There's always a certain level of excitement when a team drafts a quarterback, particularly when the pick comes on the first round. Such was the buzz back when the Steelers picked Ben Roethlisberger on the first round of the 2004 draft to make him just the fifth quarterback to come to the team that way in the franchise's 72 seasons of existence. There was buzz, sure, but 'wow' didn't first come until a summer Saturday afternoon in Latrobe.
ill Cowher had decided to use those weeks at Saint Vincent College to "re-establish the mind-set" after a couple of soft seasons in 2002 and 2003 had put the Steelers on the path where they earned themselves the 11th overall pick in a draft in the first place. The sounds of pads popping served as the tempo for those early days on campus, but then the rookie quarterback reminded everyone what difference-making talent at the sport's most important position is supposed to look like.
As a rookie in that camp, Roethlisberger was behind veterans Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch at the time, and so he worked with guys the coaches referred to as "threes." Low-round draft choices, free agents, journeymen. Bottom of the depth chart guys, one of whom was undrafted rookie receiver Zamir Cobb from that noted football factory – Temple. Cobb's flirtation with earning a spot on the 53-man roster came from him not dropping any of the rookie's lasers when they hit him in the chest.
During this team drill on a Saturday afternoon before a scheduled players day off, there was no live tackling, and definitely NO HITTING OF THE QUARTERBACK, and so observers didn't really snap to attention when the rookie broke contain and started sprinting to his right. But then he cocked his arm and sent one of those lasers across his body down the field. It struck Cobb, who was in a full sprint himself cutting across the field from the far left side of the formation, squarely between the '1' and the '9' on his practice jersey, about 25 yards down the field.
Brett Favre. That was a Brett Favre play.
Take a look at some of the greatest photographs from the career of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
"NO, IT'S NOT EXCITING"**
About two months later, with veteran backup Charlie Batch already on injured reserve, the media had gathered at the Steelers' practice facility on Monday, Sept. 20 to pick at the carcass of what had been a 30-15 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore during which starting quarterback Tommy Maddox had sustained the ligament damage in his right elbow that ultimately would end up costing him his job. Alan Faneca, an All-Pro guard and an All-Pro for the PR department in these kinds of situations as well, was offered up to the microphones. But even this grizzled veteran was incredulous when asked whether he thought it was "exciting" to see what the rookie quarterback was going to be able to do in games that counted in the standings.
"Exciting? No, it's not exciting," said Faneca, in his seventh NFL season at the time. "Do you want to go work with some little young kid who's just out of college?"
It was an honest answer from a veteran player, and certainly an opinion held by others in the locker room as well. Football is a game, but professional football is a business. These thirtysomethings expect results. They don't much care about entertainment value.
And so, the Steelers next went to work against the Dolphins in Miami, a game that was delayed from an afternoon kickoff to the evening because of public safety concerns associated with Hurricane Jeanne. In fact, the power had gone out at the Steelers hotel on Saturday night. The surface at Pro Player Stadium, still in the baseball configuration for the Marlins, was pretty much what you'd expect of grass and dirt that had gone through a hurricane. In the fourth quarter the Steelers were clinging to a 6-3 lead and their rookie quarterback to that point had completed 8-for-16 with one interception and one intentional grounding penalty.
What was about to happen was Ben Roethlisberger, the young kid just out of college, was going to make things exciting.
He converted a third-and-12 with an 18-yard pass to Plaxico Burress. He then converted a third-and-4 with a 20-yard pass to Hines Ward. And then on first-and-goal from the 7-yard line, he rolled to his right and, just as he got to the sideline, fired a rope to Ward, who made a diving catch for the touchdown completing the seven-play, 61-yard drive that also consumed 4:08 off the clock. There was still time remaining, but the game was over. It was the first of a 13-game winning streak for the quarterback who didn't look like a rookie anymore.
Going on 12 years later, Roethlisberger still is making things exciting, but in a different, more professional way. Ben Roethlisberger gives the Pittsburgh Steelers a chance to win any game on the schedule, he gives the Steelers a chance to contend every season, and there is nothing more exciting in professional sports than winning.
The Steelers signed Roethlisberger to a new five-year contract today that binds him to the team through the 2019 season, and it was fitting and inevitable. It was fitting because the Steelers have done a lot of winning with Roethlisberger as their starting quarterback, with two of his seasons ending with parades through Downtown Pittsburgh after winning Lombardis that had his fingerprints all over them. It was inevitable because there was no way this team and this player were going to part ways. For Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh has become home for his family during his time with the Steelers; and for the Steelers, Roethlisberger has become part of their family over the same span.
The details of this extension will be chronicled and evaluated, but the only truly significant element is that both sides are happy. This most important piece of offseason business has concluded for the Steelers, and now the team can focus on reinforcing other areas of the roster.
LIKE A FINE WINE**
During the NFL Combine some weeks ago, General Manager Kevin Colbert offered the opinion that Roethlisberger is improving with age, and his performance in 2014 makes it difficult to argue.
In the regular season NFL quarterback rankings, Roethlisberger was fourth in attempts, third in completions, third in completion percentage, tied-for-first in yards, third in average gain, seventh in touchdowns, fourth in interception percentage, and third in passer rating. No one else in the league ranked in the top 10 in each of those categories.
Roethlisberger also became the first player in NFL history with back-to-back six-touchdown pass games – against the Colts on Oct. 26 and then the Baltimore Ravens the following weekend – and the 522 yards he amassed against Indianapolis made him the first player in history with two 500-yard passing games in a career.
But if there's one milestone he reached in 2014 that defines what Ben Roethlisberger is all about as a player it's that he joined Tom Brady, Joe Montana, and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks of the Super Bowl era to win at least 100 games in their first 150 career starts.
Winning, and winning championships. For Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, that's what is truly exciting. Always has been. Always will be.