Imagine what could have been, because the opportunity was there. The hometown hero was available, but instead, the Steelers went with a defensive tackle named Gabe Rivera over Pitt quarterback Dan Marino. If the Steelers had selected Marino, they could have avoided the thirteen different starting quarterbacks used between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger, and who knows, maybe even had a few more Lombardi’s before Ben rolled into town. Can you imagine how different things might have been? If nothing else, having Marino in between Bradshaw and Ben would have made those twenty years alot more exciting. Besides that, I’m sure Dan Marino and the Pittsburgh Steelers taking on Mark Malone and the Miami Dolphins in the ’84 AFC Championship game would have yielded much better results. Instead of getting to live out that football fantasy, Steelernation had to suffer through atrocities such as Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Kent Graham. Sprinkled in among those horrible performances from some of the worst starting quarterbacks ever, were relief appearances from Scott Campbell, Todd Blackledge, and Steve Bono.
Not all of the quarterbacks between Bradshaw and Ben were totally horrible, but oddly enough, they are the ones most vilified. Bubby Brister was entertaining at times and had a big arm. Unfortunately, he thought he was worth way more valuable than he actually was, and left in search of more money. Neil O’Donnell was an efficient quarterback who didn’t throw too many interceptions, but when he finally got the Steelers to a Super Bowl, he suddenly decided to pull off his best Mark Malone imitation, not once but twice, costing the Steelers their fifth Lombardi Trophy. Mike Tomczak replaced O’Donnell and proved he was much better as a backup, which paved the way for Kordell Stewart to assume the starting role. Kordell was already a fan favorite when he became the starting quarterback, based on his role as Slash. Soon after that, however, he fell out of favor because of inconsistent play. Although he could do things on the football field few other quarterbacks could, his problems were compounded by the fact that he lacked the mental toughness to overcome the criticism he faced.
After a short stint with Tommy Maddox as the starter, Bill Cowher finally realized that, to get to the promised land, he was going to need to get himself a franchise quarterback. In the 2004 NFL Draft, the Steelers took Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick of the first round. It’s no coincidence that the Steelers went on to win two Super Bowls in the next five years, along with a third trip in 2010. In today’s NFL, it takes a franchise quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and the Steelers are approaching the time where they will soon have to start planning their search for the heir apparent to Big Ben. What the Steelers can’t be afraid of, is taking their guy a year or two earlier than they may want to. They also can’t afford to shy away from being aggressive when the time is right to pull the trigger. Being conservative has served the team well over the years, but what the two decades in between Bradshaw and Ben prove, is that you can have a stellar defense and some nice weapons on offense, but an average NFL quarterback is only going to get you so far.
Sure, it’s just speculation after the fact, but there is a good chance that between the ’84 team, and the ones from ’94-’97, at least one of them would have brought home the fifth and maybe a sixth Super Bowl title had Marino been drafted. The 2001 team was legitimately a franchise quarterback away from a Super Bowl appearance as well. Granted, there are no guarantees when it comes to predicting who is going to be a franchise type quarterback. There are far more busts than there are successess, but failure is almost guaranteed when you make the choice to play it safe at the most important position on the football field. Look no further than this year’s Steelers offense for proof. The Steelers had LeVeon Bell, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown on the field, with Michael Vick under center. The offense looked anemic and predictable. Replace Vick with Ben, and the offense once again looks like one of the most explosive and dangerous in the NFL. Hopefully this season remains in the minds of the powers that be, as an example of how important Ben and his type are, when it comes to winning championships. As much as it hurt watching the Packers celebrating a Super Bowl Championship at the expense of the Steelers, it wasn’t even close to matching the level of pain that came from watching an average Neil O’Donnell hand Larry Brown an MVP award, along with another Lombardi to the Cowboys.
At 33, Ben Roethlisberger probably has another three to four years left at the level he is playing at now. Hopefully the organization has learned their lessons from the twenty year debacle between 1984-2004. As a current reminder, all they need to do is to turn their attention to Cleveland, to see how bad choices at the quarterback position can hold a franchise back. After watching the best quarterback play in the history of the franchise, over the last twelve years, Steelernation will not settle for a substandard replacement when the day finally comes for Ben to walk away. If the Steelers have a franchise type quarterback drop into their laps, they have to take him. If they have an opportunity to trade up to get him, they need to do that, but either way, they can’t wait until Ben is gone before they get him. They need to be prepared for life after Ben while Ben is still on the roster, not twenty years after he retired.