Ben Roethlisberger played backup to Tommy Maddox for exactly two games during his 2004 rookie season.
He never backed up another quarterback for the rest of his 18-year NFL career.
So while it may seem odd to put “Roethlisberger” and “backup” in the same sentence, the now-retired Steelers quarterback actually has some strong feelings about the role of a backup QB in the NFL.
“The backup role for a quarterback is to be ready to play at all times,” Roethlisberger said during a recent episode of Channel Seven’s podcast, Footbahlin with Ben Roethlisberger. “Because I couldn’t imagine sitting there and then all of a sudden something happens and it’s like, ‘Oh, I gotta go in. I gotta get my arm loose, [get] mentally ready to play.’ So you have to be ready to go at all times.”
It doesn’t end there, though. In fact, that’s just the beginning of a backup’s role to hear Roethlisberger tell it.
For a backup, the mission is less about playing and more about helping.
“To me –– and I’ve had some amazing backups… And I hate to even call them ‘backups.’ [They’re] like co-quarterbacks, guys who did it with me,” Roethlisberger continued. “I had Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch and Bruce Gradkowski. I had so many. I hate to name some and then not others, I’d feel bad about that…
“The backup’s job is to do –– and like I said, I learned this from those guys –– the backup’s job is to do everything they can to get the starter ready to play. So they have to be ready to answer questions, to help with film, to help with defenses, to help ‘What did you see here? What did you see there?’ coming off the sideline.”
As Roethlisberger continued to discuss the backup quarterback’s role, it became clear he has a massive amount of respect for that duty. Taking things a step further, Roethlisberger specifically points out that the job of a backup is not necessarily to compete for a starting job. That can actually strain the team dynamic, doing more harm than good.
To that end, Roethlisberger provided a specific example, citing Leftwich’s first stint with the Steelers in 2008. Following that season, Leftwich joined the Buccaneers for 2009 before re-signing with the Steelers and playing in Pittsburgh from 2010-2012.
Now, this might not be the entire reason Leftwich’s first run with the Steelers was so short-lived –– but it certainly sounds like both sides needed a change.
“When he [Leftwich] was with us the first time, he was still playing and doing good things, and I think he probably thought, you know, ‘I’m going to try to beat Ben out for this role,'” Roethlisberger said. “And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.
“Not that we butted heads, but there wasn’t the cohesiveness that there was the second time he came back when he was like, ‘Hey, I’m here to help us win and help you do everything you can to be the best.’ And we, because of that, formed such a great relationship. We are still very close today, and I just, you can see how he realized like, ‘Oh, man. This is what it is,’ and how to do it. He was awesome.”
To Roethlisberger, the backup quarterback role is vital.
It’s not just a “nice to have” position. It’s absolutely essential for the starters’ growth and success.
“Those guys helped me as much as any quarterback coach,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve had some great quarterback coaches that are great, you have great relationships [and do] great work together. But to me, that guy, that co-quarterback, that backup guy is… When I come off the field after a series, usually they’re the first person I’m talking to. Hey, what’d you see? What’d you think? Did I miss something? What happened on this play?
“And so you have to trust that person, that he sees what you saw. And so that comes from working together during the week, knowing, ‘OK, this is what I’m looking for. Did you see that too?’ And so there’s just so much involved with that. That’s what it takes to be a good backup.”
This ties into the Steelers’ current quarterback room, where Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett, and Mason Rudolph battled during the offseason for the starting position in Roethlisberger’s absence.
Trubisky won the starting role –– as expected –– but it was the rookie Pickett, not the veteran Rudolph, who snagged the official No. 2 spot on the team’s depth chart.
At least, Pickett snagged it after an initial “cut and paste” error hear ’round Steeler Nation.
“It’s a big deal,” Roethlisberger said of that depth chart snafu before changing course slightly. “It’s probably not a big deal how it was on the depth chart, like, they screwed it up. Both of you guys are trying, you’re backing up the number-one guy…
“They can’t have a mentality and an attitude of, ‘I should be the starter. I should be the guy. I’m not really going to help you or do this or that.’ They have to have that [helpful] mentality, and it’s not always easy to do.”
Of course, it’s worth noting Roethlisberger went 13-1 as a starter his rookie season and advanced to the AFC Championship game. Then, he won the Super Bowl in Year 2.
His status as the top dog in the locker room was never in question.
Still, this conversation makes for an interesting conversation piece. Is a rookie like Pickett valuable in that backup, guru role Roethlisberger describes? Or is he just a young, hungry arm waiting for his chance to steal the show?
Watch episode 2 of Footbahlin’ with Ben Roethlisberger in full right here: