Bill Cowher says he received over 600 congratulatory text messages shortly after receiving his Hall of Fame announcement during an NFL broadcast on Jan. 11, 2019. At about 7:50 p.m. ET, Cowher — a member of CBS Sports’ NFL coverage since 2007 — was greeted by Hall of Fame president David Baker, who informed Cowher that he would be part of the Hall of Fame’s centennial class.
At 7:51 p.m., Cowher received his first congratulatory text message. The sender? Ben Roethlisberger, Cowher’s quarterback during his final three years as coach of the Steelers.
“Congratulations, Coach. I’m so happy for you,” Roethlisberger said in the text, according to Cowher in his new book, “Heart and Steel.”
“Through the years, he’d sent multiple messages saying he wished he’d played for me later in his career,” Cowher wrote of Roethlisberger. “He says he would have appreciated me more than he did in the first few years. I only coached him for three seasons. He’s had a tremendous career, and Mike Tomlin’s done a great job with him.”
In his book, Cowher detailed what it was like coaching Roethlisberger during his record-setting rookie season. After meeting with him several times before the draft, Cowher and Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert decided that, while they wouldn’t trade up to select him, Roethlisberger wouldn’t get past them if he was still on the board with the 11th overall pick. Roethlisberger ultimately was, and the Steelers made a decision that would impact the franchise for the next two decades.
Roethlisbeger’s immense talent was apparent during his first summer in Pittsburgh.
“Ben could make something positive out of a broken play, which nobody can teach,” Cowher wrote. “He also had that big ego on the field that great quarterbacks have. He just didn’t know enough to be hesitant. And that competitiveness, which Kevin Colbert and I’d noticed early, shone. When a play broke down, he improvised, he took chances, he did unconventional things to make something good out of something bad.
“With some quarterbacks, a broken-down play is their opportunity to extend it, not lose yardage. But Ben was all about turning it into a plus-yardage play. Right away I could see our challenge would be to make him work within our system while not taking the special ability out of his game. With a player such as him, a real danger is that you can overcoach him into mediocrity.”
Cowher’s plan to have his rookie quarterback spend a year on the sideline evaporated in Week 2, after starter Tommy Maddox suffered an injury. While Roethlisberger was unable to rally the Steelers back from a big deficit that day in Baltimore, he won his first career start the following week in Miami. Roethlisberger and the Steelers surprised many by winning their next two games to improve to 4-1.
“We tried to correct Ben and advise him, without overcoaching him,” Cowher wrote. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible. Some things he did naturally that under circumstances we’d try to deter, such as making certain throws into coverage and getting out of the pocket before he should have. But in this situation we didn’t press. He loved to run, scramble, and throw the ball downfield as opposed to sitting in the pocket to go through his reads. And that was the other thing: We never gave him more than two reads. Look here first; if you don’t like that one, look over there.”
Roethlisberger and the Steelers gained national attention following their Week 6 bye. In consecutive weeks, Pittsburgh defeated the defending champion Patriots (while snapping their NFL record 21-game winning streak) and the eventual NFC champion Eagles by a combined score of 61-23. In the two games, Roethlisberger completed 69% of his passes with four touchdowns and just one interception while out-playing counterparts Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb. The Steelers would finish the 2004 regular season with a franchise-record 15 wins. Roethlisberger easily won Offensive Rookie of the Year after going 13-0 as the Steelers’ starter.
“It occurred to us that Ben didn’t realize what he was doing was so extraordinary,” Cowher wrote. “I cautioned people from talking about it too much, telling them, ‘This is not normal, but don’t tell him. It shouldn’t be this easy for him.’ We’d write plays on his wrist, and break out of the huddle. He probably had no idea who was in the huddle with him; he was just trying to read the right play.”
The Steelers didn’t win the Super Bowl that year, losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. But in 2005, Roethlisberger, Cowher and the rest of the Steelers became the first sixth seed to win the Super Bowl, winning three playoff games on the road before dispatching the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
Cowher is one of four members of the 2005 Steelers who have received Hall of Fame induction. Jerome Bettis was enshrined in 2015, and Troy Polamalu and Alan Faneca will be inducted (along with Cowher) this summer. And while he will eventually join his former teammates and coach in Canton, Ohio, Roethlisberger is still donning a Steelers uniform as he looks to end his career similarly to how he started it.
“I knew we had obviously a great defense and some amazing weapons on offense,” Roethlisberger recently said when asked about his decision to return for an 18th season. “I wanted to come back to be a part of what I think is a special football team that everyone is overlooking, which I think is kind of cool.”