Browns flirted with Big Ben, ultimately passed on QB

The Browns loved Ben Roethlisberger in the leadup to the 2004 NFL Draft, according to a member of the team's personnel staff at the time.

Mike Roemer/Mike Roemer/Associated Press

Today, the buildup to the NFL Draft is covered more closely than ever.

Every workout, every detail and every bite of every cheeseburger a top prospect takes is analyzed and dissected on radio airwaves, social media and television. This year, the pre-draft hype has lasted longer than ever with the draft pushed back to May.

Remember a few weeks ago when the Browns traveling to College Station for a Saturday morning workout with Johnny Manziel was a real news item in Cleveland?

Ten years ago, hardly anyone knew that the Browns almost drafted Ben Roethlisberger — and that the team’s flirtation included a private workout on the Miami (Ohio) campus with Roethlisberger in the days leading up to the 2004 NFL Draft.

In the days leading up to that draft — no one seems to remember if it was five or 10 days before, but it was in that range — the Browns loaded up then-owner Randy Lerner’s private plane for a late look at quarterbacks. This was in April, 2004, eight months before Butch Davis would step down as Browns head coach and a month after the team had signed veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia.

BOOM OR BUST

"I remember that workout with Roethlisberger well," said Pete Garcia, Davis’s longtime top lieutenant and the head of the Browns personnel department at the time. "It was very close to the draft. I can’t remember the exact day, but it was the last lap. (Roethlisberger) was the first of a few guys we went to visit.

"I don’t know if it actually should be called a secret workout. We didn’t exactly advertise it, but it’s something we did often. If we wanted a long look at a guy, we went and saw him. Maybe it’s just all covered more closely now, I don’t know."

By 2004, Pete Garcia’s title with the Browns was vice president, player personnel and football development. The Browns didn’t have a general manager by title — Davis held the last call on football decisions, which in that draft ended up being a trade up of one spot to select tight end Kellen Winslow, who’d been recruited by Davis and Garcia at the University of Miami. Roethlisberger went No. 11 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he’s won two Super Bowls.

"We loved Ben," Garcia said. "I had been to see him play a couple times during the (prior) season. We thought long and hard about picking him.

"He was right up there with (Winslow and) anyone else we considered. We graded him as a difference maker. In the end, we went with a difference maker at a different position that we knew a little bit better than we knew Ben."

Also on the flight were offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie and quarterbacks coach Steve Hagen, both of whom had been on Davis’s staff but moved to new roles for 2004, and then-Browns receivers Andre King and Frisman Jackson, who’d been called by Garcia the previous day to participate in the Roethlisberger workout.

"I got the call, I got asked to go, it was cool," Jackson remembered this week. "I was an undrafted guy (in 2002), so in my spot it wasn’t really a question. I was going."

Said King: "When Coach says jump and you’re a young player, you just say ‘How high?’ We were at the airport at 8 a.m., up in the air probably 45 minutes and then we were on the field. (Roethlisbeger) was a big, strong guy. We met him, we stretched, and we just started running routes."

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By all accounts, Roethlisberger impressed.

"Five minutes in," Jackson said, "it was obvious Ben could throw the hell out of the football."

The Browns coaches had scripted Roethlisberger’s workout, and there were times the script called for three receivers running patterns. Pete Garcia said a third receiver had been invited on the trip but fell ill and couldn’t make it, so Garcia stood in as the third receiver when necessary.

It was a dangerous job.

"I don’t know exactly what happened, but I was in the end zone trying to go as hard as I could to simulate whatever route that third receiver was supposed to be running," Garcia said. "Ben threw a rocket, it deflected off somebody’s hands, I think, and I never really saw it coming until it hit me in the face.

"I broke my nose. So, of course I remember that day in Oxford, Ohio."

Two other Browns personnel department employees at the time — now barred from speaking on the record due to the policies of the NFL teams they currently work for — said they knew nothing of a late workout for Roethlisberger or any other quarterback.

"But that sounds like something we (the Browns) would have done," one said.

After what Jackson and King estimated was about two hours in Miami’s Yager Stadium that morning, they were driven back to the local airstrip and to Lerner’s plane. Davis, Garcia and the Browns contingent stayed in Oxford to talk with Roethlisberger.

"We were back in Cleveland by lunch," King said.

The plane then flew back to Oxford, where it picked up Davis, Garcia, Robiskie and Hagen and took them to North Carolina State, where they held a similar workout and visit with Philip Rivers.

"We went out looking for any edge we could get, just trying to get as comfortable as we could with the (draft) decision," Garcia said. "We did similar visits and workouts in other years, too."

Garcia is now the athletic director at Florida International University. King, who was with the Browns from 2001-04, is now the athletic director and football coach at Loganville Christian Academy High School near Atlanta. Jackson, who lasted with the Browns through 2005, is the wide receivers coach at North Carolina State.

"I’d like to be able to borrow that private plane for these recruiting trips I go on now," Jackson said. "It’s a crazy business we’re in."

The second game of that 2004 season in Dallas is remembered in "new" Browns history for a couple of reasons: Jeff Garcia posted a quarterback rating of 0.0, and Winslow suffered a season-ending leg injury while trying to recover an onside kick late in the game. The following May, Winslow nearly died in a motorcycle accident. He missed all of 2005, too.

"Ben ends up going to the Steelers where he has The Bus (Jerome Bettis) behind him…a veteran offensive line, Hines Ward, a great defense," King said. "It’s hard to say what would have happened had he gone to the Browns or somewhere else. He’s been great, but it was also a great situation.

"We were on the cusp in Cleveland. I saw good things happening. We just never got that one great thing at the right time to get the ball really rolling."

It’s impossible to say what would have been different had the Browns drafted Roethlisberger. The word from the draft room, though, is that the Browns almost drafted Roethlisberger.

"It was very, very close," Garcia said.

And very possible the fortunes of two franchises would have been different.