Alternate Reality: What if the Steelers Drafted Bradford?

It’s been almost a year since Milledgeville happened. At the time, most of us had heard enough about Off-Field Ben to know that it was probably time for the Steelers to move on. A two-time Super Bowl winner, Roethlisberger had burned so many bridges that the usually loyal-through-everything fans didn’t care about the on-field implications. Think about that.

It was so bad that having the Milledgeville charges dropped didn’t matter. Roethlisberger, for the second time in as many years, had been accused of sexual assault. Despite all the early successes and the franchise quarterback label, Ben was clearly too stupid to function as most humans do.

So, mentally, as Steelers fans, we all came to grips with that reality: Ben was an enduring prick, he apparently had no interest in changing, and even if it meant that an organization built to win now would suffer for god knows how long into the future, then so be it.

I was reminded of this after reading something Adam Schefter wrote the Friday before Super Bowl XLV, specifically as it related to the Steelers’ plans to trade Roethlisberger last offseason.

…[L]ast spring, just before the NFL draft, Pittsburgh debated trading Roethlisberger. The controversy swirling around him and the sexual assault accusations became too much for some within the conservative and honorable Steelers organization to stomach.

No matter what they say now, the Steelers were ready to move on. At the time, there was at least one other AFC team whose coaching staff and ownership debated whether it should go ahead and act upon the trade that the Steelers would have been willing to make. Ultimately the team, and the owner, decided against it, and Pittsburgh could not find a trade partner for Roethlisberger….

In a league that grants second and third chances as often as Rex Ryan proclaims that he’s going to eat another godd*mn snack, this seems remarkable. One of the best five or six quarterbacks in the league, a two-time Super Bowl winner and just 27 at the time … and no serious takers.

Of course, after I had resigned myself to the idea that Ben was as good as gone, I also managed to convince myself that he would bring the Steelers a first-round pick and a player or two who would come in and contribute immediately.

The St. Louis Rams were the most obvious trading partner. They had the first-overall selection and were in desperate need of a quarterback. And if they took Big Ben off Pittsburgh’s hands, that meant that the Steelers would draft Sam Bradford, an all-around swell guy with unlimited potential and a history for getting injured. Hey, that was better than having “sexual predator” follow you around everywhere you went.

The Rams made it clear early that they weren’t interested, and by draft day only the Raiders appeared remotely curious. According to rumors, the Al Davis All-Stars were only willing to give up the No. 8 overall pick in exchange for Ben and and the Steelers No. 18 overall pick. Just a reminder: the Eagles got a second-round pick for Donovan F. McNabb.

We all know how the story ends: Pittsburgh kept Ben, drafted Maurkice Pouncey with the 18th selection and the rookie center made the Pro Bowl in his first year. The league also suspended Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season, he came back, allegedly a new person, and took the Steelers to the Super Bowl. So, yes, things sorta worked out.

But what if Pittsburgh dumped Ben last offseason? Occasionally, I have wondered what that team would now look like. So much so, that I’m now writing about it. And in the spirit of keeping this from going completely off the rails, you’ll have to suspend reality a bit. Otherwise, the Steelers would have jettisoned Roethlisberger and ended up with Jimmy Clausen. And today we’d be having the “So, yeah, Jimmy really sucks … is there any way Tomlin can talk Tommy Maddox out of retirement” discussion.

Here’s the deal: let’s just say that the Steelers sent Ben to St. Louis for the first-overall pick in the 2010 draft and Pittsburgh promptly selected Sam Bradford. In terms of trading Ben, that was the only scenario that made sense because it gave the Steelers an immediate replacement, even though it would also mean that a 2010 Super Bowl contender would suddenly be rebuilding.

But at least Bradford offered hope; with some luck Pittsburgh could be back in the playoffs in 2011. If, say, Clausen had been drafted (or, really, anybody but Bradford), I’d be typing this from the tallest ledge I could find.

So how would Bradford fit into Pittsburgh’s system? I asked good buddy and one of the best NFL writers anywhere, Doug Farrar, for his thoughts. Doug watched a lot of Bradford when he was at Oklahoma, he has a solid understanding of Xs and Os, not to mention that, in general, he does a fantastic job scouting college kids as they prepare for the draft. I can’t recommend Doug’s work enough. (Follow him on Twitter here.)

Anyway, I posed my silly scenario to Doug, about the Steelers ending up with Bradford and starting him in 2010, and asked for his honest assessment of how things might have turned out. Here’s what he said:

There are aspects of Bradford’s game that would fit Pittsburgh’s current offense perfectly. Anytime you have Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders on the field, you’re going to need a quarterback with an accurate deep arm, and I’d put Bradford’s long accuracy against anyone’s in the NFL. Pat Shurmur’s risk-proof offense kept Bradford from throwing deep too often, but once in a while, you’d see it again – the ridiculous ability to hit a receiver on the right shoulder when he had outside position on a deep sideline route. And his experience in Oklahoma’s pseudo-spread offense would have him conversant with Pittsburgh’s array of receiver screens and quick slants. Bradford’s also arguably at his best as a thrower when rolling out right, which lines up with that common schematic aspect of Pittsburgh’s passing game.

The one thing that would have me worried in this hypothetical marriage of team and quarterback is the fact that Roethlisberger’s sheer size and escapability has allowed Pittsburgh’s front office to put patchwork solutions on the outside of the offensive line, leading to frequent pass protection disasters. The Rams knew one thing about Bradford – even though he works pretty well under pressure, asking him to take a similar load with his injury history would be a very risky proposition. That’s why they added Rodger Saffold to a line that already had Jason Smith; Billy Devaney and Steve Spagnuolo made sure that outside protection was set. No matter who eventually replaces Roethlisberger, and no matter when that happens down the line, expecting a similar ability to make stick throws with defenders hanging all over him would be foolish – that one skill makes Roethlisberger an outlier in the NFL.

And that’s the thing: for as well as Bradford played in St. Louis, and however well we think he might have performed in Pittsburgh, you can’t discount the fact that Big Ben is impossible to tackle, can take myriad hits, and, oh yeah, pressure doesn’t much affect his accuracy.

We all knew that Bradford’s injury history would be a concern in Pittsburgh because the offensive line is atrocious. But these are concessions you’re willing to make when the current starter has twice been accused of sexual assault in 18 months and you don’t have much in the way of other options.

Who knows how 2010 might have turned out if the Steelers’ starting quarterback had been Bradford instead of Ben. Maybe Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch would have split the starting duties all season. Or maybe Tomlin would have thrown Bradford out there to see what would happen. There probably would have been an emphasis on the running game, because of Bradford’s inexperience but also to keep him upright for longer than two quarters.

Clearly, it never came to this. Ben stayed, he now claims to be a better person, and through it all, the Steelers were one win away from their third Super Bowl title since 2005. That’s insane.

Whatever, here’s to hoping for a scandal-free 2011 offseason. Frankly, I could use the break.

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  • RJ

    Worst.

    Post.

    Ever…

  • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

    RJ,

    I’m quite certain I have written worse.

    • RoB D

      We’d be .500 team with a broken Bradford in intensive care..first from the shock of realizing how bad his protection is and 2nd from meeting Ngata up close and personal.

      BTW. not your worst post ever. it’s not even the worst post in this thread…

      Ahem..WildBill does work as parody though..quite well!

  • David

    If that happened, he would be known today as Break-ford.

    Put Brady, Manning, Rivers, Flacco behind our O-line and they would die.

  • DC in ATL

    I’m not sure I’d like that alternate universe. Unless it is the one where I have the winning lottery ticket or one where I haven’t misplaced my cellphone like I have in this one.

    Who knows how this would have played out, but looking at Football Outsiders stats, Roethlisberger’s DVOA was 38.1% and Bradford’s (9.1)% for a difference 47.2% Overall the Steelers passing offense was 45.6% (not sure why it’s higher than Ben’s rating) and Rams (6.5)% for a difference of 52.1%.

    Somewhere I read on FO (but never saw confirmation from the guys who run the site) that 18% is roughly worth 3 points. If that’s the case, Ben was about a touchdown per game better than Bradford.

    If one were to assume Bradford became the Steelers starter in game #5 against Cleveland when we were 3-1 and Roethlisberger took over in game #5 for the Rams (one they lost 44-6 in our universe to the Lions to go to 2-3), AND subtract a touchdown from the Steelers score and add it to the Rams for the remaining 12 games, the Steelers finish 8-8 and Rams 9-7. We would have been at home for the playoffs and watched the #4 seed Rams host the Saints in the Wild Card round.

    The AFC seedings would have been:
    1) Patriots
    2) Ravens
    3) Colts
    4) Chiefs
    5) Jets
    6) Chargers

    Would it have played out this way? Maybe we would have inserted Leftwich in game #5 and Bradford sat the bench most of the season. Maybe we would have just watched a Ravens/Packers Super Bowl after the Ravens beat the Chargers in the AFC championship? Maybe, maybe not but I’m glad I’m not living in that alternate reality.

    • countertorque

      Nice post. I have one quibble. If Bradford is on the bench and we go 3-1 through the first 4 games, I don’t think any coach in the NFL decides that it’s time to throw the rookie into the fire.

      I think the 2 most likely scenarios are that Bradford starts in game 1 because he won the start in training camp, or Bradford starts after Batch and Leftwich are both on IR and he’s the only option left.

  • Wildbill99

    Bradford would have brought us number 7. I would have preferred they toss “oh so great” QB Ben roethlisberger to the curb and taken Vick.

    Vick would have won it for us also, even Leftwhich would have won the game last Sunday.

    Ben sucks period! Oh but he can scramble!!!!!!! He can toss long hail-mary’s down the field and (hope) a receiver works miracles and catches it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He can toss defenders off his back!!!!!!!!!! He has STATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He just can’t win a freaking game. Oh yeah he has TWO SB rings (That he didn’t do much to earn)

    But he can’t do ANYTHING in between like move the chains. manage the game. WIN!!!!!!!!!!!

    Roethlisberger sucks period.

    • Steve

      If we had Vick, we wouldn’t have Ben’s problems.

      Right.

      And if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass a’hoppin’.

    • B Meekins

      you don’t watch much football, do you?

  • SteelerBill

    Interesting topic….and had the Steelers drafted Bradford…..no Pouncey…..perhaps other OL later in the draft…which again meant no Manny nor Antonio perhaps…and an aging (not old) defense waiting on a rookie QB to develop? It could be years before we would be in the upper echelon again….wow….that would really be tough….all around….