Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox was already having a rough day in Baltimore. Early in the third quarter, his team was trailing the Ravens, their primary AFC North rivals, 13-0. Maddox had played a key role in digging that hole, completing only 4 of 13 passes for 67 yards and taking one sack to that point in the game.
On third-and-nine from the Steelers 27, Maddox dropped back to pass. Blitzing Baltimore defensive back Gary Baxter came in clean and hit Maddox on his throwing arm, which was cocked and ready to throw. The hit caused a fumble that the Ravens Terrell Suggs returned to the Pittsburgh one-yard line. Maddox stayed down holding his right arm. He had torn ligaments in his elbow and would miss several weeks.
Baltimore punched the ball into the end zone on the next play, increasing their lead to 20-0. While the Ravens fans celebrated, Pittsburgh’s rookie quarterback prepared to see the first action of his NFL career. The team’s first-round draft choice out of Miami (Ohio) would have to carry the load for the next several games. The Steelers were already down a quarterback since veteran backup Charlie Batch had suffered a knee injury in training camp.
A New Franchise Quarterback
It was now up to Ben Rothlisberger, only two games into the 2004 season.
The rookie immediately brought some life into the Steelers attack, throwing touchdown passes to Antwaan Randel El and Hines Ward. With 4:28 remaining in the game, Pittsburgh got the ball back trailing 23-13, and the Ravens fans were growing uneasy. Baltimore’s Chris McAlister proceeded to intercept Roethlisberger, returning it 51 for a touchdown to end Pittsburgh’s rally.
The local media in Pittsburgh was not exactly brimming with confidence regarding the Steelers chances to compete with their new quarterback. For example, Ron Cook’s column in the next day’s Post-Gazette was titled, “No Maddox, no hope for Steelers.” Here is a brief excerpt from that column, which was no more encouraging than the headline:
“The Steelers will be lucky to finish 5-11 without Maddox. That’s no knock on Roethlisberger, a prodigious talent who probably will be a star one day. He’s just not ready to take over a team that has-or had-division championship aspirations.”
That take, as they say, did not age well.
Roethlisberger, of course, WAS ready to take over the team. He started the next 12 games and led the Steelers to 12 wins — that’s a pretty good beginning. He also led Pittsburgh to Super Bowl wins following the 2005 and 2008 seasons.
Pittsburgh had finally found the franchise quarterback they had been seeking since Terry Bradshaw retired following the 1983 season. Twenty-one years later, a star was born.
Struggles after Bradshaw
That doesn’t mean that Pittsburgh had terrible production from their quarterbacks during those twenty-one years. However, as the importance of the position grew well beyond what it had been during Bradshaw’s time, the Steelers did not keep up. They continued to field serviceable, even good quarterbacks, but the top teams in the league found stars.
It’s not like Pittsburgh did not have the chance to grab their own star. When it was their time to make their first-round selection in the 1983 draft, Pittsburgh native and Pitt star Dan Marino was still on the board. Head Coach Chuck Noll was set on drafting a defensive lineman who could put pressure on the passer. Owner Dan Rooney broached the idea of selecting Marino with Noll, but made the mistake of telling him the idea had come from a local sportswriter, the late John Clayton who later spent many years with ESPN.
Noll considered the source and dismissed the suggestion. Pittsburgh selected Gabe Rivera, a defensive tackle. Rivers was tragicallly paralyzed in an auto accident during the 1983 season and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Compounding the situation was Terry Bradshaw’s elbow injury that ended his career in 1983. Drafting his replacement had not yet been considered an urgent need since the organization believed he still had several productive years left.
The Marino mistake stuck with Rooney when a similar situation presented itself during the 2004 draft. General manager Kevin Colbert and Head Coach Bill Cowher wanted to select offensive lineman Shawn Andrews, but Rooney wanted Roethlisberger and wisely prevailed.
Cowher’s coaching philosophy was to always focus on building a stout defense and running game. Years later, he admitted he may not have appreciated the value of selecting a quarterback early in the draft.
“I don’t know if you can win a championship like that. We did that for many years and fell short without a quarterback.”
The Next Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Transition
There appeared to be harmony in the front office this year when Pittsburgh selected a quarterback, Pitt hero Kenny Pickett, in the first round of the draft. The fans had been clamoring since Big Ben’s final game for the team to not pass up the local star as they had in 1983.
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) July 27, 2022
Now Pickett is in a three-way competition for playing time. He is joined by free-agent signee Mitchell Trubisky, a former #2 overall draft pick in 2017, and Mason Rudolph, the only holdover.
Pickett faces all the pressure of being a fan-favorite and first-round pick. Trubisky’s career so far has fallen far short of what would be expected from a second-overall pick. He will be trying to rebuild it with his third team. Rudolph will try to shed the “serviceable backup” label. He would also love to become known for something more than having his helmet ripped off by Cleveland’s Myles Garrett, who then proceeded to hit Rudolph in the head with it.
I’m not seeing an obvious candidate among that trio for the Steelers next franchise quarterback. In a division with Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, and Deshaun Watson as opposing quarterbacks, that’s a problem.
The Pittsburgh organization knows how big of a role luck can play in finding a franchise quarterback.
After all, they won the rights to Bradshaw on a coin flip, then opened the door to Roethlisberger due to an injury.
We’ll be watching to see how long it takes Pittsburgh to get lucky again.