As Bill Cowher prepared for his 13th season as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he did so coming off one of the most disappointing campaigns in recent memory. When you consider the fact that the Steelers looked like legit Super Bowl contenders in both 2001 and 2002, the way things unfolded in 2003 could only be described as a disappointment.
The Steelers headed into the 2003 season thinking they had finally found the quarterback to put them over the top. Tommy Maddox, a journeyman, who re-started his NFL career after stints in both the XFL and Arena Football League, was thrust into the starting lineup early in the ’02 campaign and led a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the Steel City since the Blonde Bomber had been parked in the hanger.
The 2002 Steelers narrowly missed making it to the AFC title game for a second-straight year. Unfortunately, the 2003 campaign unraveled rather quickly, and once it did, there was no stop to it. When all was said and done, the Steelers finished 6-10 and looked about as far away from being contenders as they had in 1999 when they finished with the same mark.
In the Steelers Digest, no less than Bob Labriola himself reminded the Steelers faithful not to expect any “quick fixes.”
Such was the mindset as the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 2004.
Off Season: Suprises Moves in Coaching, Free Agency & the 2004 NFL Draft
In coaching moves during the 2004 offseason, Dick LeBeau, who had been the team’s defensive coordinator in the mid-’90s, returned in the same role following the firing of Tim Lewis.
In terms of free-agent news, there wasn’t a ton of anticipation for anything huge, at least early on. However, some veterans were given the ax, including cornerback Dewayne Washington and outside linebacker Jason Gildon, who departed as the team’s all-time sack leader with 77. Washington and Gildon were cap casualties.
Maybe those cuts were made to pave the way for the signing of veteran running back Duce Staley, who inked a five-year, $14 million deal on March 9, 2004, a development that aroused the passions of a fan base that needed something to be excited about.
Despite a history of injuries, Staley, 29, was brought in to not only replace the recently-departed Amos Zereoue on the running back depth chart but also continue the team’s apparent desire to supplant veteran Jerome Bettis as the bell cow back.
In rather bizarre free-agent news, Pittsburgh released veteran punter Josh Miller, who often had a frosty relationship with Cowher, and signed Chris Gardocki to a five-year, $6.5 million contract.
- As for the 2004 NFL Draft, the Steelers would have the 11th pick.
There was speculation that the team was interested in nabbing a quarterback, something the organization hadn’t used a first-round pick on since 1980 (Mark Malone).
NC State’s Philip Rivers and Miami of Ohio’s Ben Roethlisberger were the two most likely targets, with the former, who played his college ball at Bill Cowher’s alma mater, gaining a lot of traction as the draft approached. Ben Roethlisberger had been tied to Pittsburgh for many months heading into the draft; with Rivers going off the board three spots after Eli Manning was taken number one, it became a question as to whether or not Pittsburgh would pull the trigger if Roethlisberger was still there at 11. Would Roethlisberger slide all the way down to the Steelers, or would another team take him?
- No other team drafted a quarterback before Pittsburgh’s turn.
According to Dan Rooney, the late, great former team chairman, the Steelers were seriously considering taking Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews. Fortunately for everyone involved, Rooney, an influential figure if there ever was one, stepped in and persuaded Cowher and general manager Kevin Colbert to go with Roethlisberger.
- The rest, as they say, is history.
Nobody would know that at the time, of course, and as the 2004 campaign approached, Roethlisberger seemed destined to spend his rookie year as the third-string quarterback behind Tommy Maddox, who retained his starting job from the year before, and veteran backup Charlie Batch.
- Charlie Batch would get injured in training camp, offering the first sign that this plan might go awry.
Still, as the summer ended and focus shifted to the regular season, Steelers Digest edtior Bob Labriola assured readers that while Ben Roethlisberger was the team’s future, 2004 was all about Tommy Maddox….
An Opening Day Win, While Bettis “Just Scores Touchdowns”
The Steelers began their season with a Week-1 showdown with the Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field.
The Steelers won, 24-21, on a Jeff Reed field goal with seconds remaining. But perhaps what that game is known for more than anything was the bizarre box score numbers put up by Jerome Bettis, who was made the goal line and short-yardage back by Cowher, perhaps as a way to give his popular running back an important role in the offense.
Jerome Bettis wasn’t popular on this day, however, as he was booed repeatedly when he was inserted into the lineup in place of Staley in goal-line situations. Staley would go on to finish with 91 yards on 24 carries and zero touchdowns. As for Bettis, he gained just one yard on five carries but scored three touchdowns.
While Jerome Bettis would shoulder a critical load for the offense before the end of the 2004 season, his role of “Designated touchdown scorer” continued throughout September and October, and fans didn’t quite know what to make of it and it is one the seasons more unorthodox side stories.
Week 2 in Baltimore: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins
The Steelers Week-2 loss to the Ravens at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, a 30-13 drubbing, would have been just another road beatdown, if not for the fact that Roethlisberger made his professional debut late in the third quarter following an arm injury suffered by Maddox.
- Ben Roethlisberger would get his NFL introduction earlier than he or anyone else expected.
Roethlisberger completed 12 of 20 passes for two touchdowns–his first career touchdown pass was a three-yard strike to Antwaan Randle El — and two interceptions, one of which was returned 51 yards for a score by cornerback Chris McAlister.
Tommy Maddox’s injury would force him to miss several weeks. In the meantime, Roethlisberger made his first start the following game in a Week-3 road matchup against the Dolphins. When news broke that the rookie quarterback would make his first start, veteran guard Alan Faneca made headlines by sarcastically telling reporters that he was “excited” that the offense would be in the hands of a rookie passer. The game in Miami, originally scheduled for 1 p.m. EST on a Sunday afternoon, was ultimately delayed over seven hours thanks to Hurricane Jeanne. Roethlisberger completed 12 of 22 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception, as the Steelers won a defensive battle in the rain, 13-3.
Pittsburgh was 2-1 and now appeared content to ride with its rookie quarterback. Just how far could he take him?
Roethlisberger Leads Steelers to 15 Straight Wins
The Steelers won their next three games — including a last-second road victory over the Cowboys — and sat at 5-1. Were they the real deal? That question was quickly answered, thanks to back-to-back blowout victories at Heinz Field over the Patriots and Eagles, respectively.
New England, the defending Super Bowl champion, came to town on Halloween night riding a record 21-game winning streak; the Patriots left with no candy, following a 34-20 beatdown that wasn’t nearly that close, as Pittsburgh jumped out to a 21-3 first-quarter lead.
One week later, Philadelphia, like the Patriots, a team that strolled into Heinz Field with zero losses, suffered its first one, thanks to a 27-3 thrashing. Jerome Bettis would get the start in place of an injured Staley; The Bus showed that he still had something left in the tank, as he rushed for 149 yards on 33 carries.
The Steelers were 7-1 at the halfway mark and appeared to find just the right formula for success that included a game-managing rookie quarterback with a penchant for the occasional big play; a running game that returned to prominence after finishing 31st the season before; and a dominant defense, led by safety Troy Polamalu, who would go on to make his first of eight Pro Bowls for his career, and inside linebacker James Farrior, who would be a bona fide Defensive Player of the Year candidate by season’s end.
The Steelers continued to win week in and week out and eventually captured the AFC North crown and the number one seed in the conference. In Week 17, Pittsburgh headed to Buffalo with nothing to play for. The Bills needed to win in order to make the playoffs, while the Steelers sat several key starters, including Roethlisberger and Bettis.
Tommy Maddox got the start and completed 12 of 24 passes for 120 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Running back Willie Parker, a 2004 undrafted free agent from North Carolina, rushed for 102 yards on 19 carries, while outside linebacker James Harrison, a 2002 undrafted free agent from Kent State who finally found a permanent home after bouncing around the league and even NFL Europe, returned a fumble 18 yards for a score.
The Steelers won, 29-24, denying Buffalo a ticket to the postseason in the process.
Steelers Win Regular Season “Team of Destiny” Honors. Again.
The Steelers became the first AFC squad to finish 15-1. Roethlisberger passed for 2,621 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his rookie season and finished 13-0 as a starter. Jerome Bettis paced a ground game that ranked first with 2,464 yards. Despite only starting six games, Bettis was the team’s leading rusher with 941 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Duce Staley tallied a healthy 830 yards before succumbing to yet another injury bug.
Pundits had been pleading with the Steelers to permanently park The Bus since at least 2002, if not sooner. As it turns out, Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert where wise to keep their own counsel.
- The Steelers headed into the playoffs looking like a “Team of Destiny.”
But both Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation at large had seen the movie Team of Destiny many, many times before only to walk away disappointed. Would Ben Roethlisberger be the difference maker in 2004?
Steelers Ground Jets in Playoffs. Barely
The fifth-seeded Jets arrived at Heinz Field for a divisional-round matchup on January 15, 2005. The home team got off to a hot start and took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter. Unfortunately, the visitors scored 17 unanswered points with the help of a Santana Moss 75-yard punt return and an 86-yard pick-six by Reggie Tongue.
The Steelers trailed, 17-10, and looked all but dead following a fumble by Bettis deep in Jets territory early in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh would get another chance, thankfully, and tied the game on a four-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to receiver Hines Ward with 6:04 remaining.
- The Jets subsequently drove 68 yards and were in position to take the lead just before the two-minute warning.
However, kicker Doug Brien missed from 47 yards out, and the young Roethlisberger now had a chance to engineer his first game-winning postseason drive. But just one play after Brien’s miss, Roethlisberger was intercepted by cornerback David Barrett, who returned the pick 24 yards to the Pittsburgh 37 with 1:46 left in regulation. Moments later, Brien had yet another chance to send the Jets to the AFC title game but again missed — this time from 43 yards away–and the contest went into overtime.
The Jets won the overtime coin toss but were ultimately forced to punt. With Jerome Bettis out of the lineup with a cramp issue, the Steelers mostly hopped on Duce Staley’s back on a 13-play drive that culminated in a 33-yard game-winning field goal by Reed to send Pittsburgh to the penultimate round of the postseason.
Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily in his postseason debut, and the Steelers were lucky to escape with a win.
Steelers Suffer 2nd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots
To the surprise of no one, the Patriots would be the opponent for an AFC Championship showdown at Heinz Field. Would the Steelers dominate as they did months earlier on Halloween?
The quick answer: no.
Tom Brady was hot, Roethlisberger was not, and New England jumped out to a stunning 24-3 halftime lead, a score that was topped off by safety Rodney Harrison, who returned a Roethlisberger interception 87 yards for a touchdown just before the two-minute warning.
The Steelers rallied a bit in the second half, but it was too little, too late, as Pittsburgh fell, 41-27. It was the second time in four seasons that the Steelers lost at home to New England with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
- The next day, Bettis addressed his teammates in the locker room about his future.
Moments later, an emotional Hines Ward addressed the media regarding the possibility that his teammate and friend may have played his last game in Pittsburgh.
In the end, the 2004 campaign was yet another one in which a Bill Cowher-coached team came up short at home with the AFC title on the line. There was hope for the future, however, in the form of the big, athletic rookie quarterback nicknamed Big Ben.
Bill Cowher often said that there was a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. That was never more true for the Crafton native than the time his boss persuaded him to draft the quarterback that would ultimately help shape his coaching legacy.
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