Mike Singletary Vetoed a Trade Involving Ben Roethlisberger Replacing Alex Smith on the 49ers: ‘I Wanted a Team of Character’

Article Highlights:

  • Mike Singletary says he vetoed a trade that would have sent Ben Roethlisberger to the San Francisco 49ers
  • The legendary linebacker didn’t want Big Ben, who had legal issues at the time, because he wanted to build a ‘team of character’
  • Over a decade later, Singletary admitted he probably should have agreed to take Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh Steelers fans will forever remember Jan. 27, 2022, as the day that legendary quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger retired.

Meanwhile, San Francisco 49ers fans will forever remember Jan. 26, 2022, as the day that former head coach Mike Singletary admitted that, if not for his own veto, the franchise could have acquired Roethlisberger in his prime.

Mike Singletary says he vetoed a trade involving the 49ers acquiring Ben Roethlisberger

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (L) and head coach Mike Singletary, and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The San Francisco 49ers’ world would have looked much different if Ben Roethlisberger (R) started at quarterback instead of Alex Smith | Michael Zagaris/Getty Images; Bill Amatucci, Jr./Diamond Images/Getty Images

When the 49ers named Singletary the interim head coach in October 2008, the organization didn’t know if injured quarterback Alex Smith was still the long-term answer under center. The No. 1 overall pick in 2005, Smith missed the entire 2008 season with a shoulder injury and had struggled throughout the previous two campaigns.

However, Singletary wanted to give Smith a chance, and the quarterback took a pay cut to stay in San Francisco. As we now know, Smith eventually figured things out under Jim Harbaugh, who replaced Singletary after the 2010 season, and later became a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.

What we didn’t know, at least until Singletary spoke with The Athletic’s Dan Pompei, is the 49ers nearly acquired Roethlisberger. Although Singletary did not specify if the trade would have occurred in 2009 or 2010, the context implies a move would have happened in the summer of 2009 after Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault at a Lake Tahoe casino.

Singletary said he vetoed the trade, in part out of loyalty to Smith and in part because of why the Steelers made Roethlisberger available.

“I had been telling the team I wanted a team of character. I felt I had to be true to that. But if I could do it again, I’d do it differently.”

Mike Singletary

Singletary also did not provide further details of who or what the 49ers would have given up to acquire Roethlisberger. For what it’s worth, the Philadelphia Eagles traded Donovan McNabb to the Washington Football Team in April 2010 in exchange for two draft choices, a 2010 second-round pick and a 2011 fourth-round selection.

Roethlisberger settled a lawsuit related to the Lake Tahoe incident in January 2012.

Roethlisberger’s arrival could have saved Singletary’s tenure in San Francisco

San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary in 2010.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary was fired after the 2010 season | Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Although the 49ers had star running back Frank Gore and Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis during Singletary’s tenure, the team still lacked offensive consistency. San Francisco averaged 20.6 points per game in 2009 and 19.1 PPG a year later.

How much would Roethlisberger have changed things? Remember, Big Ben spent most of his first few seasons benefiting from the Steelers’ ferocious defense. It wasn’t until 2012, when offensive coordinator Bruce Arians left for the Indianapolis Colts, that the gunslinger began putting up the prolific numbers that football fans became used to seeing on the back of his trading card.

Roethlisberger totaled a 66.6 completion percentage, 4,328 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions for the Steelers in 2009. After serving a four-game suspension for off-field conduct to open the 2010 season, he threw for 3,200 yards, 17 touchdowns, and five interceptions in 12 starts that year.

There is no guarantee that Roethlisberger would have carved through defenses had he played for San Francisco in 2009. However, he would have brought durability and proven success to a team in desperate need of both at the quarterback position. That much, we do know.

More wins, especially in 2010, might have saved Singletary’s position in San Francisco. Had the 49ers won a weak NFC West in a year where the Seattle Seahawks’ 7-9 record was good enough to earn the division crown, perhaps the franchise would have kept the Chicago Bears legend and given him a third year with Roethlisberger.

From there, one can only wonder what would have happened to Smith and if the 49ers would have ever drafted a young quarterback named Colin Kaepernick in 2011. Nonetheless, Singletary should be commended for sticking to his heart and choosing morality over talent, even if he himself regrets that decision.

The 49ers weren’t the only team that reportedly wanted to acquire Roethlisberger amid his legal issues

Barring an unexpected return, Roethlisberger retired having played all 272 games (249 regular-season, 23 postseason) while wearing the Black and Yellow. However, the then-Oakland Raiders nearly guaranteed Big Ben would have traded yellow for silver.

Reports emerged in the spring of 2010 that the Raiders hoped to acquire Roethlisberger via trade. According to NFL Media, the Steelers were open to packaging Roethlisberger and the No. 18 pick (which the team used on future five-time All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey) to move up in the draft. Oakland held the No. 8 selection, which it used on Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain.

However, the two sides never progressed to the point where a trade could have happened, and Pittsburgh stuck with Roethlisberger. The Raiders acquired Washington Football Team veteran Jason Campbell for a fourth-round pick during the NFL Draft.

Singletary, who is still yet to earn another NFL head coaching opportunity, certainly sounds like he wishes he made the trade. Perhaps the Raiders, who still haven’t won a playoff game since January 2003, feel the same way.

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