"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 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.
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."
The Jeff Garcia/Philip Rivers effect
The story of Ben and the Browns runs deeper than a team simply preferring another player. It's a case study for the complexities of drafting a quarterback in the top 10, with factors that seem silly years later but weren't in the moment. The team signed Jeff Garcia that offseason as a buffer from the exhaustive Tim Couch experiment. The franchise faced transition at the top as then-CEO Carmen Policy had announced he would step down in May 2004. The Browns needed playmakers, and not just at quarterback.
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."
Davis: "Cleveland had made an enormous investment in Tim Couch years earlier. With the salary cap and the financials at the time, they wanted it to work with Tim Couch. It eventually became apparent we would need to make a change. We had been competitive, so we thought, who could be a potential stopgap for a year or two, an older, experienced veteran guy and a great mentor? That's when we signed Jeff Garcia [in March 2004]."
Williamson: "Butch was the head coach and was infatuated with both [Kellen] Winslow [Jr.] and [Sean] Taylor from the U. Winslow was unbelievably good, too, before his injuries. That draft class was loaded."
Tollner: "We went through the process that Cleveland could be a team drafting a quarterback. Oakland and Arizona were in a similar boat, but they had made pretty clear they didn't want to take a quarterback that high. The Browns never really showed their cards. You're at 6 and it seems to make so much sense. I believe there are certain can't-miss guys, and Ben was one of those guys who would have succeeded anywhere."
Policy: "If we had the opportunity, as I understand that, we would have definitely taken Philip Rivers over Ben Roethlisberger, based on the evaluations of the personnel department. I think that they felt ultimately Rivers wouldn't be there. If he did wind up there, I think we would have taken him. If I'm not mistaken, that was a draft-day effort [to trade up for Rivers]. I did hear that after the fact."
Former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi wrote in his book "The GM" that the Browns offered a first- and second-round pick for New York's No. 4 pick. Accorsi was unavailable for comment. The way Policy remembers it, all the quarterback reports from team personnel emphasized Rivers, and the sentiment was Roethlisberger would be great value in the late-first or early-second round. That's surprising to hear on the surface, but the truth is scouting evaluations can vary wildly, a reality that deepens the draft intrigue every year.
So, there was Pittsburgh ...
Kevin Colbert, Steelers general manager: "We really didn't know [about Cleveland]. We just knew we had to wait until 11."
Kiper: "Quarterback wasn't a need area for [the Browns]. It just wasn't. They had six other needs before then. The demand wasn't there. They could have at that point said they weren't going after Jeff Garcia."
Policy: "We needed so much."
Jackson: "In the five years I was there, we had five or six guys starting at quarterback. If we had a guy everybody felt good about and be the guy for the next 10 years, it probably would have changed things in Cleveland. We had a really good defense."
Davis: "You want that first-round pick who will be a significant contributor. It can't just be a need pick. You want to get the best player. You just knew [Winslow] was a really good player and we really needed to try to get guys on offense that could help. We were struggling to score points. We needed offensive help quickly. We didn't have any tight ends on the team that would be a real threat. If [Winslow] hadn't gotten hurt, he was the kind of guy like Jimmy Graham, you can place him in different formations and personnel groupings. That would be a three-to-five-time Pro Bowl player."
Winslow, the Browns' first pick that year, wasn't exactly a bust. He finished his career with 469 catches and 5,236 yards in 10 seasons, including five injury-plagued years with Cleveland. Quarterback wasn't the proverbial '"need" that year. Davis was on the Dallas Cowboys staff in the early '90s, and Winslow was supposed to be his Jay Novacek.
Montgomery: "I knew his name was dancing around the Browns, and being an Ohio guy, Ben wouldn't have minded [being drafted by the Browns] at all. He lived closer to the Bengals, though. And [former Miami coach Terry Hoeppner] was convinced the Giants would take him. I think Ben thought that, too. That's where the buzz was, with the Giants."
Policy: "Some of our coaches especially liked [Roethlisberger] a lot. They thought he was tough, he's what Cleveland needed. He would fit the profile of the AFC North. The scouts and Butch Davis' chief personnel guy [Pete Garcia] really tried steering everybody away from Ben, almost putting him in the position where he's not our guy. He didn't have a shot. They made up their minds, he was coming from a less-than-sophisticated program, a smaller school, a program not nearly as competitive as a top-10 pick would be coming from, and that was their position, and they prevailed. Butch had final say. We are picking too high for him. That was the sentiment."
Draft day (and the aftermath)
An oversized figure sat inside Madison Square Garden wearing a three-button pinstripe suit, trying to play it cool with his group. His whole table was confused by the Eli Manning-Philip Rivers swap of top-four picks, considering the interest the Giants had shown. Everyone knew Buffalo at 12 was Roethlisberger's ceiling. But this kid grew up two hours from Cleveland. He played college ball four hours from Cleveland. The state's biggest university, Ohio State, viewed him mostly as a tight end. As if that weren't enough fuel, he watched the Manning name dominate the draft. Paul Tagliabue announced the pick for Cleveland: Kellen Winslow, tight end, University of Miami. Roethlisberger had his own private announcement. He told his agent the team would regret the decision.
Roethlisberger: "Two quarterbacks had already been picked, so as a competitor, I felt underestimated. 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. Funny how it works out I'd go to Pittsburgh and play them twice a year."
Jackson: "I remember being at a draft party at Cleveland Browns Stadium, and when we drafted Kellen, there was shock. I remember the fans moaning a little bit with the expectations we were getting a quarterback. That was the expectation -- Jeff would be here 1-2 years, groom a new guy for the future, and the new guy would take the Browns to the Super Bowl."
Tollner: "We believe either Ernie [Accorsi] or Tom Coughlin had told Terry they would take Ben at [No.] 4 if they couldn't get the trade done. So, when they announced there had been a trade, we prepared Ben [and told him] that things could take a while. Then, quietly, once he passed Cleveland, we were sort of in disbelief. If they did their due diligence, they had this kid from Northwest Ohio, they played in the state of Ohio in college, his pro day was lights out, he was a prototypical guy with unusual athleticism."
Davis: "I can't remember [what happened in the draft room], but it was never chaotic or anything. We spent an awful lot of time planning that. There was a concert of people who made their opinions known as to, 'this is what we want to try to do.' ... As much as we fell in love with different quarterbacks, financially, I don't know if we could have pulled it off. We thought let's keep trying to work with [Couch] and Jeff."
Policy: "[The sentiment was] if [Roethlisberger] goes to the second round or the bottom of the first, fine."
Mike Mularkey, former Buffalo Bills head coach: "We were going to take him at 12. Thanks for reminding me."
Colbert: "We couldn't trade up because we knew the cost to trade up was very expensive. ... Tommy Maddox was coming off a pretty good season, and we were looking to shore up our offensive line. If we had the opportunity to add a young quarterback, because Tommy was a little bit older, we were going to do that."
You know the story by now: The Steelers drafted Roethlisberger at No. 11 and are still reaping the benefits. Two Super Bowls later, Roethlisberger, 34, is widely considered a top-three-to-five quarterback in today's NFL. Roethlisberger is 19-2 against the Browns, but that's not the worst of it. Roethlisberger has 5,323 career passing yards against Cleveland. Of the Browns' 20 quarterbacks since that draft, Derek Anderson is the only one to surpass that yardage total in a Browns jersey.
Kiper: "Jeff Garcia was the reason they didn't draft Ben Roethlisberger. History could have been rewritten."
Roethlisberger: "My hometown has always been predominantly Browns fans. When the Steelers picked me, some converted and some refused. As a young guy, it bothered me some. I was very motivated by people who supported me and people who didn't."
Davis: "In retrospect, obviously it would have been a wise decision on our part to take a Rivers or a Roethlisberger. You keep building with pieces, and you feel hopefully, eventually, you'll get the right quarterback. ... I think everybody's come to the realization that you can't coach around the quarterback. They've all got one."
Colbert: "Coach [Bill] Cowher unselfishly made the statement that, for the sake of the organization, if a quarterback is available, we should give it serious thought. Was that the most immediate need? No, because we didn't plan on Ben playing his rookie year. ... Tommy [Maddox] gets hurt in the first game, the rest was history."
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."
Sometimes, scouting quarterbacks can be very simple ...
Savage: "Legendary scout Ernie Plank ... introduced the 49ers to [Joe] Montana, and his territory included some AFC North spots. [Plank] scouted Miami (Ohio) one day and saw a freshman and said, 'Boy, we're going to have a quarterback at Miami.' That was at least two years in advance before Roethlisberger was a known NFL prospect. Nobody could even pronounce his name at that point."