For years, Dan Rooney has been credited for being the reason that the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger at 11th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft. Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert reportedly wanted Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews instead. Cowher, who has refuted this narrative in the past, addressed it even further during his appearance on Roethlisberger’s Footbahlin podcast. Once and for all, Cowher wanted to set the record straight.
“There were reports that you wanted Phillip (Rivers) and Kevin (Colbert) wanted Shawn Andrews. And I was told that Mr. Rooney was the only one that stood up for me,” Roethlisberger told Cowher with a smile.
“No, no,” Cowher responded. “And Kevin will attest to this. To me, (Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers) were ready to play the first year that they go to their team. When you came in, I said, ‘Ben has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. Let me get to know him a little bit better.’ I watched your workout. We were thinking OK, we need offensive lineman. Shawn Andrews was a guy that we were talking about. He was an offensive lineman from Arkansas.”
Following the NFL Scouting Combine, Cowher asked Colbert if there was any chance that one of the Big 3 quarterbacks in the draft would get to pick No. 11. And Colbert said no chance on Manning, and that Rivers would most likely be the second quarterback off the board, but possibly Roethlisberger.
“I said, ‘You think Ben could be there when we pick?’ He goes, ‘I do,'” Cowher said. “So I went back and watched every one of your games. So I said, ‘Let’s bring him back in here for a (pre-draft visit).’ You came back in, we sat down with you, we talked with you, and I said, ‘OK, wow.’ So let’s look at the board. And I remember saying before we needed lineman. And I told Mr. Rooney, ‘Listen, we’re gonna take a lineman, but if one of these quarterbacks gets to us, we’re taking them because they’re too good.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I would trade up for any of them. I think we’re OK with Tommy (Maddox), we got Charlie (Batch). I think we are OK.”
Cowher’s initially thought Roethlisberger would sit for one year and learn from Maddox and Batch. He didn’t consider Roethlisberger a Day 1 starter like Manning and Rivers. However, his mind started to change once he saw Roethlisberger at minicamp.
“I remember telling (quarterbacks coach) Mark Whipple, ‘Wow, Ben’s a lot bigger than I thought he was. And the guy’s athletic. Look at him, he’s kicking left-footed. He can punt, and he’s left-footed.’ And you start running around and start doing some of the bootleg stuff. I’m going ‘Oh my gosh’ … Ok, this is gonna be kind of fun watch this evolve,” Cowher said.
It didn’t take long for Roethlisberger to become the starter in Pittsburgh, as Batch had season-ending knee surgey in August, and Maddox suffered an elbow injury in Week 2 against the Baltimore Ravens. Roethlisberger went on to have an historic rookie season, leading the Steelers to a 15-1 regular-season record. Overall, Roethlisberger went 14-1 (including playoffs) as a starter and was named Associated Press Rookie of the Year. His lone loss game in the AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots.
In his second year, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to their first Super Bowl title in 26 years, sending Jerome Bettis off with a ring and getting Cowher a title after four AFC Championship Game losses, all of which were at home.
As the discussion came to a close, Cowher wanted to make it clear. Mr. Rooney did not walk into the draft room to tell him and Colbert to draft Roethlisberger.
“Where did that come from? Mr. Rooney was never walking into any of those meetings,” Cowher said. “You know, he’d come in. He wanted to know where we stood on certain things.”
Roethlisberger joked with Cowher, “(Mr. Rooney) told me, ‘I walked into that room Ben and I said I’m not passing on you. You’re my guy.'”
Cowher responded, “Listen, he’s the owner. He can embellish any story that he wants to. As the owner, you have every right to do that,” Cowher laughed. “But, I loved that man. And honestly, even with Kevin, it was an awesome operation that we had. We talked through every scenario up and down, and we never looked back. Any decision we made, we never looked back.”
Regardless of who gets the credit, the Roethlisberger pick was certainly one that the Steelers never looked back on.