In this retrospective series, we’ll use 20/20 hindsight to play General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers to review past drafts – focusing primarily on top 2-3 selections – and personnel decisions year-by-year and redraft or implement trades based on the Steelers roster at the time.
General rule: Any “redrafted” pick will generally fall within a 15-pick range and trade propositions being realistic and attainable.
Steelers situation and needs:
- The 2003 season was an unequivocal disaster – finishing 6-10 and put an end to the passing first offense Bill Cowher had envisioned.
- QB Tommy Maddox threw for 3,414 passing yards (at the time the second most in franchise history to Terry Bradshaw – 3,724 yards in 1979) but as more tape was seen on Maddox, he struggled against cover-2 in particular and was as equally prone to throwing interceptions (17 total with 3 pick-6’s) as TDs – 18.
- The Steelers offensive line was crushed by injuries and free agency – particularly at OT: Marvel Smith missed most of the year and Wayne Gandy left via free agency: forcing LG Alan Faneca to play LT.
- The running game finished 31st in the league, the lowest ranking of Cowher’s era and the lowest since 1968.
- Maddox was the 3rd most sacked QB in the NFL (41), and Jerome Bettis saw his streak of six straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons end.
- Criticism surrounded the play of Troy Polamalu — hard as it is to believe today — as he didn’t adapt quickly to the NFL game as a rookie – so the pass defense was still in shambles.
- It was the final year for most of the Steelers starting secondary which had been in place since 2000: Chad Scott/Dewayne Washington/Brent Alexander (Lee Flowers was released after 2002 season).
How the Steelers got lucky with the best QB class since 1983
Reviewing 2004: 1st Round – #11 Overall; 2nd Round – #38 Overall
The 2004 NFL Draft was extraordinary and was considered the best QB draft class since 1983. Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger were all considered blue-chip prospects. Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert were exceptionally high on Rivers and believed he would be there at #11. Manning was considered to be the best prospect of the three, given his own ability combined with the pedigree of brother Peyton Manning and father Archie Manning. The San Diego Chargers also had him as the highest rated on their board and they had the #1 overall pick. The New York Giants were looking for a QB with the #4 overall pick and GM Ernie Accorsi was high on Roethlisberger and even considered trading back to #7, believing he would still get Roethlisberger.
It seemed to align, except for the detail that Eli Manning did not want to play for the Chargers. The Chargers reached out to Eli Manning’s agent Tom Condon to open negotiations and the response was in essence “No.” While Eli was more quiet about it, his father Archie was vocal. While they were never specific about the why, there was a general feeling about the organization and ownership. Owner Alex Spanos stepped back and turned over operations to his son Dean Spanos and in hindsight, the Manning family was pretty much proven to be correct in their assessment. San Diego GM A.J. Smith still drafted Eli Manning to a chorus of boos. Ernie Accorsi was content to sit at #4, but was motivated by a rumor that the Cleveland Browns were trying to move up to acquire Eli Manning. The Browns did make a trade to move up, but not enough to impact for Eli Manning. Accorsi moved and made a play for Eli without a deal in place as the Giants surprised many when selecting Rivers at #4. Rivers confirmed that he never even got a phone call from the Giants upon being drafted. At that point, the Giants/Accorsi were tied to making a deal for Manning. Regardless, Roethlisberger to the Giants was out and two QBs were off the board.
In any other draft, a QB of Roethlisberger’s caliber would not slide to #11. But this was a unique draft in the teams drafting #5-#10:
- Washington Redskins (#5): Drafted QB Patrick Ramsey 1st round, 32nd overall – 2002; #5 select safety Sean Taylor.
- Washington signed QB Mark Brunell to be the starter with the return of Head Coach Joe Gibbs/firing of Steve Spurrier.
- Cleveland Browns (#6): Signed FA QB Jeff Garcia; selected TE Kellen Winslow II.
- Cleveland was a viable option for Roethlisberger, but HC/GM Butch Davis was on the hot seat and needed to win to keep his job, so he wasn’t vested in drafting a QB for his successor. Davis resigned in December 2004.
- Detroit Lions (#7): Drafted QB Joey Harrington 1st round, #3 overall – 2002; select WR Roy Williams.
- Atlanta Falcons (#8): Drafted QB Michael Vick 1st round, #1 overall – 2001; select CB DeAngelo Hall.
- Jacksonville Jaguars (#9): Drafted QB Byron Leftwich 1st round, #7 overall – 2003, select WR Reggie Williams.
- Houston Texans (#10): Drafted QB David Carr 1st round, #1 overall – 2002; select CB Dunta Robinson.
The Steelers finished 6-10, as did the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, but the Steelers picked first due to the strength of schedule. The Jets believed heavily in Chad Pennington enough to give him a $64M contract heading into 2004 and former Steelers Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe was President and General Manager of the Bills. Donahoe tried very hard to move up to the #9 spot so as to take Roethlisberger, but Jacksonville wouldn’t budge. It almost did not matter – because Colbert and Cowher did not have their eyes set on Roethlisberger, they were leaning towards OT Shawn Andrews.
Dan Rooney finally buried the Steelers passed on Dan Marino demons
Dan Rooney stepped back from running the Steelers in 2002, assuming the mantle of Chairman of the Board like the Chief before him and placing Art Rooney II in charge as President. It was not lost on Dan Rooney the Steelers were in need of a QB.
Dan Rooney, My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL – Hachette Books:
“After the 2003 season it was apparent the Steelers needed to look for a quarterback. Kordell Stewart’s ‘slash’ style didn’t always get us where we wanted to be.
Tommy Maddox played well for a while, but with him at quarterback we’d gotten away from our identity as a tough, hard-nosed team that ran the ball on offense and stopped the run on defense.”
Dan Rooney had regretted on passing up QB Dan Marino for 20 years. At the end of the day, as Chairman and Owner, he was the boss and he knew that during the process of evaluating the QBs, the staff determined that Rivers and Manning were the most polished, but Roethlisberger had intrigued a number of the scouts. As both Rivers and Manning were off the board by the Steelers pick and had noticed the direction the pick was headed in, he literally couldn’t bear the thought of passing on another great QB prospect.
Dan Rooney, My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL – Hachette Books:
“Our people seemed to have focused on Shawn Andrews, a big offensive tackle from Arkansas as our likely number-one pick. But when our turn came, I couldn’t bear the thought of passing on another great quarterback prospect the way we had passed on Dan Marino in 1983, so I steered the conversation around to Roethlisberger. After some more talk, we came to a consensus and picked Roethlisberger.”
The Steelers had met with Roethlisberger at the NFL scouting combine and also hosted him for a pre-draft visit – Roethlisberger said the Steelers were the only team he visited, but they never worked him out. Most of the conversations with Roethlisberger’s inner circle had been with Accorsi and the Giants. The refusal of Manning to budge as it pertained to playing for San Diego had a butterfly effect.
Shawn Andrews had a good career for the Philadelphia Eagles and Tom Donahoe had to settle for trading back into the 1st round to take QB J.P. Losman at #22. Losman was not considered in the same tier as the other 3 QBs and Donahoe would have been far better off not making the trade, which cost the Bills their 1st round pick in 2005 (#20) where a certain QB Aaron Rodgers was still waiting to have his name called.
While it was excitement for a lot of Steelers fans, one person who took it hard was Steelers starting QB Tommy Maddox. He had started for the Steelers for two years, but was the lowest paid starting QB in the league (something Dan Rooney did rectify after the 2003 season) and he was told by Cowher that he was his QB going forward still.
Tommy Maddox, Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through The Decades – Ron Lippock:
“I would be lying if I said that it didn’t surprise me [when they drafted Ben Roethlisberger]. When I left the facility that Friday they told me they were probably going to draft an offensive linemen. It was tough for me, but I think that it would be hard to say that they didn’t make the right choice. It is always hard to lose your job to an injury, but let’s face it, it was only a matter of time. Ben has had a great career and I still root for him and the Steelers every week.”
Ed Bouchette, on conversation with Vann McElroy, Agent for Tommy Maddox – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“Agent Vann McElroy described Maddox’s reaction to the pick as ranging from anger to betrayal to emotional. He said Maddox was promised the Steelers would draft a tackle first. He said Maddox was so upset he would fly from Dallas the next day to discuss the situation with Bill Cowher and the Rooneys, and Maddox did just that.”
“I think there’s always, in this business, emotion,” Maddox said after the meeting, adding that his agent overreacted.
Wait, there were other rounds?
The 2004 draft was not all Ben Roethlisberger. In fact, Kevin Colbert pulled off another draft day trade to move up in the 2nd round to #38 for #44 and #107. The Steelers drafted CB Ricardo Colclough. The Indianapolis Colts used the #44 pick to draft future DPOY SS Bob Sanders. This move is easy to criticize in hindsight, but many publications were giving the Steelers an A grade on finding the extremely fast and athletic CB and predicted he would have the highest impact on the Steelers as a rookie. Obviously that did not happen – but when the cynics come out and hide their 2004 initial draft grades, I’ll call B.S.
- 3rd Round OT Max Starks (#75) spent 9 years as a Steeler and started in both Super Bowl wins. He was the starting LT in 2010 through 9 games until being placed on IR and missing the remainder of the season. The Steelers found good value with Starks for a long time.
- Undrafted free agent RB Willie Parker was brought in because of his great speed. He was never a starter at UNC and there was criticism of his field vision – something that was evident even as a pro. When he got his chance to play the final game of the 2004 season as the Steelers rested their starters, Parker gave signs of what was to come with a 102-yard effort in the Steelers win.
- Undrafted free agent NT Chis Hoke was called upon to start 10 games when Casey Hampton suffered an injury that put him on IR for the season. Hoke remained the reserve NT and played in almost every game over the rest of his 8-year career – all as a Steeler.
2004 Free Agency – the Duce is Loose.
The Steelers were looking for the next RB to take over for Jerome Bettis, first trying Amos Zereoue, highly considering drafting Larry Johnson in 2003 and then going to free agency for RB Duce Staley. Nobody can say Staley wasn’t getting the job done as he gained 707 yards starting the first 7 games, including 4 100-yard games. Although he had only 1 TD, that was due to the Steelers utilizing Bettis as the short yardage and goal line back. It also resulted in the most bizarre stat line in NFL history after the Steelers beat the Oakland Raiders in Week 1:
- Jerome Bettis: 5 carries, 1 yard and 3 TDs
- Duce Staley: 24 carries, 91 yards
Ironically, Staley was injured in the Week 7 game vs. the New England Patriots, having rushed for 125 yards already on the day. Bettis finished that same game with 65 yards rushing and had one of his best seasons, rushing for 100 yards in all 6 games he started down the stretch and being named to the Pro Bowl.
- James Harrison, having initially made the team in 2002 but cut in 2003, came back and this time made the most of his opportunity. When Joey Porter was ejected due to a pregame altercation with Cleveland Browns RB William Green, Harrison was thrust into the starting lineup and would register his first career sack, 6 tackles and 2 TFL.
- CB Willie Williams returned leaving the team via free agency for Seattle Seahawks after the 1996 season and rotated as starter at CB to help Deshea Townsend break in.
- DE Travis Kirschke was brought in for depth on the DE position and would remain a good reserve in the rotation through 2009.
Free Agency Grade: A
Overall Offseason Grade: A
Redrafting 2004: Bob Sanders
The Steelers traded up using the pick that eventually became the 2007 DPOY. I will not condemn the Steelers for trading up and seeking to upgrade their weakness at CB. When you compare player to player – Colclough to Sanders – there is no comparison. The question is: Would Sanders have succeeded as much as a Steeler? Sanders was a SS, not a FS – he wasn’t going to supplant Troy Polamalu. He succeeded in the cover-2 scheme, would he have been as successful in covering for the free lancing Tasmanian Devil? I’ll not criticize the mindset behind the pick even if it did not work out. The Steelers went for a great athlete to play CB from a small school and it didn’t work out this time, but it would when Ike Taylor found his way into the starting lineup in 2005.
I won’t advocate for Bob Sanders, the Steelers should have tried to move up 10 more spots and select CB Chris Gamble instead.
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