“The day the Browns passed on Big Ben”
From Jeremy Fowler at ESPN.com today:
The most decorated quarterback jersey in Cleveland contains 24 names. The list could have stopped at six: Couch, Detmer, Wynn, Pederson, Holcomb, Roethlisberger.
The Browns should be drafting a playmaking safety or wide receiver for a playoff-caliber team instead of potentially the franchise’s 25th starting quarterback since 1999. This reality made one longtime NFL coach nearly spill his craft beer just thinking about it at the NFL combine. He was with the Browns 12 years ago. He knew what happened in that draft room in Berea, Ohio, with the Browns on the clock with the No. 6 pick in the 2004 draft.
“He was right there,” the NFL coach said. “Once Sean Taylor was off the board, everything got crazy. Ben was discussed.”
Before Roethlisberger began to terrorize the Browns twice a year for more than a decade, he was a lanky kid from Findlay, Ohio, who would have gladly played for Cleveland. Why is the Browns’ universe too cruel to let this happen? In talks with people involved with the process from all angles, ESPN examines the mechanics of how Roethlisberger never did put on the orange and brown, how the Steelers stumbled into a gem and what it says about the draft process.
“When Cleveland passed on me, technically my hometown team, that was it. I couldn’t wait to have a team and play the Browns at some point.” — Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is 19-2 in his career against Cleveland.
The rain-soaked workout –
Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger’s agent: “They were very secretive about it. They shot in and worked him out at Miami (Ohio). I don’t believe they were at his pro day, where everyone walked away saying that was one of the best throwing sessions they’d ever seen.”
Butch Davis, former Browns head coach and executive vice president, 2001-04: “Everybody recognized he was an enormous physical talent. There couldn’t have been a worse day during his workout. It became apparent he could put on a show. It was cold, it was blustery, kind of drizzly, like every Sunday in that division. He threw it extremely well. I like working out guys because you can see firsthand what they can really do.”
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers quarterback: “I had other similar workouts, but I remember they brought receivers. The weather wasn’t ideal but I liked showing teams I could perform well in bad weather. I felt good about how I did for them, but I guess it didn’t matter.”
Frisman Jackson, former Browns receiver, 2002-05: “Coach Davis and the rest of the staff, the GM and some other people said we want you to fly with us to work out this kid. I had no idea who it was. I realized we were in Ohio, and they said, we’re going to work out Ben Roethlisberger. We got our cleats on and ran routes for him for about 30 to 45 minutes. We ran the whole route tree. Everything he was throwing was accurate, hitting you in stride. He put on a show. I told him, ‘Your arm is strong as hell.’ He threw a heavy ball.”
The Browns were impressed enough that former Davis lieutenant Pete Garcia told Fox Sports Ohio in 2014 the team was “very, very close” to selecting Roethlisberger. But the quarterback was fighting the small-school stigma coming out of Miami (Ohio), which still fuels him today. The stigma was definitely a factor for Cleveland too. After three seasons and sporadic results under Davis, the Browns wanted a sure bet.
Shane Montgomery, former Miami (Ohio) offensive coordinator: “Once people got around him and saw him in person, his stock rose. He just kind of won everybody over [at his pro day]. He responded to pressure really well, and he could throw the ball from any angle. I know [then Packers coach Mike Sherman] loved him. He said he really wanted him but had no chance. He said that in our weight room.”
Jackson: “He’d say, ‘Run this route, get to this step, and I’m going to throw the football to you.’ Everything was smooth. [Browns officials] were raving about him, saying how strong his arm was, how mobile he was in the pocket. I pretty much thought we were going to get him.”
Mel Kiper, ESPN draft analyst: “I had Ben as my No. 5 overall player, Kellen Winslow No. 7 (rummages through notes from that year, starts reading reports). ‘Browns could bring a young signal-caller into the fold. … No denying his skills as a quarterback. There’s an awful lot to be excited about. Teams will be impressed by his accuracy and mobility.’ So, all three quarterbacks basically had the same grade. The small-school thing absolutely played against Ben. Some people were uneasy about those four interceptions against Iowa.”
Matt Williamson, Browns scout, 2004: “That was before I arrived … but I went back and read Ben’s reports, all the reports each scout wrote on Ben, and they really liked him. Not positive on this, but I’m pretty sure the Browns had him ranked over Eli [Manning] and [Philip] Rivers.”
Davis: “I guess we probably had them Philip 1, Ben 2, Eli 3 if I had to guess. That’s totally off the top of my memory. All three had great qualities. I just know there were so many good feelings about Philip. We put Philip on the dry board and spent a good 3-4 hours absolutely dissecting everything, reading coverages and audibles and changing protections. It’s easy to see why he had a great career.”
The Browns’ environment has swallowed up plenty of well-intentioned players. Largely, though, people close to the former Miami (Ohio) quarterback believe he was a can’t-miss prospect for any team, a notion he has since validated.
Phil Savage, Baltimore Ravens director of player personnel, 2002-04 (and Cleveland’s GM from 2005-08): “We had Roethlisberger rated ahead of those two [Manning and Rivers]. It might have been a mixed bag [leaguewide]. Some people had a problem to some extent getting past Philip’s throwing motion. And with Ben, for some evaluators, you’re a lot more comfortable when these players had gone through quality competition.”
Carmen Policy, Browns CEO/president, 2000-04: “The one thing that seemed to always be on the forefront of all of their [scouts’] comments was, ‘Yeah, he’s a big guy, a strong guy, but will he get too big, and he comes from such a small system and such a small program, it’s questionable whether or not he’ll be able to compete in the NFL. I do recall those specific generalizations.”
Roethlisberger: “I just wanted a team to believe in me. I didn’t expect to go first and I knew there could be a number of outcomes after that.”
Montgomery: “[The Browns] could have used him. Maybe they wouldn’t be on the 20th-something quarterback since then.”
Roethlisberger: “In my earlier years, I thought about it every time I played them. It served me well. Now, I just want to beat them twice a year because my team needs it.”
You can read the rest of Mr. Fowler’s “look back” here.