A Friendly Reminder That Dan Rooney Is The Reason Pittsburgh Drafted Roethlisberger

It may be a week and a half since the passing of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney—who was so much more than that, of course—but that doesn’t mean that there is any sort of timetable during which we can continue to talk about him and his impact on the team.

Today’s lesson in Dan Rooney history is literally the most important anecdote in modern Steelers history—the story of how he convinced the team to draft quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rather than offensive lineman Shawn Andrews. That executive decision—or suggestion—no doubt changed the franchise’s fortunes over the past decade-plus.

This is a widely-documented account from which can be cited any number of sources. Just one of them would be an article from Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the eve of Super Bowl XLV. “Imagine what might have occurred in the past decade had the Steelers drafted offensive lineman Shawn Andrews in the first round in 2004 instead of Ben Roethlisberger”, he began.

“That was their intention, until Dan Rooney stepped in”. Rooney, in fact, recounted this event in his autobiography published three years prior to the article, in 2007. Bouchette quotes the man himself: “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 talk”, he continued, “we came to a consensus and picked Roethlisberger”. The decision-makers at the time, of course, were a little different. Kevin Colbert had already been there for a handful of seasons, but it was Bill Cowher at head coach, who never really seemed to value the quarterback position the way it is today.

Cowher admitted it years later in an interview, talking about his strategy of playing stout defense and running the football. “I don’t know if you can win a championship like that”, he said. “We did that for many years and fell short without a quarterback”.

Rooney had seen the fruits of that sort of labor time and time again for a couple of decades at that point, which often took the Steelers to the Divisional Round, even the AFC Championship Game, and the Super Bowl once, but never brought a title back home. Not until the year after they bit the bullet and struck in the first round on a quarterback.

In a way, it would almost be fitting if the Steelers were to find Roethlisberger’s successor in this draft, which falls just weeks after Rooney’s passing. The only problem with that sort of tribute is the stark reality that a franchise sort of quarterback may not even be among those available in this class.

The Eagles ended up drafting Andrews five picks later. He went on to play in three Pro Bowls and was even named an All-Pro twice, but he retired after seven seasons due to back pain. Roethlisberger, meanwhile, has won two Super Bowls, playing in three, earning the status of Pro Bowler five times.

Entering the 2017 season, Roethlisberger ranks 10th all-time in passing yardage with 46,814. His 3804 completed passes ranks 11th, and his 301 passing touchdowns falls ninth, as does his quarterback rating. His 29 fourth-quarter comebacks are the 10th-most in NFL history, and his completion percentage of 64.1 is 12th-best.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Jason

    Man, how different would the last 12 yrs have been if he hadn’t spoken up. Could have just as easily been a middle of the road team as opposed to perennial contenders because of 1 decision. People who don’t appreciate #7 are likely those who didnt suffer through years of inept qb’s we had prior to his arrival.

  • RickM

    Yes, I think Dan Rooney was the driver behind the decision. I’m not sure either Colbert or Cowher would have gone that way, but both agreed to it when Mr. Rooney raised it. Of course, great luck was needed for Roethlisberger to fall that far. He would easily have been No. 1 if not for the small school affiliation.

  • RickM

    That’s definitely a part of his wonderful legacy. I’m glad for that one draft he likely went against his nature and stepped in.

  • Applebite

    It was the bestest birthday present EVER! O/ It was the one wish I had leading up to the draft that year, and the only player I really liked in the 1st. To me, during that time, he was tailor made for the ‘Burgh.

    I didn’t want to see Eli whining bony butt in Pittsburgh. Would’ve accepted Rivers as a consolation prize, so to speak. But imagine my glee, while sitting in the barber chair getting my hair cut, and seeing old man Manning in the crowd, and hearing about how he didn’t want Eli in San Diego, blah, blah… and they made that trade. And the closer Ben got to 11, the harder it was to sit still in my chair. I’m still not sure how I got out of there with a decent cut.

  • Steelers32

    which is why I for one hope they trade up and grab Mahomes and not let it go to chance.
    QB trumps all other positions no matter how good an athlete you may be getting.
    Ben gave a heads up, get a player to groom while he is still here

  • Roger G

    Would’ve got Aaron Rodgers the very next year I’d like to think

  • Roger G

    That’s about as good a story as the article itself

  • steelburg

    This story has been around for years and yet people always claim that Tomlin wins with Cowhers players. Cowher didn’t even want to draft Ben and wouldn’t had the owner not stepped in.

  • Rotten Sircus

    Big Ben’s successor is in this draft ! We can get Nathan Peterman from “Pitt”, Josh Dobbs from Tennessee or Brad Kaaya from Miami in the 4th round or 5th round !!! They’re going to sit anyway so let Ben school them for a year and see what they got !!!

  • RickM

    What in the world does that have to do with coaching ability? Not a single thing. Colbert supposedly wasn’t going to pick him either.

  • Conserv_58

    Trading up for Mahomes would be as bad a decision as not drafting Marino.

  • Steelers32

    inaction is the bad decision, Tenn @ 18 may be looking to trade back also were in market for a WR trade spots 30 to 18 toss in Bryant (who even if he has a great year will more than likely be gone in 2) and get it done while Ben is still here
    basically getting a 2nd round value for Bryant while you can (maybe talented but can you really depend on him? and or afford him IF he burns it up this year)

  • Simon Cutts

    I wonder what it would have been like if the team had listened to Mr Rooney about Dan Marino AND John Unitas too, not just Ben. The man knew his QBs.

  • steelburg

    I’m responding here because I can’t find the other comment you posted. But my comment was just to point out that Cowher wasn’t beating the table for big Ben like some people think.

  • John Phillips

    Cowher wanted Rivers

  • John Phillips

    I knew he wanted Marino but I guess I was too young to know about Unitas.

  • RickM

    I just think it’s silly to suggest that because Cowher may have preferred another player, he wasn’t a player that Tomlin inherited from Cowher. Of course he was a Cowher player. Colbert went out of his way when asked to mention that Cowher put up no opposition to a QB being taken when he asked him.

    I haven’t read anywhere official that Cowher was banging the table for anyone, Ben or someone else. Fans invent their own stories about the draft, but Dan Rooney and Kevin Colbert seem to have clarified how the pick was made. It seems Colbert and Cowher were set to go in a different direction until Mr. Rooney got involved. That’s not a knock on Colbert or Cowher as hindsight is easy.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Ben is #15 on my current all-time Steelers list. Another Super Bowl win would launch him into the top ten.

  • Ryan

    Rodgers went 24th we picked 30th. While yes there’s a chance we may not have been picking 30th without Ben there’s still no way to know if we would’ve got Rodgers or been in position to draft him.

  • Ryan

    I like Mahomes but when you’re as close to a title as we are you chase the title first by filling bigger needs with your 1 and 2 picks.

  • Steelers32

    I understand the point, but the counter is that its an odd year for QBs no real consensus on #1 thru #4 pick the top QBs rarely slip to the bottom of the first but this year they may.
    Pitt is always drafting low ( a good thing as they are winning ) they have at least for this year a great QB, but to pass a chance for Bens successor for 1 year can hurt way past one season.
    The D was brand new last year they are a young team in most positions and should be better this year than last.
    I would love a edge rusher sure, but would not compare that slot to the effect a QB has for years to come.
    It was frustrating as hell year after year post Bradshaw and before Ben, with some outstanding defenses and pedestrian QBs

  • Ryan

    If you’re gonna trade up to draft a QB you can do that in any other draft. You don’t trade up unless you’re confident the guy you’re reading up for is gonna pan out. Especially with it would cost to move up from 30.

  • steelburg

    My main point is when people claim that Tomlin won early in his career because of the previous coaches players that thinking is B.S.. Just because a coach inherits a good roster that doesn’t guarantee success. Yes Ben was drafted under Cowher and that does make him one of Cowhers players but Tomlin made his own path as a coach, he didnt ride the Cowhers wave like many accuse him of doing.

  • Matt Manzo

    Those numbers have Ben in the Top 10 all time! That’s pretty cool!

    Does anyone know if Troy went to Rooneys funeral?

  • Steelers32

    But that’s the trick trading up from 30 to 18 is giving up a 2nd round value. Just so happens Tenn at 18 may be looking to trade back, and have been shopping off-season for a WR, and also need a DB. They can get a DB at 30 so give up on Bryant, put him in the trade, Tenn gets what it needed and Pitt gets the 18 pick.
    Takes a lot more than that to get into a top 10 pick this year its cheap at 18-24 he is not getting past Texas at 25
    would not be surprised if this is all moot as he goes earlier than that

  • Ryan

    Guarantee Tenn would want more than Bryant to trade back. They know one strike and he’s gone as well teams want more insurance especially if they’re gonna drop 12 picks.

  • Steelers32

    probably right shame as Bryant has the talent, but just not the track record. Offering the actual 2nd round pick with the depth of DBs and EDGE is not so hot

  • Terrible Towlie

    Mahomes… that is all

  • Darth Blount 47

    I personally hope he settles in… right around number 7. 🙂

  • Darth Blount 47

    Let us all please not forget, the plan was to sit Big Ben the ENTIRE season, behind the great Tommy “The Gun” Maddox. So it’s not as if Coach Cowher was just itching to play with his shiny new toy. In the 2 prior seasons, Maddox had started and thrown for 6,250 yards and 38 TD’s. Just a friendly reminder.

    For all of the vitriol I find myself sometimes spewing towards those purple Ratbirds in Baltimore…. Without their help in injuring Maddox, who knows how that season, and the next, and the future, would have gone. Thank you, Mr. Gary Baxter. Thank you. (Sorry, Tommy.)

    Oh, and of course… THANK YOU, Mr. Rooney. 🙂

  • Mitch

    Can you think of a single quarterback, drafted in the past decade, who was “groomed” before he became a successful starter? QBs can start as rookies now. It was Roethlisberger himself who showed us that, so we have no excuse for not knowing it. I’m not belittling how important the quarterback position is, I’m belittling how important, outdated, and antiquated the concept of “grooming a QB” is. You won’t see a first overall pick fail to take a single rep his rookie year in favor of a career backup journeyman, like Carson Palmer did behind Jon Kitna. Even a god awful prospect like Jared Goff started half the season for his team. The Steelers can afford to wait for Roethlisberger to retire, and THEN draft a QB to start immediately. He’ll be just as good as any 2nd or 3rd year vet making his first start. What Roethlisberger showed in 2004 and later Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco normalized, it doesn’t make a big difference at all if you’re a rookie or a 3rd year vet. A first start is a first start.

    Before anyone says “Aaron Rodgers,” he was drafted well over a decade ago. He’s already going to be 34 years old this year. Time does go quickly and although it may not feel it to you, he was drafted a long time ago. Back when fullbacks and nosetackles were huge focal points for their respective teams teams, a fifth DB was not as important, and young quarterbacks sat and learned. Didn’t have the cheap rookie cap that came with the 2011 salary cap that makes wasting a QB’s cheap rookie contract an incredibly stupid thing to do.

  • RickM

    No, totally disagree with you. When you inherit a team one year removed from a SB with most of the players in their prime of course you have an advantage. Denying that simply shows you have an incredibly strong bias in favor of Mike Tomlin.

    My 100% guess is that if he had inherited a bad football team, you would – rightfully – say he had an excuse for not doing well inititally. But you are simply closing your eyes to the wealth of talent he inherited. Not sure why, it’s a crystal clear fact. That doesn’t mean he didn’t do a job job coaching that strong nucleus. But denying it existed? That’s just not factually true.

  • Brenton deed

    Yes well said… there’re plenty of wasted high picks at QB Rick Mirer,Ryan Leaf DeMarcus Russell … that’s off the top of my head… and I think they were all top five picks!

    I wonder if the Steelers’ FO is really just sharpening its claws when it comes to evaluating QBs hence all their apparent interest this year?
    Maybe they are having closer looks at “top” QB prospects so that, depending on how the prospect subsequently turns out, they might be able to discern the difference between a BB and a DeMarcus Russell when it’s time to get serious about drafting a QB?

    That would be the typical steeler way.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    #7, ranked #7 all-time by winning #7. I like it.

  • Generic Steelers Fan

    Technically he inherited an 8-8 team.