Editor’s Note: This is the first chapter of a full-length text that will chronicle the career of Ben Roethlisberger and will ultimately be published as a whole once complete. Chapter I of The Big Ben Project examines the quarterback position of the Pittsburgh Steelers pre-Ben Roethlisberger.
By Andrew Malkasian and Jeremy Hritz
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.
The Original TB12
The Ben Roethlisberger era is defined by a sustained success that is hard to come by in the NFL. From 1983-2004 the Steelers sought a franchise quarterback who could help them emerge out of the mire of mundanity. As this twenty-year period exemplifies, there are often many more misses than hits, yet Roethlisberger’s success undergirds the entire Steelers franchise, too. Imagine if the Steelers had missed in 2004? Alternative history is often a fool’s errand, but just for a moment imagine JP Losman trotting onto the field to relieve an injured Tommy Maddox in that early part of 2004. Would he have pushed the Steelers to a 15-1 season? Could he have authored a storybook ending for The Bus the very next season? Are there three Super Bowl appearances and two rings? This narrative is forever part of the collective ether, perpetually unknown. More importantly, the Steelers did not miss, and Roethlisberger’s level of play has defined this era in ways that are incredibly important when placed in the right context.
To be more specific, the success of the last two decades has solidified the Steelers at the top tier of NFL franchises for all time. Without the success of the Big Ben era, there is a chance that the Steelers four Super Bowls in the 1970s is considered an anomaly rather than a general mode of operation, more similar to the Dolphins’ perfect season than the inauguration of a historically great franchise. This is not to diminish the Steel Curtain in any way, but rather to explain that had the mediocrity of the 80s lingered on into the first two decades of the 21st century, there is no telling how the Steelers franchise would appear to football fans writ large. The Steelers of the 1970s would still stack up remarkably well in terms of history, but could the franchise claim themselves as a cornerstone franchise with limited to no success in the subsequent 5 decades? For instance, think of the Philadelphia Flyers…. exactly, you don’t. The Flyers are not the Penguins, or the Blackhawks, or the Lightning. They are a franchise holding onto the 1970s with dear life because they have had no tangible success in over 45 years.
Three Super Bowl appearances in the last 16 seasons have redefined success for the Steelers. Champions are not just a point of retrospective pride, they are an annual expectation. Thanks in large part to Ben Roethlisberger.
Yet, Ben had to work to make that a reality. In some ways, it is hard to imagine what he walked into in 2004. The unspoken pressure to emerge as the next Terry Bradshaw had to have been unnerving, but looking back, there is a good reason for that nervousness. The original TB12 is often not given his due. Whether it is his peculiar role in movies, the caricature of himself that he plays on FOX every Sunday, or the lingering criticism from his playing days, Bradshaw has often been misunderstood, underestimated, and undervalued. But Bradshaw’s role in the dynastic run of the 1970s cannot be understated. For several agonizing years after Bradshaw retired, the Steelers sought a franchise quarterback. If Roethlisberger has brought the Steelers’ success into a modern perspective, of course, Bradshaw set the initial tone.
While the 1970 first overall selection was determined by a coin flip, the player who would become that top selection was all but a forgone conclusion. While sitting on the bench at Louisiana Tech behind Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, Bradshaw watched his Bulldogs finish his first two seasons with a combined 4-16 record. By his Junior and Senior seasons in 1968 and 1969 respectively, he had taken the reigns and proven himself to be the top player in the nation. He was a pure passer, a tough player, and someone who could turn a franchise around. At least, that was the hope.
In his first season with the Steelers, Bradshaw competed with Terry Hanratty for playing time. In a total of 8 appearances, Bradshaw threw for a career-high 25 interceptions. Needless to say, the blond bomber had room to grow. His next three successive years were not nearly as tumultuous nor were they as productive as his talent foretold. While 1972 saw the Immaculate Reception and flashes of promise, Bradshaw lost his starting job during the 1974 season only to return in the Steelers week 7 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Three weeks later in a loss to the Bengals, Bradshaw was benched in favor of Hanratty, whose play left much to be desired and was himself benched for Bradshaw. It was frustratingly a quarterback’s version of musical chairs. From a modern perspective, there is a wonder how this did not plant serious doubts in Bradshaw’s mind and upend his psyche. But for whatever personal feeling he may have had about the situation, Bradshaw orchestrated an AFC Central title and the team’s first Super Bowl appearance and victory. The tenacity to persevere is an undercurrent to Bradshaw’s career, though that concept may not be discussed enough.
After Super Bowl IX, Bradshaw returned as the full-time starter in 1975, playing all 14 games of the regular season and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. The season was capped, of course, by their first pair of back-to-back titles, with a four-point win over the Dallas Cowboys. Their victory ushered in a period of dominance that defined an era and would place the Steelers atop the NFL food chain. Yet, 1976 was not to be a three-peat as the phrase goes. In a week 5 game against Cleveland, Joe Jones grasped Bradshaw around the waist, spun him around, then suplexed him upside down, driving his head directly into the Cleveland Municipal turf. As Bradshaw recalls, he was taken off the field and laid on a stadium door that had taken off the hinges. He remained strapped to the board for the remainder of the game (one in which they lost) in the hallway outside the locker room. He remained on the impromptu board for the plane trip only to be brought to a hospital in Pittsburgh. The spinal contusion that he suffered could have ended his season and the chances of a third title, but he returned after only a four-week absence from the lineup. Despite one of the best statistical defenses of all time, the team came up short in the AFC title game against the hated Raiders. A three-peat was not to be. If 1976 was a disappointment, 1977 was a catastrophe and worthy of forgetting. Yet, if it wasn’t for 1978 and 1979, perhaps 1977 would be a haunting memory more so than it is now.
In 1978, the Pittsburgh Steelers overwhelmed the league with a dominating 14-2 record. Their two losses were by a combined 10 points. One of those losses came at the hands of the Oilers at home which they kindly repaid by beating them in Week 14 and in the AFC championship game. In retrospect, 1978 was a perfect storm. A dominating defense, combined with prodigious offensive production for Bradshaw created a nearly unbeatable team that culminated in a third Lombardi trophy. The first team to win three Super Bowl titles. By 1979, the Steelers franchise was clearly the team of the decade. It was only right they had one more title left in them.
The only loss from the 1978 season they were unable to rectify was a 3-point loss against the Los Angeles Rams in the LA coliseum. Thankfully, the very next season in Super Bowl XIV gave the satisfaction of revenge. While the team was not nearly as dominant as the ’78 team, the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers capped a decade of dominance with a championship. Bradshaw ended the 70s with back-to-back championships, a league MVP, and two Pro Bowl appearances. Yes, the 70s teams were defined by the defense, but Bradshaw’s performances helped define the team’s success as a whole.
Final Curtain Call
If the 1970s exemplified the height of Steelers’ success, the 1980s clarified the historic nature of that dynasty. While the team largely remained the same from the previous year, they began to show their age. In 1980 and 1981 they missed the playoffs, with mediocre play and deteriorating performances by future Hall of Fame players. While 1982 showed signs of renewed progress with a playoff berth, this was perhaps just a last gasp of an incredibly proud and dominating franchise. By 1983, Bradshaw had missed most of the season with a serious elbow injury and only appeared in one game. However, in the late season game, he produced magic once more.
In what was a balmy Sunday afternoon in Queens, New York, Terry Bradshaw walked onto the field of Shea Stadium with a spark and determination to go out on his terms. What Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Press called at the time, a “Triumph of Head and Heart,” Bradshaw took to the field like his younger self and threw two touchdowns and secured a wildcard berth before walking off the field in the second quarter for the last time. He admitted after the game he just could not throw the ball anymore – clearly, a lingering issue from the injury he sustained in the ’82 season. But, before he walked off into the sunset of history, he pushed the Steelers over the hump one last time. Calvin Sweeny, the last Steelers player to ever catch a pass from number 12 claimed very succinctly, “We were lacking a leader. We need someone to step out front. That’s Brad. He did it today.”
Bradshaw did it for 14 seasons. Bradshaw did it for four Super Bowl Titles. Bradshaw took a hapless franchise, one that had missed regularly on top-tier QB talent and launched them into the upper echelon of the NFL. While his legacy is often mixed, his reputation often undermined by jokes, humor, and self-deprecation, Bradshaw defined the toughness, grit, and talent that Steelers fans expect. His legacy remains enormous, and his shoes were incredibly hard to fill.
The 21 years between Ben and Bradshaw provide a glimpse of life without a franchise quarterback. Those years should linger in the back of the minds of anyone quick to dismiss Bradshaw’s legacy or move on from Big Ben. Roethlisberger and Bradshaw do not come along all that often, and quite frankly, the Steelers’ history before Bradshaw’s arrival proves that.
Post-1980s/Terry Bradshaw Steelers is characterized by instability, volatility, and false senses of security at the quarterback position, as a bounty of names earned starts with mixed results. Following the dynastic output of Bradshaw and the steadiness he provided, the Steelers entered a period of non-franchise QB play, though throughout that time frame, the search and hope for the next Bradshaw was always a goal.
From 1984-2003, the Steelers had 12 players claim the title of starting quarterback. Mathematically over those 19 years, the Steelers statistically had a new starting signal caller every 1.5 years, each with varying levels of success and narratives to accompany their stint with the team. For comparative purposes, Bradshaw was with the team for 14 years, while Big Ben is entering his 18th year with the Steelers. When looking at the 84-03 span through this context, the struggles and frustrations of the organization are self-evident, and while many of those teams in that era were playoff caliber, they were never able to get over the proverbial hump until Roethlisberger arrived from on high.
So who were the starting quarterbacks during that era, and what were their contributions? Some were memorable, many were forgettable, and they color the tapestry of lead men of the 84-03’ers.
The Cast of Characters
Mark Malone (1980 – 1987)
In addition to a majestic mustache, Mark Malone was drafted with hope and optimism at number 28 overall in the first round of the 1980 draft, with the thinking he would be the successor to Bradshaw. His best record as a starter came in 1984, leading the team to the postseason and finishing with a 6-3 record as a starter. Malone led the team to a playoff victory against the Denver Broncos, and then losing in the AFC Championship against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins, 45-28. That would be the last playoff experience for Malone in Pittsburgh, as his career continued with abysmal completion percentages (50.9) and an equally as bad touchdown to interception ratio. He was traded by the Steelers to the Chargers before playing his final season with the New York Jets.
Uniquely, Malone also moonlighted as a receiver, and until Mike Wallace came along, he held the record for the longest TD reception of 90 yards.
David Woodley (1984 – 1986)
David Woodley was with the Steelers from 1984 through 1986 and started 13 games, going 7-6 in those contests. The team traded for Woodley to compete against Malone, and traded starts with the first-round draft pick. In 1986, Woodley would lose the starting job to Malone which prompted him to retire from the Steelers before being traded again, this time to the Green Bay Packers in 1987. In his tenure with the Steelers, he completed 179/339 passes for 2630 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, with a QB rating of 66.4.
Scott Campbell (1984 – 1986)
Campbell was a 7th round draft choice, pick 191, of the Steelers in the 1984 NFL Draft, out of Purdue. From Hershey, Pennsylvania, Campbell played with Pittsburgh from 1984-1986, starting 2 games, losing both, and finishing with a stat line of 51/115, 721 yards, 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. After his time with the Steelers, he went on to play with the Atlanta Falcons.
Bubby Brister (1986 – 1992)
Many people probably recall Bubby Brister’s humorous personality and propensity of speaking without a filter. Drafted in the 3rd round by the Steelers out of Northeast Louisiana (he grew up in Louisiana as well), many people were quick to make a connection between Brister and the great Bradshaw. Unfortunately, the similarities ended with hometown and southern drawl, as Brister could not replicate the success that the original TB12 produced.
Brister played with the Steelers from 1986 through 1992, achieving a record of 28 wins and 29 losses, 1207/2212 for 10,104 yards, 51 touchdowns to 57 interceptions. He led the Steelers to a post-season win against the Houston Oilers in a 1989 AFC Wildcard Game, but then dropped the following week’s contest against John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Brister would go on to play for the Eagles, Jets, Broncos, Vikings, and Chiefs.
Steve Bono (1987 – 1988)
Steve Bono, a Norristown, Pennsylvania native, signed with the Steelers for the 1987 season. His primary claim to notoriety is that he served as the backup quarterback to both Joe Montana and Steve Young in San Francisco, and in 1991, in the absence of both players due to injury, he led the team to a 5-1 record, something attributable to the talent of the 49ers, and not the skill of Bono.
Bono spent two years with the Steelers, achieving a 2-1 record as a starter, with a stat line of 44/109 for 548 yards, 6 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. When the 1988 season concluded, the Steelers let Bono leave for free agency, and it marked the end of his brief stint with the team.
Todd Blackledge (1988 – 1989)
Todd Blackledge, a Penn State alum, was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs 7th overall in the famed 1983 NFL Draft. He was picked after John Elway, but before Dan Marino. Despite notching Marino in draft order, his career in no way rivaled the Miami Dolphins legend. Blackledge spent 5 years with the Chiefs before moving on to Pittsburgh, afterwards which he retired at 28 years old.
In Pittsburgh, Blackledge went 2-3 as a starter, throwing for 776 yards, 3 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, pedestrian to say the least. He primarily backed up Bubby Brister and absorbed the starting role as a result of injury.
Neil O’Donnell (1990 – 1995)
Ahhhh, the great Neil O’Donnell.
Something tells me that while some of the quarterbacks you have read about from the 80s and 90s you were unaware of, you do, sadly and painfully, remember the name Neil O’Donnell, and his Super Bowl-dream killing two interceptions in the Super Bowl 30 against the Dallas Cowboys. Most egregious about the picks is that they both appeared to be thrown directly to the defender, Larry Brown, which set up short fields and subsequent touchdowns, imploding the Steelers opportunity for their 5th ring, as they dropped the contest 27-17. Still to this day, there are questions as to what could have happened in the event O’Donnell had not thrown those interceptions.
It was not surprising that following that 1995 season, the Steelers did not renew his contract, and O’Donnell went on to sign with the atrocious New York Jets for 5 years, $25 million dollars, which was upper-market money for a QB at that time. How did O’Donnell respond? With an 0-6 start, and an extension of the Jets misery as being one of the league’s absolute worst teams.
Overall, O’Donnell’s stats with the Steelers are respectable, with a 39-22 overall record, including a 3-4 record in the postseason, highlighted (or low-lighted) by the Super Bowl appearance. He threw for 12,867 yards, 68 touchdowns, and 39 interceptions. You have to wonder if O’Donnell would not have thrown those interceptions and had the Steelers won that game, would his contract have been extended, and would there have been stability at the quarterback position? It’s a worthy discussion, even though it’s a hypothetical, and one that is playing out in some other alternative reality.
Mike Tomczak (1993 – 1999)
Mike Tomczak was an undrafted rookie free agent who began his career with the Chicago Bears, followed by a stint with the Green Bay Packers before signing on with the Steelers. An Ohio State alum, Tomczak was with the Steelers for 7 seasons, and led the team to the postseason in 1996 when the team posted a 10-6 record which was largely the result of the rushing performance of Jerome Bettis.
Tomzcak’s emergence in Pittsburgh coincided with Kordell Stewart’s arrival, and he served more as a reliever, insurance QB in the event of injury or poor play by Stewart. When his career with the Steelers wrapped up, he produced a 15-12 record as a starter, with 56.1% completion percentage, 6649 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions. His starting record in the postseason was 1-1, and his 4 interceptions in those contests don’t leave much up to the imagination as to why those Steelers teams faltered.
Jim Miller (1994 – 1996)
Jim Miller, currently a host for Sirius XM’s NFL Radio, was a 6th round draft pick of the Steelers in 1994, being selected 178th overall, and his time with the team was marred with injuries. In only 2 seasons with the team, he started 1 game, which was a loss, and compiled a stat line of 45/81, 520, 2 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. From there, Miller moved on to the Bears where he enjoyed much more success, including enjoying an 11-2 record as a starter in 2001.
Kordell Stewart (1995 – 2002)
Kordell Stewart may have been the closest the Steelers ever got to reclaiming the concept of a franchise quarterback, though statistically, his numbers do not support such a claim. But never was there a more polarizing player on the team, as many fans held him in high regard and wanted him to succeed, while another part of the fanbase wanted nothing more than for him to fail and for the Stewart experiment to be over. Regardless of where someone’s fandom rests in perspective to Stewart, he innovated for the Steelers offense, earning the nickname “Slash,” and showcased his abilities to not only throw, but also catch the football, run, and even punt.
The organization attempted to fit the unorthodox style and game of Stewart into a traditional quarterback framework without adapting the system to his unique talents; unfortunately, as a result, he never could overcome his limitations to fit the conventional mold. Had he been given the flexibility to play his style of quarterback for the Steelers, there is curiosity if he could have been more effective than he was.
Despite his challenges and uncertainty of how to best utilize his talents, Stewart did have a successful career with the Steelers and did lead some great teams within inches of a Super Bowl.
When the dust settled on his career in Pittsburgh, Stewart was 1190/2107, 13,328 yards, 70 touchdowns, and 72 interceptions, with a career passer rating of 72.3. He also rushed for 2561 yards, with 5.2 yards per carry, adding an element of escapability that made him difficult to defend. His record in the playoff speaks to why he could never fully entrench himself as the full time starter with the full support of the fanbase and the organization, going 2-2 and throwing 8 interceptions in comparison to his 2 touchdowns.
Were Stewart’s shortcomings due to the way he was developed and managed by the Steelers coaching staff? Would there have been a different outcome if an offense was adapted to his style of play? These questions will never be answered, but one thing is for certain: Stewart brought the excitement (and disappointment) during his tenure with the Steelers.
Kent Graham (2000)
Kent Graham only spent one year with the team in 2000, when he was signed for $5.1 million dollars to serve as Kordell Stewart’s backup. Surprisingly, Graham was given an opportunity as a starter in 2000, but it was resulted is a poor 0-3 showing. After being injured, Graham was never cemented as the exclusive starter, and split time with Stewart. In the end, Graham finished the season with a 2-3 record as a starter, a dreadful 44.7% completion percentage, 878 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Following his year with the Steelers, he moved on to the Washington Football Team where he spent 1 year before retiring.
Tommy Maddox (2001-2005)
And finally, the era post-Bradshaw, pre-Ben ends with Tommy Maddox, a player whom was drafted in the first-round by the Denver Broncos with the hope he would be the successor to franchise quarterback following John Elway.
It never materialized.
Maddox spent only 2 seasons with the Broncos before bouncing around to several teams including the Rams, the Giants, and even the now-defunct XFL, in which he led his team to the inaugural championship and the game’s MVP award. It was after that in 2001 that the Steelers signed Maddox, and he experienced mild success with the team. His best season occurred in 2002 where he threw for 2836 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions, leading the team to a postseason berth, and enjoying a starting record of 7-3-1 after supplanting Kordell Stewart.
That success was short-lived, as the following season, Maddox started all 16 games and went 6-10 as a starter, positioning the Steelers to select none other than Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. Maddox was upset due to the selection of Roethlisberger, and his time as the starter would abruptly end in Baltimore after he was injured, and the first sentences of the story of Big Ben began to be written.
While Maddox is the cap on the extensive and lackluster history of Steelers quarterbacks in between Bradshaw and Ben, he will forever be known as the bridge to what was to become another golden era in Steelers football, one featuring a lanky, awkward kid from Findlay, Ohio.