The 1983 Pittsburgh Steelers season was one of the most frustrating and disheartening in franchise history. A promising 9-1 start had Steeler Nation dreaming of one for the thumb. Unfortunately, each week hope was held out for the return of Terry Bradshaw, who was recovering from an elbow injury, to see the Steelers through to that Championship. But the news never came back good and the impatience for QB Cliff Stoudt mounted each week, especially as the Steelers lost 4 in a row and championship dreams turned dull.
Down in South Florida, Dan Marino of Pittsburgh Panthers fame was setting new QB standards for the Miami Dolphins, the hometown boy whom the Steelers controversially passed on in the 1983 NFL Draft. Marino wanted to play for the Steelers, even wrote letters to Dan Rooney and Art Rooney, with Dan Rooney the advocate to draft Marino, only to be overruled by Chuck Noll.
Bradshaw was finally able to return as the Steelers were on the verge of dropping a once all but cinched up AFC Central division. He easily drove the Steelers to a 14-0 lead on the strength of 2 TD passes vs. the New York Jets and positioned the Steelers to clinch the Division Championship. However, on that final pass, his elbow popped, and the great career of Terry Bradshaw was over.
The Steelers were easily dispatched in the playoffs by the Los Angeles Raiders and the following season, Stoudt fled for the USFL while the Steelers made it all the way to the AFC Championship game behind and anemic QB combination of Mark Malone and David Woodley. The Steelers faced a Dan Marino led Dolphins offense that easily dominated the championship game. Steeler Nation could only lament what could have been as the team sunk into a dark stretch of disappointing seasons.
The Steelers would rebuild to the level that rejoined the level of the NFL elite, knocking on the door of another Super Bowl. Despite having almost all the pieces, they could never get over the top as there was one position that stood out where the Steelers lacked the critical piece: Quarterback.
The question has been asked many times, how many championships would the Steelers have won if they had Dan Marino in the 1990s? It’s not a question of if, but how many? As it continued into the 2000s, the position of QB exposed the Steelers extremely thin margin of error that existed under Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart. They lost a Super Bowl and chances at a Super Bowl because neither could make the big play under pressure, compounded by the load of interceptions that turned championship dreams into nightmares.
After the passing on Marino, the Steelers became one of the best drafting teams in the NFL, yet they would never take a QB in the first round. Tom Donahoe thought investing a 2nd round pick in Stewart was the answer for a while, as Dan Rooney referred to Heinz Field when being constructed as “The house that Kordell built.” That sentiment did not last for long.
The Steelers have never been the most active players in free agency or by making trades as a general rule, but it was even more underwhelming when it came to pursuing a QB. Under Noll, they traded a 3rd round pick for Woodley, a 4th round pick for Todd Blackledge and had a trade for Jack Trudeau fall through at the last moment. When it came to the draft, the Steelers were just as conservative, investing 3rd round picks into Bubby Brister and O’Donnell, a 2nd round pick on Stewart and a 6th round pick on Jim Miller. In free agency, the Steelers signed Mike Tomczak and Kent Graham.
It was a staggering 20 years of making almost no attempt to even look at a franchise QB. There was a lack of aggressiveness to even try, but I truly believe it was due to the performance of one very low-cost free agent with a better pedigree that got the Steelers attention. Upon winning the XFL MVP in 2001, former Denver Broncos QB Tommy Maddox reached out to every team in the NFL asking for a tryout and the Steelers were the only team to answer. Maddox flourished with the Steelers and gave the offense a dimension it had not seen in decades with his ability to sling the ball, breaking multiple records previously set by Bradshaw.
So when the injury ravaged 2003 season tore the Steelers from Championship contenders to a team that had the 11th overall pick and placed the Steelers in position to the best QB prospect since Marino in 1983, Dan Rooney simply was not going to let the same mistake happen twice and nudged Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert away from addressing the offensive line and to select Ben Roethlisberger. Dan Rooney was not going to let the mistake over being overruled by his football people again. Rooney never got over the mistake of passing up Dan Marino, just as he had never gotten over the cutting of Johnny Unitas. Securing a franchise QB for the future when they had the chance was front and center on Rooney’s mind and despite the confidence they had in Maddox, for once they thought about the bigger picture.
Every season for 20 years I personally went into the draft looking at QBs. I desperately wanted the Steelers to find a QB each season as I scouted potential prospects. Oh, how I wanted Chuck Long in 1986 (and still irrationally mad about passing on him) or a trade for Steve Young in 1987. In 1991 I wanted to acquire Todd Marinovich first and foremost but admit I had a piqued curiosity about a guy named Brett Favre, mistakes made worse by a bad decision that was compounded with the worst Steelers first round pick of the last 50 years. I thought it a mistake to not grab FA Bernie Kosar in 1993 after the Cleveland Browns cut him, especially with how good the Steelers offensive line was, and believe he would have been enough to win the Steelers a Super Bowl in 1994 or 1995.
In 2000, when the Steelers had the #8 overall pick, Kevin Colbert was actively trying to trade back into the first round to select Chad Pennington as the organization was torn been the QB from Marshall and WR Plaxico Burress. Knowing that Kent Graham was a free agent signee (and it came out later that they tried talking Marino to make one last run in 2000). I can confidently say that I had never before wished to see a player get taken off the board before our pick before because I just knew they wouldn’t take Pennington. In 2001, I had strong conviction about taking Drew Brees, to the point my heart sunk when they traded back and heard the name Casey Hampton called out. As much as I know it worked out, it still made me angry on that day.
But on April 24, 2004, 20 years of frustration were finally set free. When the Steelers went up to that podium to announce they were drafting Ben Roethlisberger – already dressed in Black and Gold – it was unlike any draft pick the Steelers announced before or since. Historically the best player ever taken 11th overall and arguably the best value the Steelers have ever found in the first round, one thing is certain:
18 years later and thrills beyond expectations, I can say with conviction that it was worth the wait.