The Big Ben Project: Part 1: An Historical Analysis of Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterbacks

By Andrew Malkasian

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a series that will chronicle the career of Ben Roethlisberger and will ultimately be packaged in a full-length text. Part I of The Big Ben Project begins to establish the context of the quarterback position for the Steelers historically.

A Momentary Accounting of the Present Moment

Super Bowl XLV was nationally broadcast on the FOX network with Terry Bradshaw slated to handout the Lombardi trophy at the game’s end.  Unfortunately, the game concluded almost as soon as it began.  The 21-0 deficit the Steelers faced early on was not an easy hill to climb, despite their herculean efforts to pull within one score of taking the lead.   Yet, the chance of inching ahead fell by the wayside with the infamous Rashard Mendenhall fumble.  Even still, that’s not the undeniable moment of that game. One of the most painful memories from Super Bowl XLV is the fact that Terry Bradshaw, the most decorated quarterback in the history of the franchise did not hand the 7th Lombardi Trophy to Ben Roethlisberger in a proverbial passing of the torch.  Rather, Bradshaw offered the trophy to the franchise quarterback of the trophy’s namesake. In a painful What-If moment, a victorious Big Ben can be envisioned climbing the steps of the impromptu stage at the center of the field when, as if preordained by the football gods, number twelve hands the sterling silver number seven, to number seven.  The ethereal ceremony would have assuredly been captured in photographs and video that would have been played and displayed across all sports media outlets taunting the 31 other NFL teams.  The image would mature into an iconic frozen moment in time and be placed along photos of the immaculate reception, the tackle, and Mr. Rooney’s unlit cigar, as defining depictions of Steelers History.

But Steelers Nation remain ever hopeful.

Too often, genuflecting upon the past with obsession has deleterious effects.  Then again, football is a sport driven forward by allegiances to the past, however absurd or illogical. For Steelers fans, that’s an easy realm to take comfort in.  In Pittsburgh, the past is defined by thrilling victories, six super bowls trophies, and legacy of top-notch defenses, and a consistency of excellence.  Just like the view of the past, the perspective of the present can also limited by emotion.  While the media is eager to dispel Ben Roethlisberger as too old or too infirm to lead the Black and Gold to a seventh ring, Steelers fans should not lament future seasons sans Big Ben.  Instead, there should be a general recalibration of the collective thought processes, a momentary accounting of the present moment, and a desire to live in the now.  

Two Extraordinary Legends

Considering Pittsburgh’s six Super Bowl championships and eight total appearances, it is quite extraordinary to think that two men, save for Super Bowl XXX, have taken every snap under center for the black and gold. While Neil O’Donnell is the one exception, he may also serve to prove the rule. Bradshaw and Roethlisberger have buoyed the legacy of the Steelers in ways that span generations and conceivable time.  From 1970 through to the present, the QB position has singularly provided this franchise nearly three plus decades of sustained success.  This is true for most franchises; a quarterback is most often the missing key to success, but not every team is afforded a franchise quarterback who’s transformational to the outlook of the entire team let alone two of those players. 

In the ensuing installments and chapters of this work, we’ll attempt to contextualize and explain the importance of the quarterback position within the Pittsburgh Steelers organization.  More specifically, despite a career playing alongside the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and a host of many others, we will make the argument that Roethlisberger’s tenure has provided the Steelers a modern relevancy and a growing importance on the landscape of NFL history that should not and cannot be easy cast aside. That argument is necessarily grounded in history, but also the understanding that history was not always on the Steelers side.

The Mystery of the Steelers What-If History

From 1933 to 1970, the quarterback position was as unstable as the coaching position has been stable since that same time.  In that 37-year period, the Steelers lost 100 more games than they had won, with a record totaling 162-262-18. Highlighting such inconsistency is the reality that within their first 15 years, the Steelers only had three players return following a season as quarterback. 

Max Fiske was the quarterback from 1936 through to ’39 but was more of a halfback who occasionally threw than a true quarterback. Then, from 1949 to 1951, Joe Geri took snaps under center until Jim Finks replaced him from 1952-1955.  Yet, even with this modicum of stability, both Geri and Finks played other positions.  Geri was a halfback and Finks was a defensive back.  While the two-way player might have been an expectation and a matter of little note in the late 40s and early 50s, it bears mentioning that the Steelers chose to keep Finks (and Tom Marchibroda) over the hometown kid and future Hall of Hamer, Johnny Unitas.  In late 1955 then coach, Walt Kiesling cut Unitas, allowing him to sign with the Baltimore Colts, where he would go on to win three NFL Championship and one Super Bowl.  Adding insult to injury, by the time Unitas had retired, the Steelers were still a season away from their first title.

If cutting Unitas was a mistake, the Steelers at least had the wherewithal to select Purdue’s Len Dawson in the 1957 draft with fifth overall selection.  Dawson was a college star and was not only efficient with his throws but also a pure passing quarterback who was named All Big Ten in both 1955 and 1956.  Their lack of clearer success and their basement dwelling habits may have clouded their view and made them a bit too urgent and unwilling to wait around to see if the young Dawson was indeed a potential franchise quarterback.  Therefore, looking to round the corner to successful football sooner rather than later, Pittsburgh traded Dawson in 1959 after having traded for Lions quarterback Bobby Layne two games into the ’58 season.  While Layne’s career in Detroit had included multiple championships, they must have seen the writing on the wall.  Layne never once made the playoffs in black and gold; meanwhile, as the story goes, by 1962, Layne’s last year with the Steelers, Dawson was the AFL MVP and had won the league championship.  

While Unitas and Dawson exemplify the What-Ifs of the 1950s and 60s,  Sid Luckman is perhaps the biggest What-If of all time.  In 1939 the Steelers held the number two overall selection in the NFL draft, but they traded the selection to the Bears for Edgar “Eggs” Manske who later re-signed with the Bears that same season, thus ensuring the Steelers literally gave up the second-round pick for absolutely nothing.  With the second selection overall, the Bears, astutely, drafted the best Quarterback in their franchise’s history, Sid Luckman.  Over the course of his career, Luckman would win 4 NFL championships and become the preeminent player in the NFL through the 1940s.  

Darkest Before Dawn

While three decades worth of generational talent slipped through the fingers of the Steelers, it may not have been the darkest period in their history. From 1962-1969 the Steelers had nine different starting quarterbacks under four different coaches.  During that stretch they never won the division nor made the playoffs.  In three of those seven seasons, they lost double-digit games, and in three others, they lost as many as eight games.  That span of seven years is so un-Steeler like that it is easy to see why a quarterback was selected in both 1969 and 1970 once Chuck Noll assumed command of the ship.

While Noll was the architect of the meanest defense in NFL history, he knew the need for finding a franchise quarterback was a tantamount to saving his job.  In a post-season moratorium in December of ’69, Noll stated quite clearly, “Our biggest fault offensively has been our failure to connect with the pass. Our passing game hasn’t come around the way I wanted it to.” Despite having drafted Butler, PA native and Notre Dame star QB Terry Hanratty in the second round of the 1969 draft, questions remained.  Questions Noll and the Steelers were determined to answer. Thus, in 1970, with the first selection overall, the Steelers didn’t really have a choice.

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