On Sunday Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Indianapolis Colts QB Philip Rivers go head-to-head for perhaps the last time. Both are among the last players remaining from the 2004 NFL Draft, which also produced QB Eli Manning, who was selected No. 1 overall.
The Steelers—coming off a 6-10 season in 2003 and selecting No. 11 overall—were in need of a quarterback. It was a good year for Pittsburgh to be in the market for a QB, as there were only two quarterback-needy teams ahead of them in the draft (the San Diego Chargers and New York Giants) and three elite quarterback prospects.
“Looking at who needed quarterbacks ahead of us, unless someone jumped us, we were like, ‘we’re going to get one of these three quarterbacks,’ recalled former Steelers pro personnel coordinator Doug Whaley on the December 17, 2020 episode of the “Go Long” podcast (with Tyler Dunne & Jim Monos). “And [we would have] take[n] any of them.”
Doug Whaley: ‘We were focusing on Philip Rivers’
Coming into the 2004 draft the Steelers believed that Philip Rivers (North Carolina State) was the most likely of the three quarterbacks to fall to them.
“We were focusing on Philip Rivers because we thought no one was going to really like him because of his release,” said Whaley, referring to Rivers’ unorthodox delivery. “I know [Steelers General Manager] Kevin Colbert was a big fan of Philip Rivers, just with his mental toughness, his acumen for the game,” added Whaley, before admitting that Rivers’ unusual release was a “little bit of a concern.”
“When Rivers went [off the board at No. 4 overall, selected by the New York Giants] … we were ecstatic,” said Whaley, as the Steelers War Room was convinced that Ben Roethlisberger would be the second player—or at least the second quarterback—selected.
“[Roethlisberger’s] physical ability was off the charts, and his ability to understand the game and make it so natural and easy for him were things that set him apart in our eyes. And for us, we didn’t even think we were going to get him. We thought he was up there [and] going to be the second guy taken right after Manning and then we were going to get Philip Rivers,” noted Whaley.
2003 MAC Championship: Miami of Ohio vs. Bowling Green
As for what sold the Steelers on Roethlisberger’s ability, Whaley pointed to the 2003 MAC Championship Game, between Miami of Ohio and Bowling Green on December 4, 2003, at Doyt Perry Stadium in Bowling Green.
Whaley recalls that Colbert and [scout, now scouting coordinator] Phil Kreidler went to the game, but Whaley stayed behind, owing to his concerns about the Ohio Turnpike Sniper, who was active at the time and wouldn’t be arrested until March 2004.
“[Roethlisberger] was injured that week,” recalled Whaley. “Ended up he was going to be a game time decision, so [Colbert and Kreidler] jump in the car, they go.”
Then, without a single snap in practice that week, Roethlisberger went 26 for 35 for 440 yards, with four touchdown passes and zero interceptions in a 49-27 win, which led Whaley to describe Roethlisberger as a “natural.”
“When they came back and we started talking to them and watching the film his competitiveness is another thing that just jumped out at you,” said Whaley, who notes that when it came time for Pittsburgh to make its first-round pick the powers-that-be didn’t even pause to see if any other teams would call about a potential trade.
“I don’t think we even waited. We had that card written and sent in as soon as possible,” he said.
Ben Roethlisberger’s Rookie Season
Yet the Steelers didn’t plan to play Roethlisberger as a rookie. Entering training camp he was the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, but moved up to No. 2 when backup Charlie Batch suffered a season-ending injury during a preseason game.
Then starter Tommy Maddox injured his elbow during a Week 2 loss at Baltimore. Roethlisberger came on in relief and went on to win his first 13 starts, with his first NFL loss coming in the AFC Championship Game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
As a rookie, “he wasn’t sitting back there making the right reads … but he was extending the play and his natural athletic ability and quarterback skills were very productive,” noted Whaley, who said the veteran team around him increasingly picked up its play as they recognized Roethlisberger’s talent.
“Once you start winning … then you’ve got a veteran team saying, ‘This kid’s pretty good’ … we gotta play for this guy.”
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