Ben Roethlisberger's Back: Jacksonville Jaguars GM Wanted Big Ben in 2004 Draft
(That's Jacksonville, Fla., in case you didn't know the nation's 50th-largest media market by nickname.)
After Week 4, beat writer Vic Ketchman interviewed Gene Smith, the Jaguars' general manager, on his Jaguars Monday radio show. Jacksonville had just been shellacked in consecutive weeks by the San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles, and quarterback David Garrard's up-and-down play had listeners up in arms about the team's neglect for that position in recent drafts.
In the interview, which can be found in its entirety on the Jaguars' official website, Ketchman mentioned some of the signal-callers the team had missed: Roethlisberger, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, and Miami's Chad Henne, to name a few. Then he put a very pointed question about drafting quarterbacks to Smith.
"Would you have taken Roethlisberger?"
The catch, of course, was that Smith had been playing second fiddle to James "Shack" Harris in 2004. Jacksonville fired Harris after the 2008 season, promoting Smith to rebuild a roster that had just hit rock bottom in a disappointing 5-11 campaign.
"To this day, I'm amazed that he [Roethlisberger] lasted that long," Smith answered diplomatically.
"You were at his workout, weren't you?" Ketchman continued.
"I did a lot of work on him," Smith acknowledged.
Ketchman pressed him on that point: "You couldn't convince them to pick him, huh?"
"No," Smith objected, "we had taken Byron [Leftwich] the year before. Certainly, at that point in time, Byron was our future as an organizational decision."
"But," Ketchman interjected, "Roethlisberger would have been the highest-rated guy on your board when it was your turn to pick, right?"
Smith, who has insisted that he always picks the highest-rated player on his draft board, didn't dodge the question.
"Roethlisberger, at that time, would have been the highest-rated player, yes."
Instead, "Shack" Harris opted for Reggie Williams, a 6'4" wide receiver out of Washington who fit a position of need for the Jaguars. Now, six years, 18 touchdowns, and three drug-related arrests later, Williams is out of professional football.
At this point, it's important to bear in mind that success in the NFL is a function of all the players, coaches, and external influences on a roster. Even exchanging a bust at wide receiver—perhaps the least important position on a football team—for a future franchise quarterback wouldn't have put Jacksonville in Pittsburgh's place to win Super Bowl XL.
Past that, though, Jaguars fans have a right to cringe at what Roethlisberger might have done.
In 2006, Leftwich suffered an ankle injury that left the door open for then-backup Garrard to take the reins. At the end of the season, the two were tangled in a position battle that would end with Leftwich's controversial release days before the start of Jacksonville's 2007 campaign.
Meanwhile, Big Ben was cutting his teeth as the Steelers' 15-game starter. He struggled that year, completing just under 60 percent of his passes and throwing more picks (23) than scores (18) as Pittsburgh missed the playoffs.
With the lessons from that disappointing 8-8 season under his belt, Roethlisberger emerged as a force to be reckoned with in 2007. He attempted fewer passes, but racked up a career-best 32 touchdowns while throwing only 11 interceptions to earn a 104.1 passer rating.
That year, Garrard was efficient, if uninspiring. His 18 passing touchdowns were underwhelming, but he threw only three picks and stayed out of the way for Fred Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew, and the NFL's second-best ground game.
Even with the rest of the Jaguars' roster—and, arguably, Garrard—peaking, that offense lacked the firepower to hang with the New England Patriots' record-setting aerial attack in a 31-20 playoff loss.
Had Roethlisberger been under center, things might've been different. When Big Ben and the Steelers returned to the playoffs in 2008, the 6'5" quarterback came into his own as a crunch-time star, most memorably on the touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes that won Super Bowl XLII.
Could he have conjured up that magic to lead Jacksonville past New England, maybe even all the way to the NFL's greatest prize? Judging from his regular season form, it's tempting to say yes.
It's equally certain, though, that he'd have fared little better than Garrard during the Jaguars' 2008 roster implosion and the start of their rebuilding process in 2009. And outside of Roethlisberger's on-field performance, the scandal that earned him his recent suspension might have decimated an organization less stable than Pittsburgh.
All hypotheticals aside, Big Ben is back. He's got two Super Bowl rings on his hand and, according to Alan Robinson of the Associated Press, he's looking great.
Had Gene Smith been in charge in 2004, that wouldn't be just another national news item passed down to Jacksonville.
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