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Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time, All-Rookie Team: Part 1

Introduction and Quarterbacks.

NFL: NFL Draft Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Like most NFL fans, I’ve been thinking about rookies lately. Everyone and their dog seems to have a different opinion on the new crop of NFL players (and the Steelers set of newcomers in particular), and I don’t expect that to change in the next three months.

Unfortunately, since I’m not much of an NCAA fan, I won’t have much insight on Steelers rookies until kickoff in Buffalo this September. But one thing I do like is history.

I also like arguments. So I’m going to try to start a few. Below is part 1 (of many) of a series in which I’m going to try to consider the long history of the Pittsburgh Steeler rookies, and assemble an All-Time All-Rookie squad.


Before we begin, here are some ground rules:

NFL: NFL Draft Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

1 — I’m looking at the entire 88 year history of the Steelers.

That means you’re likely to see some names you’ve never encountered before. There are definitely names that I discovered in researching this. I’ll make a case for each figure, but get ready for some “wait, who?”

2 — The player does not have to have been drafted, but he must have begun his career with the Steelers (or if we go back far enough, the “Pirates”).

Jerome Bettis, as most of you likely know, began his career with the Los Angeles Rams. So, while we all love the Bus, he’s not eligible for this team. Willie Parker (undrafted free agent in 2004) does get consideration.

3 — The rest of the player’s career will play NO role in this list. Only the rookie year.

Troy Polamalu, for example, gets no bonus for being one of the game’s greatest players at any position. His rookie year was (believe it or not) less remarkable than Terrell Edmunds or Sean Davis — two recent high-drafted Steelers safties. You’d be a fool to bench Polamalu (circa 2004-14) for either of those guys, but in 2003, he didn’t show much. And that’s the only year I’m interested in. So don’t expect to see him when we get to the secondary.

Conversely, there are some names below whose careers never took off after that first campaign, or who left town and never factored again in Steelers lore.

It’s a mixed multitude, is what I’m saying.

4 — There will also be a poll at the bottom of each article.

I’ll make the case for my starter(s) and backup(s), along with a handful of others who deserve consideration. And then I’ll leave it to Steelers Nation to vote, and then argue it out in the comments.

I’ll also include a preface for each article to account for names you might expect, but who don’t make the cut. If I forget anyone who deserves recognition, don’t be shy about pointing it out in the comments. Otherwise, let’s do this thing.


Part 1: Quarterback

2004 NFL Draft
I’m going to try to only post photos from the players’ rookie seasons. Buckle up. Some of these are young-looking dudes.
Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

You might be expecting to see Terry Bradshaw below, but not if you know Bradshaw’s actual history. The Blonde Bomber’s rookie stat line is one of the worst you’ll ever see. With eight starts, Bradshaw completed 38.1% of his passes, for six touchdowns and a staggering 24 interceptions. His passer rating was, somehow, 30.4, which is 9.2 points lower than if he’d have just thrown every pass directly at Chuck Noll. (Side note: as a measure of how good Noll and his young defense already were in 1970, Bradshaw somehow won three of those starts anyway...)

In any case, deep Steelers history is full of quarterbacks worth considering too, but most of them are dead ends for this team. Jim Finks made a Pro Bowl as a Steelers QB before his HOF GM career took off, but he didn’t start a game as a rookie in 1949, and may have been the third best passer on the team. Len Dawson and Jack Kemp were both all-timers who started their careers as Steelers (both arriving in 1957), but they combined to throw 22 passes that entire year. Bill Nelson would be a Pro Bowler with the late-60s Browns, but his rookie campaign in Pittsburgh (1961) featured two passing attempts. Earl Morrall and Bobby Layne were Pro Bowlers in Pittsburgh in the late-50s, but started their careers in New York and Detroit, respectively. And of course, Johnny Unitas didn’t even make it out of his rookie training camp in 1955. None of them make the cut.

Instead, here are the quarterbacks on my Steelers All-Time All Rookie team:


Starter:

Ben Roethlisberger (2004)

This might be the worst picture of Big Ben that I’ve ever seen. Also, what’s with the second football? I don’t understand this card at all.

66.4 completion percentage
98.1 quarterback rating
Led league with 5 game winning drives
Led league with 4 fourth quarter comebacks
13-0 regular season starting record (NFL record for rookie)
Team imporoves its record by nine games from previous year
NFL Rookie of the Year

Big Ben was the easiest choice on this whole list. Considered a raw rookie with a lot of upside when he fell to the Steelers on draft day, he was pressed into service far sooner than anyone expected. The unpolished MAC kid then reeled off 14 straight victories (including a playoff win) before falling to the totally-not-cheating-no-seriously-you-trust-us-right New England Patriots in the 2004 AFC title game. Among a rookie crop that included Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Larry Fitzgerald, Sean Taylor, and Jared Allen, Ben was the runaway Rookie of the Year.

I could reminisce all day about Roethlisberger’s rookie season, but let’s sum it this way: after Ben led a 4th quarter comeback against Bill ParcellsDallas Cowboys in his fourth career start, Parcells (not remembered for his gushing praise) said he hadn’t seen a rookie QB this complete since Dan Marino. Wow.


Backup:

Mike Kruczek (1976)

I wonder if this photo was taken before or after Kruschek landed the role of Jack Tripper on Three’s Company.

6-0 starting record
NFL record for most wins to start a career (stood for 28 years)
Completed 60% of his passes as rookie

When Roethlisberger beat Cleveland for his seventh consecutive career-opening victory, the man he bumped to #2 was none other than Mike Kruczek, who went 6-0 in relief of Terry Bradshaw for the still-underrated 1976 Steelers.

The most impressive element of Kruczek’s tenure: he had to call his own plays. (Also, no pressure, but this was the two-time defending Super Bowl champs, who had stumbled out of the gate and sat at 1-4 when the rookie was pressed into duty. Have run righting the ship, kid.)

The knock against Kruczek is that that 6-0 run was fueled by an offense featuring two 1000 yard rushers (only the second time that had ever happened at the time) and the most terrifying defense ever assembled. In fact, when he hung up the cleats after a seven year career, Kruczek had never thrown a single touchdown pass. I’m not even sure how that’s possible.


Also considered:

Duck Hodges (2019)

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
It was fun while it lasted
Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

Won first three starts, plus a comeback win off the bench
UDFA who didn’t initially make final roster cuts
In first NFL action, took 14-2 Ravens to overtime
3-3 record as starter

Hodges was weirdly polarizing in 2019. Some loved his story, his fearlessness, and the energy that he brought, believing he may just be the future of the team. Others argued that he had no arm strength or accuracy, and just got lucky while playing with house money. The truth is somewhere between them.

Not gifted with the physical attributes you’d want in a starting quarterback, he was full of moxie, poise, and nerve, and earned the shot he got in Pittsburgh.


Neil O’Donnell (1991)

Steelers Neil O’Donnell
You’re currently experiencing Neil O’Donnell’s “Blue Steel”
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Eight starts as a rookie
11 touchdown passes vs 7 interceptions
78.8 rating
2-6 record as starter in relief of Bubby Brister

O’Donnell was a mixed bag as a rookie, starting half of Chuck Noll’s final season as a coach. The 1991 Steelers had a LOT of talent, but they were young and inconsistent. They went 5-3 under Bubby Brister, and 2-6 with O’Donnell; but O’Donnell was clearly the more talented passer, by just about any criteria. That tells me that Brister’s leadership and confidence brought the other players up, while O’Donnell’s careful efficiency didn’t — at least in 1991. Interesting.

In any case, O’Donnell’s inclusion here is probably more an indication of how rarely a Steelers rookie QB has gotten a chance (and delievered). You could probably see some flashes of Neil’s future success in 1991, but he’s not challenging Big Ben or Kruczek.


Kordell Stewart (1995)

NFL Rookie Shot
Between the shimmery jersey and the gold chain and the hair, this is the most mid-90s photo I’ve seen in years.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Rushed for 86 yards (1TD)
Caught 14 passes for 245 yards, 1TD
Completed 5 of 7 passes (60yds, 1TD)
Helped Steelers win AFC title as rookie
Great nickname

20 years ahead of the game with his “slash” role, Kordell was a one-of-a-kind talent for the Steelers as a rookie. It’s a shame Bill Cowher never really figured out how to use him properly; he flashed the kind of talent in his first few years that gets you MVP votes today. But, while he eventually started two AFC title games and did make a Pro Bowl as a passer, it never really came together for Kordell. (He also has the unfortunate distinction of dropping a pass on 2nd and 9 in the Super Bowl at the end of this year. That drop forced O’Donnell to throw deep on the ensuing 3rd-and-long, which you might remember as the first of Larry Brown’s two gift-wrap INTs. It’s the hidden plays, you know?)

Kordell probably doesn’t merit much consideration as a quarterback for his rookie season, but he was a sensation of sorts and I’m not sure where else to place him.


Joe Geri (1949)

Geri was so good, they had to paint him instead of taking a photo.

543 rushing yards (8th in NFL)
5 rushing TDs (8th in NFL)
43.3 yard punting average (5th in NFL)
Made his only field goal attempt, and 12-13 on PATs
Led Steelers in Completion %, Pass Yards, TDs, and Rating (60.2)
5 passing TDs vs 5 INTs (remember Bradshaw’s rookie numbers?)

I guess Joe Geri was a full 65 years ahead of the game with his own “slash” routine.

Geri only had a four year career (three with the Steelers), and I’m not even sure it’s reasonable to call him a quarterback, but it was a different game in 1949. And Geri was a hell of a player that year.

He’d be an All Pro in 1950, a Pro Bowler in 1951, a Chicago Cardinal in 1952, and a retiree in 1953. This was a weird sport back in the day.


Poll

All Rookie Quarterback

This poll is closed

  • 96%
    Ben Roethlisberger (2004)
    (721 votes)
  • 0%
    Mike Kruzcek (1976)
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Duck Hodges (2019)
    (6 votes)
  • 0%
    Neil O’Donnell (1991)
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Kordell Stewart (1995)
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    Joe Geri (1949)
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (4 votes)
746 votes total Vote Now

Okay. Have at it. I’ll see you in the next position...