Only One Obstacle Could Keep Roethlisberger Out Of Canton
One of the heated debates centered on Ben Roethlisberger, the 29-year-old quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers (and newlywed), who has been on a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows in his seven seasons as a professional.
I am going to go over the common arguments used against Roethlisberger to show that his future induction to the Hall of Fame is already a sure thing, as long as he stays upright on the field and keeps his name quiet off it. The only remaining obstacle is Roethlisberger himself.
Argument #1: Roethlisberger does not have gaudy, eye-popping statistics.
I am not sure why this argument still exists. However, I do know why it started. Roethlisberger is the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. This means everyone can stop paying attention and just assume we have a player that’s only there to hand the ball off and not screw things up. Forget the fact that he came into the league and successfully ran one of the league’s most vertical, high-risk/reward passing games. Forget the fact that in four of the last five seasons, the Steelers have thrown the ball more times than they ran it.
In the one year that they had more runs (2007), the small margin of 22 more runs than passes can be explained by clock-killing kneel downs and quarterback scrambles on designed pass plays. These are not your 1970’s Steelers, or the Bill Cowher-era Steelers that tried to cover up for Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, and Kordell Stewart. It should have been clear right away that things were going to be different in Pittsburgh with the addition of Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger began his career in style, statistically, setting league rookie records in 2004 for: passer rating (98.1), completion percentage (66.4%), single-game completion percentage (84.0% vs. Dallas), all while winning 14 consecutive starts and leading a rookie record five comebacks and six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime. Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in NFL history to achieve a 13-0 record in the regular season (that mark has since been matched or exceeded by Peyton Manning in 2005 and 2009, Tom Brady in 2007 and Drew Brees in 2009). He became the first quarterback since 1970 to win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Roethlisberger improved his second season, leading the league in yards per attempt (8.90) and touchdown percentage (6.34%). His numbers in the first quarter of games were off the charts: 11.71 YPA, 8 TD, 0 INT, 144.2 rating as the Steelers scored a league-high 99 first quarter points. This trend continued into the postseason where Roethlisberger came out passing in road playoff wins against Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver. Then it was time for Super Bowl XL, where Roethlisberger had a 22.6 passer rating against Seattle, the lowest for any Super Bowl winner as he became the youngest quarterback to win the big game. This appears to have left an imprint on many, while the three games leading up to it (7 TDs, 1 INT, 124.8 rating) are often forgotten. Well, I guess people remember the tackle on the Colts’ Nick Harper to save the season and Jerome Bettis’ legacy.
To compound the uneasiness over his XL performance, the off-season brought Roethlisberger’s first off-the-field headline: a motorcycle accident in June 2006. Throw in an emergency appendectomy before week one, a miserable 0-3 start to the season, a mid-season concussion once he appeared to be getting his rhythm back, and the results are a disappointing season where he led the league with 23 interceptions.
He quickly rebounded in 2007 with his best statistical season yet: a franchise-record 32 touchdown passes and 104.1 passer rating, as he led the Steelers back to the playoffs. He became the first passer ever to have two games in the same regular season with a perfect passer rating (158.3).
The following season Roethlisberger underwhelmed statistically in the regular season, but led what many consider to be the worst offensive line to win a Super Bowl in a win over Arizona. Roethlisberger drove the Steelers on a classic game-winning drive with the throw to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone.
In 2009, Roethlisberger passed for a career-high 4,328 yards in 15 games, to go along with a 100.5 rating and 26 touchdown passes. Against Green Bay, he threw for 503 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions, with his last pass being a 17 yard game-winning touchdown to Mike Wallace on the game’s final snap. It was his third career game with 400+ yards passing, which is just as many 400+ yard games as Tom Brady (1) and Brett Favre (2) combined. However, the Steelers missed the playoffs as the defense surrendered fourth quarter leads in five games.
After serving a four-game suspension to start the 2010 season, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to their third Super Bowl in the last six years. This time he was unable to recapture that late game magic he showed against Arizona and Green Bay, and the Steelers came up short at the end. In the regular season he passed for 3200 yards, 17 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions in 12 games. It was the fifth time in his career he had a passer rating of at least 97.0 in a season. How significant is that?
Even if you drop the minimum number of attempts to 100 and the rating to 90.0, only three quarterbacks have more of those seasons than Roethlisberger’s five: Peyton Manning (10), Brett Favre (9) and Steve Young (8). Using 90.0 is actually a disservice to Roethlisberger. For example, to drop his rating of 97.0 down to 90.0 last year, you could add the equivalent of seven more incomplete passes, with five of them being interceptions; the same amount he actually threw.
Using the NFL standard of 14 attempts per game and a 95.0 rating, Roethlisberger (5) ranks third behind just Peyton Manning (7) and Steve Young (7). That is a better list to be on than a list for total yardage or total touchdown leaders, which are your standard, fantasy football-minded numbers. Efficiency correlates better to winning than volume, and this has been true in the NFL for decades and decades.
When you have this many strong seasons in a short career, no surprise that his career numbers are among the all-time best: 8th in passer rating (92.5), 5th in yards per attempt (8.04), 12th in completion percentage (63.07%). You can also look at his 69-29 (.704) regular season record as a starter, which ranks fourth all time in win percentage, and the fact that he has the most comebacks (19) and game-winning drives (25) in the fourth quarter and overtime through any quarterback’s first seven seasons.
While like any great quarterback, this has all been done with the support of a good team around him, but the offensive line in Pittsburgh has been sub-par since his first Super Bowl win, and he has not played with any sure fire HOF players on the offensive side of the ball. He has succeeded with two defensive-minded head coaches (Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin), and two offensive coordinators (Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians). I am not sure how many offensive coordinators have had websites and their own Facebook page pleading for them to be fired. Roethlisberger also plays half of his games on what is consistently ranked as one of the worst playing surfaces in the NFL.
Add it all up, and you have a quarterback that has been gaudy and eye-popping at winning in the regular season and postseason, putting up all-time great efficiency statistics, performing in crunch time, and doing it consistently and at times with great volume. How has this career not been gaudy and eye-popping? Some people simply cannot look past the color of the uniform.
Argument #2: Roethlisberger needs a third Super Bowl ring to cement his HOF status. Jim Plunkett won two rings as a starter and he’s not in Canton.
Baloney. Roethlisberger is one of ten quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls as a starter. Five years after Tom Brady retires he will become the eighth quarterback out of the nine eligible that gets into the HOF. All of these players were first ballot selections outside of Bob Griese (selected on his fifth year of eligibility). Not only is 8/9 a great percentage, but there is no real comparison between Plunkett and Roethlisberger.
Sure, they are both quarterbacks, both won two Super Bowls in a four-year span, but the similarities end shortly after that. Plunkett played 15 seasons and his best season would not rank in Roethlisberger’s top five seasons. Plunkett was an average at best quarterback in his era, and the voters have been consistent in not once selecting him as a finalist for HOF induction.
It is also not true that winning three Super Bowls is a magic number for the HOF. Simply starting three or more Super Bowls has worked for all eight quarterbacks that have done that, and you can bet Brady, Kurt Warner and Roethlisberger will add to that.
There’s also Roethlisberger’s 10 playoff wins, which rank 8th all time. Six of the players ahead of him are in the HOF, and Brady will make it seven. Winning at least 100 regular season games has been automatic for HOF enshrinement (expect an 11/11 mark once Favre, Manning and Brady get in). Roethlisberger is 31 wins away from that. The HOF loves a winner. Roethlisberger could retire without reaching another Super Bowl in his career and will still have done enough winning for the HOF.
Argument #3: Roethlisberger only has one Pro Bowl selection in seven seasons.
And? The day Vince Young received his second Pro Bowl selection is the day I declared the Pro Bowl dead to me. In fact, the Tennessee Titans have sent a quarterback to the Pro Bowl after the 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009 seasons. Go look at those seasons compared to Roethlisberger’s and tell me why this should mean anything. Roethlisberger was invited to the Pro Bowl after the 2005 and 2009 seasons and declined, as many players do these days. This is no longer a meaningful indicator of how good a player’s season was, if it was ever a good indicator in the first place.
Argument #4: If he retired today, Roethlisberger would not get into the HOF.
This one never makes any sense for any active player, because he is not retiring today, tomorrow, and probably not for several years. Besides, how many players are HOF-worthy after seven seasons? Gale Sayers? I would take Roethlisberger’s first seven seasons over Gale Sayers’ seven seasons. Why? Because Gale Sayers’ seven seasons are basically five seasons, unless you want to count the last two injury-plagued years where he played a total of four games and touched the ball 37 times to gain 84 yards. Oh, and because quarterback is the most important position in football.
How many quarterbacks were as HOF-worthy after seven seasons than Roethlisberger? John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Jim Kelly, Len Dawson, Steve Young, Joe Namath, Sonny Jurgensen, Warren Moon, Bart Starr, Dan Fouts, and Troy Aikman to name a few certainly were not.
Roethlisberger’s ranks through the first seven seasons of a career:
- Passing yards – 22,502 (8th)
- Pass completions – 1,766 (9th)
- Pass attempts – 2,800 (16th)
- Passing touchdowns – 144 (10th)
- Completion percentage – 63.07% (12th)
- Yards per attempt – 8.04 (6th)
- Passer rating – 92.5 (4th)
- Fourth quarter comebacks – 19 (1st)
- Game-winning drives, fourth quarter/overtime – 25 (1st)
- Games with a passer rating of 100.0+ - 42 (1st)
- Regular season wins as starter – 69 (2nd)
- Playoff wins as starter – 10 (2nd; tied with Troy Aikman)
If you stopped every quarterback’s career after the first seven seasons, Roethlisberger would be in the debate for the top five all-time, along with Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Tom Brady. Few quarterbacks have had as much team and individual success at this early stage in their careers. While you can argue the era he plays in drives up some of his statistics, there is something that always transcends eras: how you did relative to your peers.
I already went over Roethlisberger’s five seasons with a passer rating of at least 97.0. He ranked top five in the league in each of those seasons. A stat that does not favor today’s quarterbacks is yards per attempt (YPA). Roethlisberger has already had four seasons exceeding 8.0 YPA, a very high number. He also has five seasons ranked in the top 5 in the league in YPA. How significant is that? The following table compares him to the careers of 19 other quarterbacks, including peers and past greats.
|QB||Seasons||Top 5 Rating||%||Top 5 YPA||%|
Despite only playing seven seasons, Roethlisberger already ranks in the upper half of top five seasons in passer rating and YPA, and his percentage of seasons ranking in the top five is the highest in each category. He was able to play (effectively) right away, and has yet to hit the decline stage of his career, so the percentages will go down as the years go by. However, at age 29, there is no reason to think he is past his prime and will not be able to add to his number of top five seasons, meaning he should be able to retire with some of the highest numbers in all four columns.
Argument #5: The Steelers win without Roethlisberger, so how could he be that valuable?
This one picked up some steam for the 2010 season due to the Steelers starting 3-1 with Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch at quarterback while Roethlisberger served his suspension. Apparently it did not matter to answer two important questions: what was the offense’s contribution to the winning, and what happens when the other top quarterbacks are replaced?
Yes, the Steelers were 3-1 to start the 2010 season. However, they were one of the worst offenses in the league during that period, averaging 269.5 yards/game (29th), a 77.5 passer rating (20th), 18.0 offensive points/game (16th), and just 136.0 passing yards/game (31st). They were 29th at converting third downs, converting only 14 out of 49 attempts (28.6%). Their drive success rate was .578, ranked last in the league.
Things changed quickly once Roethlisberger came back. They returned to an offense that favored the pass, and their offensive production went up. For the twelve games with Roethlisberger, the Steelers averaged 370.6 yards/game (7th), 22.9 offensive points/game (9th), and 254.8 passing yards/game (6th). They were 80/169 (47.3%) on third down, which would have ranked third in the league.
In simple terms, the offense saw an increase of 100 yards and 5 points per game with Roethlisberger versus the other quarterbacks. That is also done with an offense more centered on the passing game. Coach Mike Tomlin knew months in advance he was not going to have Roethlisberger for the first part of the season, so he and his staff adjusted to accommodate that by focusing on the running game early in the year. Fortunately, Rashard Mendenhall got off to a nice start last season, rushing for over 120 yards in two different victories for Pittsburgh. The Steelers were able to rush for 118.0 yards/game at 4.25 yards/carry in the first four games of the season. Many people figured the offense would get much better now that they can complement the run with the pass.
The offense did get better, but that was due to the addition of an actual passing attack. The run and pass are a balancing act in the NFL. Most defenses are going to be able to stop or at least contain one aspect of the offense, giving way to the other. The running game immediately got worse for Pittsburgh, with Mendenhall cracking the 100-yard barrier just twice in the next fifteen games. Through the regular season and the playoffs, the Steelers provided Roethlisberger with a ground game that averaged 100.9 yards/game at 3.87 yards/carry, both down from the first four games when they focused on the run. But ultimately the inferior running game was offset by the stronger passing game they got out of Roethlisberger’s return. In a passing league, you want the stronger passing game.
Overall, the Steelers are 8-6 since 2004 when Roethlisberger does not start. What happens when some other HOF-caliber quarterbacks miss time and the backups have to start in their place? I compared Roethlisberger to eight other quarterbacks. GS = Games Started, PPG = points per game, OPG = offensive points per game, PR = passer rating.
Several things stand out. Six of the players saw their teams hover around the .500 mark in their absence. Only Brady, Montana and Bradshaw saw their teams do better than two games over .500. What else do those three quarterbacks have in common? Four Super Bowl starts and at least three rings.
Interestingly enough, the offensive-adjusted scoring was right around 20.0 points/game, with Roethlisberger’s Steelers ranking on the lower end, and Brady’s (2008) Patriots five points better than Marino’s second place Dolphins.
The passing stats for Roethlisberger’s Steelers are the second worst on the list, with his “friend” Terry Bradshaw’s Steelers having the worst stats. Different eras, but these are lousy numbers even for these eras. They’re the only two to throw more interceptions than touchdowns.
There are other factors at play that makes Roethlisberger’s backups look even worse. For starters, Roethlisberger has never started on a losing team. Brady is the only other QB on the list that can say the same. The numbers can look very different once you start factoring in bad teams, such as the 1989 Cowboys and their 1-15 record. You have to find the peaks and valleys that likely exist in such a dataset. You have to question if the quarterbacks played well because they were on good teams (like Matt Cassel), or if they played bad because they were on bad teams (1989-90 Cowboys). If the backup is bad on a good team, then you have a problem.
I’ll go through each quarterback to provide context to the table.
Tom Brady – 15 starts by Matt Cassel (15). All of Brady’s missed starts are from the 2008 season, making him the only quarterback on the list to have every missed start come from one season. Matt Cassel, a quarterback that was in danger of not making the roster and had not played significant minutes of football since high school, stepped in and did the unthinkable. He led the Patriots to an 11-5 record, with an offense that orchestrated out of the shotgun more than half the time to do this: averaged 25.7 OPG (3rd), 365.4 yards/game (5th), ran the most plays in the league, gained the most first downs, had by far the least offensive penalties, and had the most fourth down conversions and second highest fourth down conversion percentage. That’s not bad.
Dan Marino – 26 starts by Don Strock (2), Kyle Mackey (3), Scott Mitchell (7), Steve DeBerg (4), Bernie Kosar (2), Craig Erickson (3), and Damon Huard (5). Don Shula did a great job of using the backup quarterback when he coached the Colts and also with the 70’s Dolphins (Earl Morrall was his main guy). The Dolphins started well early on without Marino, going 8-3 in their first 11 starts he missed. Then they lost eight straight without him in the mid-90’s, before finishing 5-2 behind some strong defensive performances.
Joe Montana – 31 starts by Steve DeBerg (3), Matt Cavanaugh (2), Jeff Kemp (6), Mike Moroski (2), Bob Gagliano (1), Steve Young (10), Dave Krieg (5), and Steve Bono (2). You might look at the stats and think Steve Young is boosting up the numbers. There is some truth to that, but without Young’s 10 games the numbers still look better than replacement-level: 25 TDs, 20 INTs, 79.0 rating, 11-9-1 record. Not included is anything from 1991-92, as it was evident Montana was injured and Young was the new starter in San Francisco.
Steve Young – 30 starts by Steve Bono (6), Elvis Grbac (9), Jim Druckenmiller (1), Ty Detmer (1), Jeff Garcia (10), and Steve Stenstrom (3). Young is a great example of a quarterback that played on a lot of very good teams that could get by without him for small stretches. It wasn’t until the 1999 season when he suffered a career-ending injury that the 49ers tanked without him. From 1991-98, the 49er backup went 13-4 with an 86.8 rating and 23.6 OPG. In 1999, a young Garcia and bad Steve Stenstrom went 2-11 with a 77.2 rating and 16.2 OPG. Not included are his Tampa Bay days, where everything was bad in that organization.
John Elway – 25 starts by Steve DeBerg (6), Gary Kubiak (5), Ken Karcher (3), Tommy Maddox (4), Hugh Millen (2), Bill Musgrave (1), and Bubby Brister (4). In the 80’s, Elway never had a losing team and his backups went 9-5 with a 77.1 rating (Elway: 73.6 in that period; granted, only comparing 14 games) and 19.6 OPG. Then from 1992-96 his backups lost seven straight starts, only scoring more than 17 points twice, before Bubby Brister won all four of his in grand fashion in 1998 on a loaded Super Bowl team.
Terry Bradshaw – 44 starts by Terry Hanratty (12), Joe Gilliam (7), Mike Kruczek (6), Cliff Stoudt (17), and Mark Malone (2). Bradshaw’s stats are hard to collect here, given he often played in games he didn’t start early in his career, so a lot of the points scored by the backup were actually Bradshaw-led drives. Then in 1974 Bradshaw lost his starting job to Joe Gilliam, but later regained it. The Steelers built arguably the greatest team ever during the 1970’s, so rather than pick through that just take a look at some of the downright ugly numbers his backups had in the difficult passing atmosphere of the era. Joe Gilliam went 0/7 with 3 INTs against the Dolphins (12/3/1973). Terry Hanratty also had a 0.0 passer rating game: 3/12 for 35 yards, 2 INTs vs. Chiefs (11/15/1970). 44 games and 21 of them were with a rating under 60.0. The decade was tough, but the league-average was still 65.3. You can say Bradshaw was not that hot for a good portion of his career, but consider the alternatives.
Jim Kelly – 17 starts by Dan Manucci (1), Willie Totten (1), Brian McClure (1), Frank Reich (10), and Todd Collins (4). Kelly’s stats are probably the most deceiving of them all. Frank Reich was a very good backup that of course engineered the greatest comeback in NFL history against the Houston Oilers in the playoffs. Todd Collins wasn’t bad either. What kills the numbers is the 1987 strike and the three replacement player games. Buffalo started three different quarterbacks and none of their regular starters. The results were disastrous. Buffalo went 1-2 in the games, with the quarterbacks combining to go 36/79 for 333 yards, 1 TD, 7 INTs, 24.9 rating, and a total of 20 points on the board. Reich and Collins combined to go 8-6, 208/351 for 2514 yards, 19 TDs, 11 INTs, 86.3 rating and 19.8 OPG. That’s more like it.
Troy Aikman – 29 starts by Steve Walsh (5), Babe Laufenberg (1), Steve Beuerlein (6), Jason Garrett (9), Bernie Kosar (1), Rodney Peete (1), Wade Wilson (1), Randall Cunningham (3), and Anthony Wright (2). Aikman is the only one listed with his backups having a losing record. He’s also the only one on the list to have his backups start games in more than two seasons (3) where the team had a losing record. Steve Walsh started the lone win of the 1989 season, Aikman’s rookie year. From 1991-99, Aikman’s backups went 12-6 (.667) with 18 TDs, 9 INTs, 82.0 rating and 18.9 OPG. Aikman himself was 83-45 (.648) as a starter, with 138 TDs, 91 INTs, 86.4 rating. In those three bad years (1989-90, 2000), Aikman’s backups went 2-9 with 10 TDs, 12 INTs, 63.3 rating and 13.5 OPG. Aikman himself in those years was 11-26 as a starter, with 27 TDs, 50 INTs and a 62.6 rating. As the team went, so went Aikman and his backups.
Ben Roethlisberger – 14 starts by Tommy Maddox (5), Charlie Batch (6) and Dennis Dixon (3). What stands out is how well the rest of the team plays to make up for the downgrade at quarterback. In these 14 games, the defense/special teams combined to score six touchdowns on returns (0.43/game). In Roethlisberger’s 99 games, the defense/special teams have scored 18 touchdowns on returns (0.18/game). This is why Roethlisberger’s Steelers have the largest difference in PPG vs. OPG (-3.0). Charlie Batch had a couple of nice starts, but generally these are ugly numbers. Tommy Maddox lost four fumbles to give him a total of 10 turnovers in his five starts. And remember, none of these teams were having bad seasons. No matter which area you want to focus on, it doesn’t take an expert to see that the Steelers decline a lot offensively without Roethlisberger in the lineup. He’s as valuable to his team as anyone else on the list.
I would have liked to compare more elite quarterbacks in this manner, but they are hard to come by. Favre, Manning and Rivers just do not miss starts. I rejected Drew Brees’ 7-game sample which consists of five games he was benched for bad performance in 2003 on a 4-12 San Diego team, and two week 17 games where he rested for the playoffs. Statistics suggest the Colts with a record of 32-14-1 in Johnny Unitas’ absence, and with strong passing numbers (58 TDs, 45 INTs, 78.2 rating; Earl Morrall 1968 league MVP). Unitas was left out due to incomplete data.
Argument #6: Roethlisberger’s off-field incidents should keep him out of Canton. Children visit there! Someone think of the children!
Believe it or not, this might be the sanest argument one can make against Roethlisberger’s HOF bid. Paul Zimmerman, longtime voter, has made it publicly aware he will never vote for quarterback Ken Stabler for the HOF in large part due to his off-field incidents. He is surely not the only voter that would feel that way about weighing off-field conduct, even though voters have been instructed to not consider such material. If O.J. Simpson was not already in, would he have made it after the murder trial? We’ll never know, but we do know one thing: Simpson has not been thrown out.
What Roethlisberger has on his side is time. Remember when Ray Lewis was indicted for murder? Remember Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case? Today these two athletes are among the most respected in sports, and are still huge draws for endorsements and network coverage. Michael Vick has regained a lot of his fame after serving 21 months in prison for his involvement with dog fighting. If they can do it, then Roethlisberger, who has zero arrests or charges against him, can overcome his sexual assault allegations.
Look, this is the area where it really is all up to Ben Roethlisberger. Did the incident in Milledgeville, Georgia that led to his suspension and rumors of the Steelers looking to part ways with him act as the final wake-up call? Only time will tell. Roethlisberger is a newlywed. Perhaps that will put an end to the immature nightclub restroom escapades. Perhaps he has figured out that it is time to settle down and be a grown man. There is a lot of money and respect to be earned from this game for Roethlisberger. He can go down as one of the best ever, or one of the most disappointing. It is up to him.
If Roethlisberger stays true to his words and honors his name, stays healthy and continues to play his game, then five years after retirement he’ll be welcomed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame*.
*Unless James Harrison snaps and figures out what a hitman does for a living.