July 29, 2014

Medina
Intermittent clouds
69°F

Letting Big Ben slip away haunts Browns

The roll call of the decade’s dreadful draft decisions is better known to most Browns fans than the team’s Hall of Famers.

 

Any die-hard worth his Tim Couch, Gerard Warren or William Green jersey could tell you the Browns passed on Donovan McNabb, LaDainian Tomlinson and Ed Reed on draft day in 1999, 2001 and 2002. But could he name Frank Gatski as one of the franchise’s 16 Hall of Famers?

 

As the glory days fade further into the past — especially for those under 30, who haven’t seen any glory —one draft-day debacle stands out as the worst. Kellen Winslow instead of Ben Roethlisberger.

 

Dredging up this nightmare isn’t a practice in cruelty. It’s relevant because the Browns play in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

 

In April 2004, Butch Davis held the seventh pick in the draft. Eli Manning and Philip Rivers would be gone by then, but a tall, thick, strong-armed, quick-legged kid from Miami of Ohio was the third-ranked quarterback and likely to be available.

 

Davis dismissed Roethlisberger as a possibility, committed to his former Miami Hurricane tight end and traded a second-round pick to Detroit to get the No. 6 selection and ensure he’d get Winslow.

 

The thinking was flawed from the start.

 

Taking a tight end that high, especially when you don’t have an established quarterback, is never a good idea. Trading a second-rounder to move up one spot made former Lions general manager Matt Millen look good —and that’s not easy. Most egregiously, Davis overlooked a 6-foot-5, 240-pounder who was a three-year starter and rewrote the Miami record books.

 

Davis didn’t have a quarterback of the future. He had a stopgap in Jeff Garcia, who was a bad fit from the start —a West Coast quarterback in a down-the-field system and a slightly off California guy in a straight-laced Midwestern town. Davis quickly called him skittish, and things went downhill from there.

 

The Browns are still searching for their franchise quarterback, and they won’t consistently contend for the playoffs until they find one.

 

Missing out on Roethlisberger was mistake enough. Watching him go to rival Pittsburgh at No. 11 was pure torture.

 

It’s like regretting that the college sweetheart got away, then watching her become a billionaire entrepreneur in the next town.

 

The other blown draft picks were bad, but this one could keep the Browns from winning the AFC North for the next decade. Pittsburgh will always be a threat with Big Ben.

 

He’s 9-0 against the Browns, and the Steelers have won 11 straight in the rivalry. He never goes down on the first hit and can throw the ball through any conditions. He’s built for the AFC North.

 

Roethlisberger already has two Super Bowl rings and no longer needs to be protected by the running game. In his first few years – even the Super Bowl season of 2005 – the Steelers pounded the ball on the ground until they needed Roethlisberger to make a big play in the fourth quarter with his arm or his legs. But last year the Steelers ranked 23rd rushing, and Roethlisberger threw 469 passes (29 a game) and carried them to the Super Bowl.

 

When he got to sports’ biggest stage, he was the first part of one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history. He threw a perfect pass to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown in the final seconds.

 

Roethlisberger won 51 games in his first five years, surpassing Cleveland’s Otto Graham for the most ever by a quarterback. Through five games this year, the Steelers are 3-2 and he’s completed 74 percent of his passes with a 102.6 rating. There’s no doubt he’ll be a fixture in this rivalry, division and league for years to come.

 

Tomlinson and Reed are future Hall of Famers, and McNabb’s getting close, but Big Ben is the Browns’ biggest draft mistake of the past decade.

 

We’ll see him Sunday.

 

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.