Ben Roethlisberger vs. the Field: How Big Ben's First Seven NFL Seaons Stack Up Against Other Great NFL Quarterbacks

As some of you may remember, I've enjoyed contributing a statistical post to BTSC every now and then. There are a couple of my posts still linked at the left side of the main page, comparing the numbers of the some of the top RBs, WRs, and QBs in NFL history. I also posted an article comparing Big Ben to Eli Manning several years ago while I was between jobs and free to do more research and writing than usual.

After a long hiatus since then, I thought it might be a good time to look back at Roethlisberger's statistics through seven NFL seasons, and then compare his numbers with other QBs, both retired and active, who have started a sizable number of games like Roethlisberger has since 2004.

I pulled my data from Pro-Football-Reference.com. Using their Player Season Finder, I ran a query on all QBs that had 16,000 or more passing yards in their first seven NFL seasons. That would, of course, include some of the all time greats, but it also includes some of the "Hall of Very Good," as well as some "just ok" QBs. But, my goal here was not another comparison of all time greats. I just wanted to see how Ben stacked up against a fairly large sample size. I set the bar at 16,000 passing yards in order to include Tony Romo, because he is one of the QBs in my mind that has been one of Ben's contemporaries, a la Eli and Philip Rivers. I also thought about Aaron Rodgers, but he's only started three seasons, so I would have had to drop the bar to 12,000 career passing yards. I just thought that would open it up too much. 

While this analysis is not exactly the same as the ones that I mentioned above, I followed the same general process. I looked at variety of statistics that were provided by the PFR query, then ranked the players in each category and took the average of each player's rankings. I used the average rankings to determine an overall aggregate ranking for all of the players. For more information the process, I recommend taking a look at one of the posts that I mentioned above (they are under the Statistical Comparisons section).

With that brief intro, let's take a look at the numbers. First, we have the raw statistics from PFR, broken down into two separate tables. Each row of data is sortable.

 

Player From To Tm G GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate
Dan Marino* 1983 1989 MIA 103 101 2174 3650 59.60% 27853 220 125 89.3
Peyton Manning 1998 2004 CLT 112 112 2464 3880 63.50% 29442 216 120 92.3
Kurt Warner 1998 2004 TOT 63 59 1295 1965 65.90% 16501 108 69 95.7
Daunte Culpepper 1999 2005 MIN 81 80 1678 2607 64.40% 20162 135 86 91.5
Trent Green 1997 2004 TOT 88 83 1705 2822 60.40% 21607 133 82 87.9
Marc Bulger 2002 2008 RAM 87 87 1829 2924 62.60% 21345 117 87 85.6
Drew Bledsoe 1993 1999 NWE 106 105 2192 3921 55.90% 25966 147 123 75.7
Philip Rivers 2004 2010 SDG 84 80 1564 2455 63.70% 19661 136 58 97.2
Carson Palmer 2004 2010 CIN 97 97 2024 3217 62.90% 22694 154 100 86.9
Brett Favre 1991 1997 TOT 97 93 1971 3205 61.50% 22591 182 95 89.3
Drew Brees 2001 2007 TOT 91 90 1921 3015 63.70% 21189 134 82 87.9
Warren Moon* 1984 1990 OTI 99 99 1701 3025 56.20% 22989 134 112 79.9
Jim Everett 1986 1992 RAM 97 96 1712 3003 57.00% 22106 134 111 79.7
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 2010 PIT 99 98 1766 2800 63.10% 22502 144 86 92.5
Jim Kelly* 1986 1992 BUF 102 102 1824 3024 60.30% 23031 161 108 86.9
Tom Brady 2000 2006 NWE 96 94 1896 3064 61.90% 21564 147 78 88.4
Joe Namath* 1965 1971 NYJ 78 73 1144 2281 50.20% 17283 107 122 68.8
Aaron Brooks 2000 2006 TOT 93 90 1673 2963 56.50% 20261 123 92 78.5
Mark Brunell 1994 2000 TOT 89 84 1608 2672 60.20% 19212 106 66 85.1
Eli Manning 2004 2010 NYG 105 103 1932 3332 58.00% 22646 156 113 80.2
Bernie Kosar 1985 1991 CLE 94 92 1671 2857 58.50% 19937 103 71 81.6
John Elway* 1983 1989 DEN 100 98 1665 3070 54.20% 21195 120 114 73.6
Boomer Esiason 1984 1990 CIN 101 93 1520 2687 56.60% 21381 150 98 85.8
Jeff Garcia 1999 2005 TOT 91 86 1695 2785 60.90% 19076 126 71 85.8
Johnny Unitas* 1956 1962 CLT 86 81 1252 2316 54.10% 18010 148 119 79.4
Ken O'Brien 1984 1990 NYJ 98 87 1697 2878 59.00% 20444 109 78 82.2
Jake Plummer 1997 2003 TOT 95 93 1729 3056 56.60% 19804 105 121 71.2
Jeff George 1990 1996 TOT 87 84 1588 2712 58.60% 18126 91 78 77.9
Phil Simms 1979 1986 NYG 85 82 1326 2492 53.20% 17585 104 103 72.5
Donovan McNabb 1999 2005 PHI 94 88 1718 2943 58.40% 19433 134 66 84.1
Jon Kitna 1997 2003 TOT 85 76 1589 2704 58.80% 17537 103 98 75.7
Neil Lomax 1981 1987 CRD 94 87 1562 2710 57.60% 19376 116 79 82
Kerry Collins 1995 2001 TOT 94 88 1616 2959 54.60% 19200 100 104 71.3
Jim Zorn 1976 1982 SEA 94 92 1483 2768 53.60% 18876 100 124 68.5
Mark Rypien 1988 1994 TOT 83 75 1303 2335 55.80% 16622 105 78 79.3
Troy Aikman* 1989 1995 DAL 98 98 1704 2713 62.80% 19607 98 85 83.5
Norm Snead 1961 1967 TOT 89 85 1162 2323 50.00% 17232 112 131 67.3
Neil O'Donnell 1991 1997 TOT 87 81 1438 2519 57.10% 16810 89 53 80.5
Vinny Testaverde 1987 1993 TOT 86 78 1256 2390 52.60% 16617 91 121 66.4
Otto Graham* 1946 1952 CLE 90 79 1057 1943 54.40% 17049 137 101 85.8
Tony Romo 2004 2010 DAL 89 61 1326 2070 64.10% 16650 118 62 95.5
Joe Montana* 1979 1985 SFO 103 79 1627 2571 63.30% 19262 133 67 92.4
Jay Schroeder 1985 1991 TOT 87 79 1092 2158 50.60% 16245 94 88 73.1
Steve McNair 1995 2001 OTI 87 79 1333 2288 58.30% 16035 86 61 81.3
Fran Tarkenton* 1961 1967 TOT 98 91 1228 2276 54.00% 17667 142 114 79.3
Steve Grogan 1975 1981 NWE 93 86 1123 2188 51.30% 16485 114 140 67
John Hadl 1962 1968 SDG 98 74 1081 2188 49.40% 16773 133 134 69.9

Table 1

 

        Passing Passing Passing Passing Passing Passing Passing Passing
Player From To Tm Sk Y/A SkYds AY/A ANY/A Y/G TD/G Int/G
Dan Marino* 1983 1989 MIA 83 7.63 670 7.3 6.95 270.4 2.1359 1.2136
Peyton Manning 1998 2004 CLT 139 7.59 941 7.31 6.82 262.9 1.9286 1.0714
Kurt Warner 1998 2004 TOT 153 8.4 913 7.92 6.91 261.9 1.7143 1.0952
Daunte Culpepper 1999 2005 MIN 228 7.73 1214 7.29 6.27 248.9 1.6667 1.0617
Trent Green 1997 2004 TOT 190 7.66 1179 7.29 6.44 245.5 1.5114 0.9318
Marc Bulger 2002 2008 RAM 240 7.3 1778 6.76 5.69 245.3 1.3448 1
Drew Bledsoe 1993 1999 NWE 212 6.62 1493 5.96 5.29 245 1.3868 1.1604
Philip Rivers 2004 2010 SDG 140 8.01 868 8.05 7.28 234.1 1.619 0.6905
Carson Palmer 2004 2010 CIN 160 7.05 1116 6.61 5.97 234 1.5876 1.0309
Brett Favre 1991 1997 TOT 194 7.05 1240 6.85 6.09 232.9 1.8763 0.9794
Drew Brees 2001 2007 TOT 126 7.03 938 6.69 6.13 232.8 1.4725 0.9011
Warren Moon* 1984 1990 OTI 242 7.6 1906 6.82 5.73 232.2 1.3535 1.1313
Jim Everett 1986 1992 RAM 168 7.36 1202 6.59 5.86 227.9 1.3814 1.1443
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 2010 PIT 274 8.04 1821 7.68 6.41 227.3 1.4545 0.8687
Jim Kelly* 1986 1992 BUF 201 7.62 1544 7.07 6.15 225.8 1.5784 1.0588
Tom Brady 2000 2006 NWE 182 7.04 1150 6.85 6.11 224.6 1.5313 0.8125
Joe Namath* 1965 1971 NYJ 19 7.58 180 6.11 5.43 221.6 1.3718 1.5641
Aaron Brooks 2000 2006 TOT 235 6.84 1454 6.27 5.36 217.9 1.3226 0.9892
Mark Brunell 1994 2000 TOT 235 7.19 1335 6.87 5.86 215.9 1.191 0.7416
Eli Manning 2004 2010 NYG 166 6.8 1177 6.21 5.58 215.7 1.4857 1.0762
Bernie Kosar 1985 1991 CLE 217 6.98 1340 6.58 5.68 212.1 1.0957 0.7553
John Elway* 1983 1989 DEN 207 6.9 1589 6.01 5.15 212 1.2 1.14
Boomer Esiason 1984 1990 CIN 186 7.96 1475 7.43 6.44 211.7 1.4851 0.9703
Jeff Garcia 1999 2005 TOT 133 6.85 703 6.61 6.07 209.6 1.3846 0.7802
Johnny Unitas* 1956 1962 CLT   7.78   6.74   209.4 1.7209 1.3837
Ken O'Brien 1984 1990 NYJ 295 7.1 2204 6.64 5.33 208.6 1.1122 0.7959
Jake Plummer 1997 2003 TOT 229 6.48 1399 5.39 4.58 208.5 1.1053 1.2737
Jeff George 1990 1996 TOT 232 6.68 1739 6.06 4.99 208.3 1.046 0.8966
Phil Simms 1979 1986 NYG 268 7.06 2077 6.03 4.69 206.9 1.2235 1.2118
Donovan McNabb 1999 2005 PHI 234 6.6 1462 6.5 5.57 206.7 1.4255 0.7021
Jon Kitna 1997 2003 TOT 165 6.49 1039 5.62 4.93 206.3 1.2118 1.1529
Neil Lomax 1981 1987 CRD 316 7.15 2385 6.69 5.21 206.1 1.234 0.8404
Kerry Collins 1995 2001 TOT 180 6.49 1216 5.58 4.88 204.3 1.0638 1.1064
Jim Zorn 1976 1982 SEA 191 6.82 1418 5.53 4.69 200.8 1.0638 1.3191
Mark Rypien 1988 1994 TOT 84 7.12 589 6.51 6.05 200.3 1.2651 0.9398
Troy Aikman* 1989 1995 DAL 167 7.23 1080 6.54 5.79 200.1 1 0.8673
Norm Snead 1961 1967 TOT   7.42   5.84   193.6 1.2584 1.4719
Neil O'Donnell 1991 1997 TOT 211 6.67 1545 6.43 5.37 193.2 1.023 0.6092
Vinny Testaverde 1987 1993 TOT 214 6.95 1650 5.44 4.36 193.2 1.0581 1.407
Otto Graham* 1946 1952 CLE   8.77   7.85   189.4 1.5222 1.1222
Tony Romo 2004 2010 DAL 106 8.04 660 7.84 7.15 187.1 1.3258 0.6966
Joe Montana* 1979 1985 SFO 151 7.49 1067 7.35 6.55 187 1.2913 0.6505
Jay Schroeder 1985 1991 TOT 159 7.53 1248 6.56 5.57 186.7 1.0805 1.0115
Steve McNair 1995 2001 OTI 156 7.01 940 6.56 5.76 184.3 0.9885 0.7011
Fran Tarkenton* 1961 1967 TOT   7.76   6.76   180.3 1.449 1.1633
Steve Grogan 1975 1981 NWE 156 7.53 1317 5.7 4.76 177.3 1.2258 1.5054
John Hadl 1962 1968 SDG   7.67   6.13   171.2 1.3571 1.3673

Table 2

Before going forward, just a couple of notes about the statistics above. First, the only statistics in Tables 1 and 2 that are not straight from PFR are the final 2 columns in Table 2. I calculated the TD/G and Int/G by simply dividing each player's total TDs and Ints by the number of games played in their first seven years in the league. Second, some of the players have sack statistics listed (or very small numbers) since the NFL has not always tracked quarterback sacks (Wikipedia says that the NFL began tracking how many times QBs were sacked in 1963, while they began tracking defensive player sacks in 1982).

As I touched on above, I followed a similar process to what I used in the RBs, WRs, and QBs articles that are posted on the left side of the front page. Basically, I ranked the players by completion percentage, passer rating, and the per attempt and per game statistics given in the tables above by sorting the players on those statistics. I then averaged each players rankings and gave them an overall ranking by sorting according to their mean average ranking. The results were placed into the table below. 

 

Player Cmp% Rate Y/A AY/A Y/G TD/G Int/G ANY/A Mean Avg
Philip Rivers 4 1 5 1 8 7 3 1 3.750
Kurt Warner 1 2 2 2 3 5 29 4 6.000
Peyton Manning 6 6 15 8 2 2 27 5 8.875
Ben Roethlisberger 8 4 4 5 14 16 14 9 9.250
Daunte Culpepper 2 7 9 10 4 6 26 10 9.250
Tony Romo 3 3 3 4 41 26 4 2 10.750
Trent Green 15 12 11 11 5 12 17 7 11.250
Dan Marino* 18 9 12 9 1 1 39 3 11.500
Brett Favre 13 8 30 14 10 3 20 14 14.000
Jim Kelly* 16 14 13 12 15 9 25 11 14.375
Joe Montana* 7 5 19 7 42 28 2 6 14.500
Tom Brady 12 10 31 15 16 10 11 13 14.750
Boomer Esiason 29 16 6 6 23 14 19 8 15.125
Drew Brees 5 11 32 21 11 15 16 12 15.375
Carson Palmer 9 13 29 23 9 8 24 17 16.500
Marc Bulger 11 18 22 18 6 25 22 23 18.125
Mark Brunell 17 19 24 13 19 36 7 18 19.125
Jeff Garcia 14 15 37 24 24 20 9 15 19.750
Otto Graham* 36 17 1 3 40 11 31   19.857
Warren Moon* 32 28 14 16 12 24 32 22 22.500
Johnny Unitas* 38 30 7 19 25 4 43   23.714
Jim Everett 28 29 21 25 13 21 34 19 23.750
Ken O'Brien 19 22 27 22 26 37 10 31 24.250
Troy Aikman* 10 21 23 29 36 46 13 20 24.750
Bernie Kosar 22 24 34 26 21 39 8 24 24.750
Donovan McNabb 23 20 44 31 30 18 6 26 24.750
Neil Lomax 26 23 25 20 32 31 12 33 25.250
Eli Manning 25 27 40 34 20 13 28 25 26.500
Mark Rypien 34 31 26 30 35 29 18 16 27.375
Fran Tarkenton* 39 32 8 17 45 17 37   27.857
Steve McNair 24 25 33 28 44 47 5 21 28.375
Aaron Brooks 31 33 38 33 18 27 21 30 28.875
Neil O'Donnell 27 26 42 32 38 45 1 29 30.000
Drew Bledsoe 33 36 43 40 7 19 36 32 30.750
Joe Namath* 45 43 16 36 17 22 47 28 31.750
Jeff George 21 34 41 37 28 44 15 35 31.875
Jay Schroeder 44 38 18 27 43 40 23 27 32.500
John Elway* 37 37 36 39 22 35 33 34 34.125
Jon Kitna 20 35 45 43 31 34 35 36 34.875
John Hadl 47 42 10 35 47 23 42   35.143
Phil Simms 41 39 28 38 29 33 38 39 35.625
Norm Snead 46 45 20 41 37 30 45   37.714
Kerry Collins 35 40 46 44 33 41 30 37 38.250
Steve Grogan 43 46 17 42 46 32 46 38 38.750
Jake Plummer 30 41 47 47 27 38 40 41 38.875
Jim Zorn 40 44 39 45 34 42 41 40 40.625
Vinny Testaverde 42 47 35 46 39 43 44 42 42.250

Table 3

While this analysis is not as exhaustive as the previous ones, I think it still gives a good idea of how the different players compare with each other. My goal here was more a quick assessment on how Ben compares with other QBs through 7 seasons. And frankly, I think that my results were probably pretty similar to what they would have been had I followed the same process that I did in the previous posts, but they only required about 1/10th of the time and effort. Anyway, let's take a look at the results.

Not surprisingly, Ben stacks up pretty well in every category. He's tied for fourth overall with Dante Culpepper, with an average ranking of 9.25 across the various categories. Of the eight categories, he ranks in the top 5 in 3 of them, top 10 in 5, top 15 in 7 and top 16 in all 8. It's not surprising that most of the top QBs in this analysis are players who played since 2000, but it's interesting to note the players in this analysis that Ben is ahead of: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, and significantly higher than Eli Manning. He also compares favorably with Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner, although slightly behind them.

Some have said that Ben is just a "game manager," benefiting from the Steelers' defense and run heavy offense, but he is 14th in yards per game in NFL history through his first seven years. The "game manager" tag may have fit his first 3 years (although few game managers excel as Ben did in his first couple years), but as we all know, the Steelers have not been a top tier rushing since 2007. In fact, given the more limited nature of Ben's offensive game early in his career, his yards/game ranking is actually higher than we would expect. He has obviously made up for it in years 4-7. While increasing his yards/game in recent years, Roethlisberger has still maintained his high completion percentage and passer rating.

On the negative side, we all know about Ben's sack numbers. In fact, I only count 2 QBs with more sacks in their first  7 seasons.However, in ANY/A (adjusted net yards/attempt), which is the one stat in this analysis to incorporate sacks into it, Ben still looks pretty good. Even though I believe Ben has been the most sacked QB in the last 5 years, it has not had an overall huge impact on his productivity. He is still the 9th ranked QB for ANY/A in this analysis.

Taken together, I think these results tell us what we already knew in Steeler Nation. Ben Roethlisberger is one of the elite QBs in this league. After seven seasons, he has one of the best career starts in NFL history. To be fair, some of these QBs' per game numbers are adversely affected since they were not starters in their first season or two. Tony Romo, for example, ranks low in yards/game and TDs/game. But, I actually think that's fine because this analysis sort of builds in some additional credit for being ready to start as a rookie. Players like Big Ben who were up to the task of playing at a high level as rookies should get credit for that. Besides, the players who did not start as rookies were also assisted in Ints/game (Romo ranked 4th in that category), so it is offset somewhat.

I know that Ben's sack totals are a concern, and could conceivably shorten his career, but I think there are a couple of things that we can take some hope in. One, Ben is only 29 years old. While not the average, there are certainly players who have played into their late 30s. The second item to give us hope is related to the first. That is the fact that the most sacked QB in NFL history, John Elway, was one of those players who played into his late 30's. So, I fully expect to see number 7 in a Steelers uniform for at least another 5 years, if not longer. And, based on his performance so far in his career, I expect him finish his career as a sure Hall of Famer.

On a side note, as an NC State alum, I would be remiss if I didn't point out Philip Rivers at the top of this analysis. I know, many of you don't like him, but he is clearly a great QB. He has not had the playoff success that Ben has, but I partly chalk that up to having Norv Turner at Head Coach.

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