Reflections on the 2004 Steelers: The Year of the Quarterback

Todd FlemingAnalyst IMay 17, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers passes against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

There have been several articles by Steelers' fans reliving the incredible rides that resulted in the two recent Steelers' Super Bowls.  Those were both incredible experiences and I still haven't quite come down from the last one. 

But, for me, one of my all-time favorite Steelers' seasons was 2004, the year of the quarterback.  That is a season that is largely forgotten, a mere footnote en route to the Super Bowl seasons, which is too bad. 

Because, that season may represent the single greatest accomplishment by a quarterback in the history of the league.  That was the magical season in which Ben Roethlisberger set an NFL record that may never be broken. 

As a rookie thrust into action due to injury, he won his first 14 starts.  No rookie has even come close to doing that.  I do not expect to live long enough to see a rookie quarterback break that record.

And, but for fate stepping in, it would never have happened.  The Steelers were intent on easing Roethlisberger into the lineup gradually, letting him learn from veteran quarterbacks Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch. 

That was the conventional wisdom on how you handle a rookie quarterback.  But, as has often the case with Big Ben, conventional wisdom was wrong.

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Ben started that pre-season No. 3 on the depth chart.  Batch was injured during the pre-season which moved Ben up to No. 2 on the depth chart.  After winning their opener, the Steelers were getting mauled by the Ravens in the second game when Maddox was knocked out with an injury. 

Roethlisberger took the field and the Big Ben era in Pittsburgh officially began. 
While they lost that game, Roethlisberger played superb in relief against one the league's best defenses. 

I couldn't wait to see how he would do as the starter.  What he did was breathtaking.

Remember when the big bad Patriots came to town carrying their NFL-record 21-game win streak?  It was a David vs. Goliath game, the rookie Roethlisberger versus one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, Tom Brady.  That Patriots team was one of the highest regarded teams of the last three decades. 

Roethlisberger played a near perfect game and the Steelers rolled to a surprisingly easy 34-20 victory, ending the Patriots' win streak.  On the day, he completed 18 of his 24 pass attempts for 196 yards, two TDs and no turnovers.

My dad was at the game with an old Army buddy from Boston who went to that game in a Patriots' jersey.  Needless to say, his buddy had a rough time at that one and took plenty of grief from Steelers' fans.

The win was memorialized in one of my all-time favorite Steelers' commercials honoring Christmas, the one that showed the picture-perfect pass from Roethlisberger to Plaxico Burress in the end zone with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" playing in the background. 

While it wasn't quite Mean Joe Greene with a bottle of coke throwing his jersey to a little boy, it ranks high on my list of all-time favorite commercials.

The very next week, the best team in the NFC came calling, the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.  The Steelers promptly destroyed them, winning 27-3 on another outstanding performance from Big Ben and the defense. 

What I remember most about that game was watching Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens go at it on the sideline late in the game. 

Owens was giving McNabb an earful while McNabb tried his best to ignore him.  The game heralded the start of a hatefest on the team from the City of Brotherly Love.   

A couple weeks later, the Steelers matched up against the New York Giants and the rookie quarterback drafted ten spots before Roethlisberger.  While Eli Manning played well in that game, he couldn't match Big Ben. 

The Steelers won 33-30.  Roethlisberger was absolutely superb, posting his first 300-yard passing game in the shootout. He threw for 316 yards and a TD.  He also led his fifth game-winning drive of the season.  

While Big Ben was Mr. Clutch in 2009, often impersonating his hero, John Elway, while leading the Steelers back late, he started that act in his very first season. 

There is, quite simply, no quarterback better at leading a team to victory in the fourth quarter than Roethlisberger.  With him at the helm of the offense, the Steelers are never out of games. 

It is hard to believe that many critics and writers have claimed Big Ben was just along for the ride with a great team during his first couple years in Pittsburgh. 

The great thing about being a critic, apparently, is you can say whatever you want no matter how foolish, even if you don't watch the games. 

What is sad is how much of those early assessments have stuck when it comes to Big Ben.  It is somewhat understandable. 

Frankly, people were at a loss what to make of that season because it was so unique.  What was  accomplished was so incredible, so paradigm shattering, that people had a difficult time digesting it and instead attempted to explain it away. 

Never before had a rookie quarterback come anywhere close to doing what Big Ben and his Steelers did that year.  That is just not how it was supposed to work. 

Even some of his own teammates were doubters.  They knew all too well that rookie quarterbacks have a track record of utter and complete failure.   

Remember Alan Faneca lamenting when Maddox went down that a rookie quarterback couldn't lead them to the Promised Land?

Roethlisberger's magical season changed the way that teams look at rookie quarterbacks and may have paved the way for Matt Ryan's and Joe Flacco's successes last year. 

At the beginning of last season, Ray Lewis grabbed Joe Flacco and reminded him what Big Ben was able to accomplish for the Steelers and challenged him to do the same. 

Roethlisberger's 2004 season has become the marker by which all rookie quarterbacks are measured.  And for those who constantly want to throw an asterisk, a "Yeah, but..." after acknowledging it, they can kiss Roethlisberger's two Super Bowl rings.

The season ended on a bad note for Steelers' Nation.  After winning his first playoff game against the New York Jets in a disappointing outing, Roethlisberger and the Steelers fell against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. 

It was after that game that a tear-stained Roethlisberger made a promise to Jerome Bettis to get him to his first Super Bowl.  And, one thing we've come to know about Big Ben is that he keeps his promises.

That season gets short shrift by a sportswriting community that does not want to give Big Ben his due for his greatness.  He was just a good player on a great team. 

Of course, it was the same great team that finished 6-10 the year before allowing the Steelers to even draft Big Ben.  Others point to the running game and put the credit for the Steelers' success there, but that year's Steelers team ran so well largely because the passing game was feared. 

It was all too often Roethlisberger's arm that staked out the early leads and led the Steelers back late when they fell behind.

So, while it ended prematurely, it is still one of my all-time favorite Steelers' seasons.  We finally knew we had ourselves one heck of a quarterback. 

We knew one for the thumb was right around the corner with the hope for even more.  Bad memories of Bubby Brister, Neal O'Donnell and Kordell Stewart were mostly, although not completely, purged from our collective memory. 

Sadly, it was also the last season that the immortal Myron Cope would call Steelers' games.  And, for that reason as well, 2004 was one of the most special seasons in the history of the Black and Gold.  

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