Around the NFL  

 

Did Cleveland Browns just pass on Big Ben again?

Print

The Browns have sold the No. 2 pick for a bounty of future selections.

Forgoing the chance to grab one of the top two quarterbacks in the draft -- Jared Goff or Carson Wentz -- Cleveland is married to another path.

The Browns need a franchise quarterback like the Earth needs our sun, but Cleveland's intriguing front office is choosing to build out the roster before adding their signal-caller of tomorrow. Stockpiling picks to develop both sides of the ball, the Browns are trying to construct a team that will compete for years to come.

The Jaguars and Titans took the opposite route, choosing the quarterback first. Both approaches can work, but there's a caveat: Finding a franchise passer is akin to unearthing the Ark of the Covenant. Star quarterbacks don't just fall into your lap when teams decide the time is right.

'When Cleveland passed on me ... that was it'


The Browns learned this lesson back in 2004, when they felt comfortable enough with the combination of Tim Couch and a 34-year-old Jeff Garcia to pass on Ben Roethlisberger in the draft.

Picking sixth, Cleveland coach Butch Davis oversaw a war room that opted instead for tight end Kellen Winslow II, sending Big Ben on a slide down the board until the Steelers drafted him with the eleventh overall pick.

"When Cleveland passed on me, technically my hometown team, that was it," Roethlisberger told ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. "I couldn't wait to have a team and play the Browns at some point."

Prior to Wednesday's trade, Fowler compiled a fascinating oral history titled, "The day the Browns passed on Big Ben." It's a rough read for Cleveland residents, with former team executives, coaches and players revealing how close the organization came to picking the big-bodied quarterback from a small school.

Roethlisberger was a natural fit for the Browns. Hailing from Findlay, Ohio, and playing his college ball in-state at Miami University, Big Ben was no secret to Cleveland. As Fowler reveals, the Browns witnessed his immense gifts during a "very secretive" private workout on campus.

"Everybody recognized he was an enormous physical talent," said Davis. "There couldn't have been a worse day during his workout. It became apparent he could put on a show. It was cold, it was blustery, kind of drizzly, like every Sunday in that division. He threw it extremely well."

The Browns went so far as to fly former Cleveland wideout Frisman Jackson to Roethlisberger's one-on-one session.

"He'd say, 'Run this route, get to this step, and I'm going to throw the football to you.' Everything was smooth," Jackson said. "(Browns officials) were raving about him, saying how strong his arm was, how mobile he was in the pocket. I pretty much thought we were going to get him."

2016 NFL DRAFT

Draft coverage:

'Fighting the small-school stigma'


Former Davis front-office aide Pete Garcia acknowledged to Fox Sports Ohio in 2014 that Cleveland was "very, very close" to picking Roethlisberger, but Fowler notes the quarterback was "fighting the small-school stigma," which was "definitely a factor for Cleveland."

As a former coach of the Miami Hurricanes, Davis was "infatuated" with Winslow and fellow U of M product Sean Taylor, according to then-Browns scout Matt Williamson. The Browns also had Couch, arguably their best passer since the franchise's reboot in 1999. After signing Garcia a month before the draft, Davis believed quarterback wasn't his biggest need.

"Cleveland had made an enormous investment in Tim Couch years earlier," Davis told Fowler. "With the salary cap and the financials at the time, they wanted it to work with Tim Couch. It eventually became apparent we would need to make a change. We had been competitive, so we thought, who could be a potential stopgap for a year or two, an older, experienced veteran guy and a great mentor? That's when we signed Jeff Garcia."

The Browns also favored Philip Rivers over Roethlisberger -- and even attempted to trade up for him, according to ex-Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi -- but Rivers was long gone by the time Cleveland hit the clock at No. 6. So was Taylor, the stellar safety, leaving the Browns to zero in on Winslow.

They 'really tried steering everybody away from Ben'


"We needed so much," former Browns CEO and president Carmen Policy said of Cleveland's roster. 

"You want that first-round pick who will be a significant contributor," Davis said. "... We needed offensive help quickly. We didn't have any tight ends on the team that would be a real threat. If (Winslow) hadn't gotten hurt, he was the kind of guy like Jimmy Graham, you can place him in different formations and personnel groupings. That would be a three-to-five-time Pro Bowl player."

Not everyone, though, agreed with Davis.

"Some of our coaches especially liked (Roethlisberger) a lot. They thought he was tough, he's what Cleveland needed. He would fit the profile of the AFC North," Policy said. "The scouts and Butch Davis' chief personnel guy (Garcia) really tried steering everybody away from Ben, almost putting him in the position where he's not our guy. He didn't have a shot. They made up their minds, he was coming from a less-than-sophisticated program, a smaller school, a program not nearly as competitive as a top-10 pick would be coming from, and that was their position, and they prevailed. Butch had final say. We are picking too high for him. That was the sentiment."

What's past is prologue


We all know the aftermath.

Big Ben has made mincemeat of Cleveland with a 19-2 career record against the team he thought would draft him. And the Browns, more than a decade later, are still searching for a quarterback -- but not at No. 2.

Assuming Goff goes to the Rams, the Browns have chosen to pass on Wentz -- a massive-framed, small-school quarterback oozing with pro traits -- in order to gather draft picks. To be fair, Cleveland's new front office deserves time to carry out their master plan. It's a strategy that might work and they certainly got plenty back for the second-overall pick. 

Still, passing on a quarterback inside the top 10 presents another risk: If Wentz blooms into a raging star, the Browns look like a club that can't get out of their own way -- and one that failed to learn from their own history.

The Browns' future will be fascinating to watch, and hopefully less drenched in heartache for the city of Cleveland.

Print

Fan Discussion