting since 1985. Mike can be heard Monday through Friday talking sports with Randy Baumann and the DVE Morning Show. Read more in his weekly blog, Mike Prisuta’s sports section.