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The 2004 Draft: The Legend of Ben Falls to Pittsburgh

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The 2004 Draft: The Legend of Ben Falls to Pittsburgh
(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Since I haven't decompressed yet from NFL draft 2009, it is a good time to look back on the draft that reestablished the Steelers as a national power, the 2004 draft. 

The Steelers were set up with a fairly high pick thanks to a wretched 2003 campaign in which they slipped to 6-10, a season in which they could not string together a two game winning streak. 

What we didn't realize as we watched the Steelers struggle through that disappointing season, one of the worst in recent memory, was that it was setting the stage for great things to come.

Going into the 2004 draft, many people thought the Steelers would draft an offensive tackle in the first round to provide some protection for Tommy Maddox. Then again, nobody thought any of the top three quarterbacks would be available for the Steelers at No. 11.

Going into that draft, the player I desperately wanted to fall to the Steelers was Big Ben.  I watched him play in college and was convinced he would be a star. The Steelers, who were much more interested in one of those quarterbacks than they were letting on, may have favored Phillip Rivers, who played at the same college as Bill Cowher, North Carolina State. 

Big Ben was one of the players invited to the draft that year, since he was projected to go in the top 10, with some even thinking he might go first overall to the Chargers

The draft started with a bang with the Chargers drafting Eli Manning despite his and his family's unclassy insistence that he would never play for them. Oh, wait, the Mannings can do no wrong. Forget that comment. 

That pick was worth it just to watch a very uncomfortable Manning have to stand there with a stupid look on his face while holding a Chargers jersey.

The Raiders followed by drafting the "can't miss" tackle, Robert Gallery, who, sadly for them, missed. 

The Cardinals picked up Pittsburgh favorite and a guy who may one day equal even the incomparable Jerry Rice as a wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald. Sometimes nice guys do finish first. The fourth pick saw the big trade that sent Rivers to San Diego and Manning to the Big Apple. Two out of three of the coveted quarterbacks were off the board.

At the time, I wondered why Rivers came off the board before Big Ben. I still do. ESPN started showing a very nervous looking Big Ben sitting in the back room. He did not look happy. The smile on his face looked forced. 

This was not how it was supposed to go down. Rivers had not been invited to sit in the Green Room because Roethlisberger was expected to come off the board first.

The Cleveland Browns were on the clock. They had the perfect opportunity to not only draft the quarterback of their future, but a local favorite from nearby Findley, OH. Plenty of their fans were expecting to hear Big Ben's name called but instead heard the commissioner call out Kellen Winslow II.

That is a mistake that has haunted the franchise ever since, a mistake their fans are reminded of twice a year.  And they even traded up a spot to get Winslow.

Of the six players invited to sit in the Green Room, only three remained. That would change over the next two picks with wide receiver Roy Williams going to the Lions and cornerback DeAngelo Hall going to the Falcons. Anyone not think both of those teams would like a do over? 

This left Roethlisberger sitting alone back there with his agent. He can no longer hide his growing anxiety with his agent working overtime to try and keep him calm.  He looks like he want to throw up.  ESPN revels in repeatedly showing the quarterback over the next few picks as he, to the surprise of many, remains on the board. 

At this point, Roethlisberger isn't the only nervous one.  Much of Steelers Nation can barely breathe over the course of the next couple picks.  Could he really fall to the Steelers?  And, if he did, would they draft him? 

I read the draft guide descriptions of Roethlisberger for the 100th times.  He had to be a Steeler.

Roethlisberger's agent tells him the next teams drafting likely to be interested in him are Pittsburgh and Buffalo.  My biggest fear was that the team thought to be even more quarterback-needy, Buffalo, would jump ahead of the Steelers from the No. 13 spot and grab him. 

Nor was I completely convinced that a franchise without much history in drafting quarterbacks in the first round would pull the trigger.

Jacksonville picks wide receiver bust Reggie Williams at No. 9 followed by Houston who picks cornerback Dunta Robinson at No. 10. ESPN repeatedly pans to the Green Room and the quarterback who now looks like somebody just stole his lunch money.   

The Steelers are on the clock. The phone rings in the green room. We hear lots of "Yes sirs," out of a very relieved looking Roethlisberger.  He looks up at his family and his agent.  "It was the Steelers."  I leap off the couch and pump my fist.  We got him.

I'm guessing that Bills' fans let out a collective groan of horror.  Roethlisberger steps on stage wearing a gold tie and black suit...already looking the part of the future franchise quarterback.

Bill Cowher, wearing a Cheshire Cat grin, is interviewed.  He can hardly hide his excitement.  For the first time in his career, he has an elite quarterback on his roster, a guy that should have gone No. 1 overall but inexplicably slipped to No. 11. 

In some ways, that slide may have been predestined by the decision of his high school coach to play his son ahead of Ben at quarterback. That resulted in Ben being overlooked by most of the major college football programs, resulting in him signing with Miami of Ohio. 

All he did was turn that afterthought of a program into an NCAA college football power while he was there...at least until he left.

The rest of the Steelers' 2004 draft was ho hum at best.  The Steelers miss badly on small school cornerback prospect, Ricardo Colclough, in the second round.  I loved the pick at the time. 

They bounced back in the third round by drafting a mammoth tackle, the perennially franchised and overpaid Max Starks.  They missed on the rest of their picks (Nathaniel Adibi, Bo Lacy, Drew Caylor, Eric Taylor, and Matt Kranchick).  No late-round gems in this class.

For the Steelers, this draft was all about Big Ben.  It was arguably their second most important draft in history, behind the fabled 1974 class that landed four Hall of Famers (and undrafted rookie free agent safety Donnie Shell), all because they landed one amazing player.

The next season, they would win all but one game during the regular season (the loss was the last game Tommy Maddox started before forever relinguishing the job) before finally losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.  That run of success by a rookie quarterback may never be duplicated.  Two years later, they are hoisting the Lombardi trophy.  

The Steelers weren't the only team that changed their fortunes with that draft. The Giants, Cardinals, and Chargers, all bottom dwellers at the time, also made choices that would eventually reverse the fortunes of their franchises and vault them among the league's elite teams. Yes, the draft does matter that much.

The Steelers made one other huge move that year.  That was the year that the Maestro, defensive wizard Dick LeBeau, returned to the fold heralding the return of "Blitzburgh."  That was huge and I hope he coaches until he is 137 years old.

But, the story of that draft is the story of the Steelers' resurgence.  It all started with the best player in that draft sliding...and falling...and then landing in Pittsburgh.

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