Neil O’Donnell nearly returned to Pittsburgh Steelers to start over Ben Roethlisberger

The Pittsburgh Steelers won a Super Bowl in Ben Roethlisberger's second season as quarterback, but Neil O'Donnell nearly replaced Big Ben the year before.


Ben Roethlisberger almost had a wildly different start to his lengthy tenure as Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback. Neil O’Donnell was all but finished with his NFL career when he got the call from his former head coach Bill Cowher to return to the team in 2004.

In an interview with Rich Salgado on Big Daddy & Friends, O’Donnell discussed how he made the decision not to play for the Steelers one last time, which had a crazy ripple effect on the franchise, and on the course of Big Ben’s development.

Neil O’Donnell speaks on the chance to start over Big Ben

The beginning of Roethlisberger’s tenure indeed could’ve gone very differently. Big Ben got drafted 11th overall out of Miami (Ohio) in 2004, and O’Donnell had only returned for one game in 2003 for the Titans, as Jeff Fisher lured him out of his initial retirement following the 2002 campaign.

After a five-year stint serving as Steve McNair’s backup with the Tennessee Titans ran its course, O’Donnell nearly came back for a 15th NFL season. However, he declined Cowher’s offer, Pittsburgh rolled with a rookie Roethlisberger, and the rest is history.

“I’m a little superstitious,” O’Donnell said. “Everyone know what number I wore [No. 14]…If I could write a storyline saying I played in the NFL for 14 years, with, knock on wood, no really major surgeries…I didn’t want to take the chance going back one more year.”

O’Donnell added that he could’ve gone to Minnesota to play another two seasons for the Vikings, but preferred instead to spend more time with his family.

During his time with the Steelers in the 1990s, O’Donnell posted an impressive 39-22 record as a starter, highlighted by his guiding Pittsburgh to four playoff berths and Super Bowl 30 against the Dallas Cowboys.

What if Neil O’Donnell would have taken the job

Neil O'Donnell on Ben Roethlisberger
4 Sep 1994: Quarterback Neil O”Donnell of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to pass the ball during a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Three rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cowboys won the game, 26-9. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allspo

Despite how late in his career in which the second Steelers stint opportunity arrived, O’Donnell still had something in the tank. In the Titans’ final game of 2003, he made his final NFL start and completed 18 of 27 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-13 victory, which improved Tennessee’s record to 12-4 at the time.

The initial plan for Roethlisberger was for him to sit for most of his rookie year and maybe even his second while he adjusted to the pro game. Instead, he was thrust into duty when Tommy Maddox was injured.

Super Bowl for the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger

Although he took his lumps as an NFL freshman, Roethlisberger wound up leading the Steelers to a 15-1 record in his maiden pro season, and a Super Bowl XL triumph over the Seattle Seahawks the next year.

Would things have been different if O’Donnell were under center? It’s one of the most fascinating and underrated “what if?” scenarios in recent NFL history.

Meanwhile, how’s this for full circle: Roethlisberger is likely to return for 2021 in what should be his final season, despite a 48-37 loss to Cleveland on Super Wild Card Weekend.