If you squint your eyes right, he looks a little like Justin Beiber. | Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images
Ben and the Bus edition (2004-05).
This is the continuation of a series of “What If” articles on Steelers history.
1933-69: The Winter of Our Discontent: HERE.
1970-79: The Golden Age: HERE
1980-84: The Era where “Nothing Happened”: HERE
1985-92: The Great Bounce :HERE
1993-99: Don’t Call it a Comeback: HERE
1996-2003: Bill Cowher’s Second Act: HERE
2010-15: Heartbreak, part 1: HERE
2016-19: Heartbreak, part 2: HERE
In this edition, the changing of the guard, where the torch is passed from one Hall of Famer with a great nickname (The Bus) to another (Big Ben).
Part 7: Ben and the Bus edition (2004-06)
2004: What if the Steelers drafted Shawn Andrews instead?
In 2004, following a disappointing 6-10 season, the Steelers held the #11 pick in the NFL draft, which featured multiple high-end quarterback prospects, including Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger.
It’s not a huge secret among Steeler faithful that Bill Cowher preferred Rivers (who was chosen at #4 by the New York Giants, before being swapped with Manning in San Diego). When the Cleveland Browns did that thing the Cleveland Browns do, and picked Kellen Winslow Jr. at #6, Big Ben dropped into the Steelers’ laps five picks later.
What many people don’t know is that Cowher didn’t just prefer Rivers to Roethlisberger. His choice at #11 was actually guard Shawn Andrews of Arkansas, who would be selected by Philadelphia at #16. Andrews’ career was cut short by injury, but in only three years starting, he made two Pro Bowls and was first team All Pro in 2006. I suspect Cowher pictured him opposite Alan Faneca and flanking Jeff Hartings to create an absolute battering ram in the middle of the offensive line.
Dan Rooney, who’d famously participated in passing on Dan Marino twenty-one years earlier (and regretted it), gently urged Cowher and Kevin Colbert to go with the historically good quarterback prospect this time instead. And (thank god) they did.
I don’t even like asking this question, but what if Cowher had followed through with his top choice, Andrews?
My guess at what happens:
Where to begin? Well, I suspect there would still only be four Lombardis in the trophy case for starters. The AFC has been extraordinarily competitive over the past two decades, and it’s hard to imagine a Steelers team quarterbacked by Tommy Maddox or Charlie Batch getting through the playoffs, much less winning it all.
Ben didn’t have to do a lot in his first couple of years, you might argue; is it possible that a lesser QB could have done the same? Doubtful. Roethlisberger led the league with five game-winning drives in his rookie campaign; four of these were 4th quarter comebacks (which is still tied for his career most). Meanwhile, though everyone remembers that he played poorly in Super Bowl XL, he was outstanding in the three playoff contests it took to get there. I can’t see the Steelers beating Indianapolis or Denver that year without Ben in uniform. In the end, the Steelers needed more than a placeholder to post a 31-7 record those years.
So what would the team have looked like in his absence? I suspect the 2004-05 Steelers would look a lot like the 1994-95 team. Cowher had learned his lesson in 2003, when he turned his offense over to Tommy-Gun and lost ten games. 2004 would be a run-first squad, featuring big backs (Jerome Bettis and Deuce Staley) and a powerful offensive line (now anchored by a second Pro Bowl guard in Andrews), and augmented by an attacking Dick Lebeau defense. That’s a team that can win a lot of games. But it’s probably not equipped to win a title in the mid-2000s without a franchise quarterback.
Cowher and Colbert will figure this out eventually, and try to go get a quarterback worthy of their superb defense. But what will that mean? Do they get into the Drew Brees/Daunte Culpepper sweepstakes in 2006? Do they try to grab Chad Pennington in 2008? Matt Cassell in 2009? (Not all sweepstakes are created equal.)
You might also notice that I’ve still got Cowher in town several years after he retired. That’s not a mistake. Cowher wanted to deliver a Lombardi trophy to the Rooney family, and retired 12 months after doing so. If he hadn’t drafted Ben, and hadn’t gotten that title, would he have retired? He was quite young to leave coaching behind — just 49 years old (plenty of coaches don’t get thier first shot until 50). There’s no reason to assume he’d have retired in 2006 without Ben. But if he couldn’t have gotten a franchise passer to compliment Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton until those guys started to age out, I wonder how much longer he’d have hung around trying.
As a quick sidebar to this, where might Ben have landed? My best guess is Buffalo, at #13. The Jets wouldn’t have taken Ben at #12 (Pennington was still on the way up), but the Bills drafted J.P. Losman later in this same round, so we know they were hunting for a QB. Big Ben in Buffalo would have made the AFC East absolutely fascinating to watch. He’d have mentored as a rookie behind Drew Bledsoe, with a top-5 defense, and Willis McGahee to hand off to — that’s not a bad situation. Moreover, Buffalo was essentially Pittsburgh-North back then, with head coach Mike Mularky, offensive coordinator Tom Clements, and GM Tom Donahoe. The quarterbacks coach up there was Sam Wyche — who you might remember as the innovator that made Boomer Esiason into an MVP, or as the Bengals coach who shamed Cincinnati fans for throwing snowballs on the field by reminding them they don’t live in Cleveland. Ben probably would have loved it.
New England certainly wouldn’t be getting a free ride through their division every year in this scenario. That’s kind of cool. But, all total, I think I’d take 17 years of success with a Hall of Fame superhero in Pittsburgh instead.
2004: What if Charlie Batch doesn’t break his leg in preseason?
One of the least discussed elements of the Steelers mid-2000s success is how lucky it was they could put Big Ben on the field as a rookie. Or rather, how lucky it was that they HAD TO put Ben on the field.
In 2004, Cowher wanted to utilize the Carson Palmer method of integrating a new QB: sit him for a whole year, then hand him the reigns. Maddox and Batch were in front of him; Roethlisberger wasn’t supposed to see the field at all. But then Batch broke his leg in the preseason, and Ben suddenly became the #2 quarterback. When Maddox injured his elbow in week two, a new era began in Pittsburgh.
What if Batch had been available to replace Maddox that year? What if Ben never got on the field in the first place?
My guess at what happens:
There are a lot of moving parts in this one, but let’s assume that Batch plays at least until Maddox is healthy enough to come back, maybe longer. He won’t be posting five game-winning drives, but he also won’t make many mistakes. As an outstanding rushing-and-defense squad, the Steelers may not go 15-1 with Batch under center, but it’s easy to imagine them at 12-4.
Let’s say Batch keeps the job all year, and doesn’t relinquish it to Maddox midseason. What then? Ben wasn’t great in the playoffs his rookie year; you could say he even brought the team down at times (throwing 85 yard pick-6s in both playoff games will do that). Maybe Batch doesn’t blow those scoring drives, particularly the one against New England (which was potentially responsible for a 14-pt flip, in a game the Steelers lost by 14). Maybe the Steelers wind up in the Super Bowl after all, taking on the Eagles (who they demolished 27-3 in our timeline). I know I predicted no title without a franchise passer, but crazy things are always possible, so let’s imagine one — let’s imagine that Charlie Batch leads the Steelers to a Super Bowl win in 2004.
With that victory, I suspect Cowher and Bettis both retire. And that would leave a brand new coach to decide between a Super Bowl winning QB (Batch) who is well-liked and respected, and top-11 draft pick (Roethlisberger) who is full of promise, but has no experience, and who everyone says is raw. Oh, and a sudden on-field leadership vaccuum that used to be occupied by Bettis. Yikes.
In one scenario, I can imagine Batch keeping the job one more year and Ben working in slowly, like Eli’s rookie year, gradually taking over for Kurt Warner. Maybe Ben sits another whole year, until Batch gives ground, like Rivers and Brees in San Diego.
In another, the new coach takes over and immediatley hands the team to a young Ben Roethlisberger. With this situation, I suspect Ben would go through the rookie learning curve in year 2 (2005) — except that the Steelers wouldn’t be sneaking up on anyone now. Any mistake would look huge because he’d be leading the defending champs and replacing a Super Bowl winner, rather than lifting a 6-10 squad to stardom. What’s more, in real life, Ben was mentored by and very close to Bettis, who would now be retired. Ben bumbled his leadership with none of those extra pressures; how would he develop this way? Would a year on the bench be humbling for him? Or would he be cockier for watching?
Many other questions follow as well: does the new coach pull a Mike Tomlin and retain Dick Lebeau (the actual hero of 2004)? That will dictate a lot of the team’s future success too. And who replaces Cowher anyway? Ken Whisenhunt? Leabeau? Is it finally Russ Grimm’s turn? Or do the Rooney’s do a full-on search again? They liked Ron Rivera in 2007; is he the next Pittsburgh coach? Hiring an outsider, like the Rooneys prefer, would make the transition to Big Ben even more frought from a teammate’s perspective.
Sorry about your leg, Charlie, but breaking it was probably for the best.
2005: What if Jerome Bettis retires after 2004?
One of the biggest stories of 2004-05, in Pittsburgh anyway, was how close Jerome Bettis came to retiring without a ring. He’d wrestled with injuries (2001-02), and lost his starting job as the team tried to go pass-first (2003). Then when they recommitted to the run (2004), they brought in Duce Staley to start. Bettis came off the bench and rushed for 941 yards that year, despite making only six starts, but he was 32 years old and had logged over 3500 carries. He’d just lost his third AFC title game at home. He was ready to hang up the cleats.
Then he had a change of heart. Maybe it was Hines Ward’s emotional response to losing the 2004 AFC Championship game that convinced him to come back. Maybe it was Big Ben’s promise to get the Bus a ring if he hung on one more year. Maybe it was realizing that Super Bowl XL would be in his home town of Detroit (or perhaps that he, Jerome Bettis, had to play in any Super Bowl labelled “XL”). But whatever the case, the Bus came back for one more year. And the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
Bettis was not the centerpiece of the offense that year. He and Staley were both injured preseason, and surprise second-year UDFA Willie Parker exploded to become the team’s leading rusher. So would the Steelers have missed Bettis in ‘05? What if he’d have called it a career after the 2004 season?
My guess at what happens:
As always, there are a lot of subtle ripples here, but the biggest effect, to my thinking, is that the Steelers probably don’t even make Super Bowl XL without Bettis on the team, much less win it. They had the talent to make the big game, for sure, but Bettis’s leadership and heart were decisive along the way. The reasons range from the subtle and symbolic to the concrete and clear.
For one thing, there was already a quiet tension between Roethlisberger and some of the team’s other high profile stars — Joey Porter and Hines Ward in particular. Given Ben’s importance to the team, his relationship with Bettis, and the Bus’s place as unquestioned heartbeat of the team, I can imagine the locker room breaking down without Jerome.
Meanwhile, Bettis also coached Parker consistently all season. Watch old highlights from 2005; every time Parker comes to the sidelines between plays or drives, he goes right to Bettis, and Bettis explains to him what just happened on the play. It’s almost cute — like a kid brother, saying “tell me how to be better.” Parker’s 1202 paced the Steelers that year, and Bettis had a hand in that.
But the biggest reason to doubt the Steelers’ ability to qualify for SBXL is their week 13 mudder against the powerhouse Chicago Bears. If you don’t remember this one, let me set the stage:
The Steelers had just fallen to 7-5 after losing their third game in a row, this one against the Bengals — which essentially handed the division to Cincinnati, ensuring that the Steelers would have to qualify for the playoffs as a wildcard team. Given the AFC playoff field in 2005, it seemed likely they’d have to win their last four games (and get help) just to grab the AFC’s sixth seed. The first contest would be against the eventual #2 seed in the NFC, Brian Urlacher’s Bears. Parker had little luck against the Bears in a muddy, snowy, old-school game. But Bettis ran like backhoe, famously carrying Urlacher over the goal line in the second half, on his way to 101 yards (the final 100 yard game of his career), two touchdowns, and a 21-9 Steelers win — the first of eight straight. In that remarkable stretch, Pittsburgh beat the AFC’s #1, #2, and #3 seeds, as well as the NFC’s #1 and #2 seeds. No one (still) has ever taken down the best teams in both conferences, one after another, like this. (It’s a crime that all anyone remembers from that postseason is Mike Holmgren complaining about the refs.)
If the Steelers don’t beat Chicago, they don’t make the playoffs, and there’s no Super Bowl to win in the first place. And a million questions (about Cowher’s future and legacy, about Staley’s and Parker’s statuses with the team, about Ben’s career, and the Steelers’ defense’s place in history, and etc etc etc) all become incomprehensible.
In other words, if Jerome retired in 2004, a whole lot of recent Steelers history might look similar, but all of it would feel different. And “five time champion” just doesn’t ring quite as well as “six time champion” to my ear.
Okay, one more round of these coming and we’ll close down the series. Stay tuned…