The Browns should have listened to me. I said it 18 years ago and I’m still saying it.
What were the Browns thinking when they passed on drafting Ben Roethlisberger with their first pick in the 2004 NFL draft to take Kellen Winslow Jr.?
I never was an NFL scout. I don’t claim to have discovered Roethlisberger or anything grandiose like that.
I just remember what I saw the two times I watched him play in person during his final college season in 2003 at Miami (Ohio).
I’ve seen Joe Montana, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees play in college in person and the college version of Roethlisberger was as good as any of them. I saw Tom Brady play at Michigan but wasn’t aware of what I was watching, a lot like the NFL teams who picked 198 players before him in the 2000 draft.
Roethlisberger was somewhat of a local story in college because he was from 35 miles up I-75 in Findlay. And his dad, Ken, was one of the best athletes in the area when he played quarterback at Elida in the 1970s and got a scholarship from Georgia Tech.
I asked Miami if I could do an interview with him and he agreed to give me 10 or 15 minutes on the phone.
But first I wanted to see him play. I had never seen him play in high school or his first two years as Miami’s starting quarterback, so when Ohio State had an off week in early October 2003 I went to Oxford on a Saturday afternoon to watch Miami play Akron.
Roethlisberger completed 31 of 47 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns that day. Pretty impressive.
The second game I watched him play that season was the one that sold me on the idea that he was not just someone who was going to play in the NFL but was someone who was going to be a star and play on Sunday for a long time if he stayed healthy.
That game was the 2003 Mid-American Conference championship game against Bowling Green when he hit 26 of 35 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns and completed passes to nine receivers in a 49-27 win.
Looking back at Roethlisberger’s statistics in those games I discovered something I didn’t remember at all.
While Roethlisberger never became a Browns quarterback, the opposing quarterbacks he faced in those two games eventually did sign Browns contracts.
Akron’s quarterback in 2003 was Charlie Frye, who became the Browns third-round draft choice in 2005. Bowling Green’s quarterback in 2003 was Josh Harris, who spent some time with the Browns in 2004 and 2005 but never threw a pass in a regular season game.
That seems like such a Browns thing to do. They passed on the chance to get a Hall of Fame-level quarterback who grew up in Ohio but signed two other quarterbacks from Ohio who combined for 19 NFL starts – all of them by Frye.
The Browns’ quarterbacks in 2003 were Kelly Holcomb and Tim Couch who combined to throw more interceptions (18) than touchdown passes (17) that season so there was an obvious need at that position.
So why didn’t the Browns draft Roethlisberger with the sixth pick in the 2004 NFL draft, five spots ahead of where the Steelers eventually selected him?
An Akron Beacon Journal story last week might have provided the answer. It’s not a good answer, but it is an answer.
According to Terry Robiskie, who was the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2004, Roethlisberger was always No. 2 behind Winslow in the team’s draft rankings. He said they viewed him as “heavy footed” and someone who would be sacked often behind a weak Browns offensive line and probably be out of the NFL in five or six years.
“We didn’t want to be a Volkswagen, we didn’t want to be three yards and a cloud of dust. We wanted to be explosive,” Robiskie told the Beacon Journal.
That might be the only time Roethlisberger has ever been compared to a Volkswagen. But even if he was like one, he took the Steelers to two Super Bowl victories, three Super Bowls overall and 18 consecutive winning seasons in his career.
Meanwhile the Browns have had a lot of Yugos, Pintos, Cimarrons, Gremlins and Pacers playing quarterback for them since 2004.