The Steelers went 6-10 in 2003. That set them up to draft Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. The team would win 15 games the next season, and one more in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. The 2004 Steelers won 10 more games with rookie Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
While the quarterback position is incredibly important, and Ben Roethlisberger provided a lot of value, it wasn’t Roethlisberger alone that turned the team’s fortunes around. One big change on offense was the return of Marvel Smith. With Marvel Smith out and Wayne Gandy retired, the Steelers played Alan Faneca at left tackle in 2003. When Smith returned Faneca moved back to guard and was his usual dominant self. Another key offensive change was adding veteran Deuce Staley to give the Steelers two good, even if older, running backs to split carries. That was a big deal as behind the improved offensive line Jerome Bettis and Staley would rush for a combined 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns on 442 carries (4 yards per carry).
But even bigger changes took place on the defensive side of the field. First, Dick LeBeau returned from his three year struggle with Cincinnati and a year in Buffalo. LeBeau’s return would usher in a new era for the Steelers’ defense, but he had a lot of help in the personnel department.
Clark Haggans and Larry Foote replacing Kendrell Bell and Jason Gildon can only be considered upgrades because of age and injuries, but the secondary saw a major upgrade, especially at the safety position. With no slight intended to Mike Logan and Brent Alexander, the duo of Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu were a significant upgrade.
When you look at the 2005 Steelers Super Bowl run, there were a lot of recent free agents and draft picks making a significant impact on that roster. In 2002, the Steelers added James Farrior, Antwaan Randle El, Chris Hope, Larry Foote and Brett Keisel. In 2003 Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor were drafted, 2004 saw the Steelers add Max Starks, Duce Staley and Willie Parker, and in 2005 Heath Miller.
The reason I’m talking about all this is because the Steelers had a solid, but not great roster in the early 2000s. They moved on from veteran QB Kordell Stewart after the 2002 season, and in the 2003 season traded up for Troy Polamalu. They could have drafted quarterbacks Kyle Boller or Rex Grossman instead, but they passed on a quarterback for a talented safety.
Instead, they waited a year, drafted a player which would make numerous key plays for the Steelers in their Super Bowl runs and got their quarterback in 2004 when a full year of Tommy Maddox led them to 6-10 and earned them the No. 11 overall pick.
With the Steelers transitioning away from Ben Roethlisberger there is a lot of pressure to go get their next great quarterback now. A lot of pressure to at least try, because you can’t find a great quarterback if you are drafting other positions. But while Rex Grossman looked like a guy who could have been someone’s franchise quarterback before the draft, I don’t think anyone would accuse the selection of Troy Polamalu of being the wrong choice.
Steelers fans don’t seem to have forgotten either.
While there is a lot of talk of trading for a veteran or drafting a first round quarterback going on, when I posted a poll asking what the Steelers should do at the quarterback spot this season, here are the results I got:
72% — Invest in the rest of the team, go cheap on quarterback in 2022.
16% — Go all in right now.
9% — I don’t care about the future, I just don’t want Rudolph/Haskins in 2022.
3% — It doesn’t matter to me, I’m a Bengals fan now.
I found it funny how 40 people voted for the “I’m a Bengals fan now” option, but I think it shows the appeal of a young star quarterback. A lot of Steelers fans haven’t even had quarterback drama on their favorite team, you could be a Steeler fan for the last 17 years and have known every single year who the team’s starter would be the next year. I get fans wanting that guy.
I get the other two options as well, very few people are excited for Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins to be the starting quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and losing always sucks, it would be nice to see a playoff run in 2022, but 843 votes, and 72% of participants are looking long term and prioritizing building up a team that will help whoever ends up the next quarterback of the Steelers thrive.