Almost immediately after the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, the masses had started to anoint Joe Flacco an "elite" quarterback, placing him in the upper echelon of NFL society with the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. And really, "anoint" would be an accurate way to describe it, right? What does "elite" mean, anyway? As others have pointed out, did Flacco's performance in the playoffs that helped lead Baltimore to its first championship in 12 seasons suddenly make him this super-human quarterback? Did Sammy Baugh descend from the Heavens, tap Flacco on the shoulder with a golden football and proclaim, "You are one of us, now, Son. Prepare your speech for Canton."?
The answer is no to those rather snarky questions. Nothing about Flacco changed following his epic postseason performance (other than his future paycheck). The fact is, the talent was there all along, and he was able to maximize it at the right time.
Instead of elite, maybe the word "franchise" is a better way to describe Flacco and other quarterbacks like the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph. The word franchise is much more tangible because it denotes a player's ability. The word "elite" denotes a person joining an exclusive club. And really, it's a matter of opinion whether or not Flacco, Roethlisberger, or quarterbacks of their ilk belong in the "elite" category. For every person who says Peyton Manning is an elite quarterback because of his statistics and Super Bowl trophy, there are at least a few who will tell you that he has failed too many times in the playoffs to be labeled elite.
We in Steeler Nation certainly know what a franchise quarterback looks like. After Terry Bradshaw left following the '83 season, we suffered through passers named Stoudt, Malone, Woodley, Brister, O'Donnell, Tomczak, Stewart and Maddox. Some were better than others, but none of them would be worthy of the "franchise" label. Of all the quarterbacks in that group, the best of the bunch was Neil O'Donnell. He was a decent enough quarterback, but on his best day, he was no more than an efficient game-manager. O'Donnell was the signal-caller for Bill Cowher's talented playoff teams of '92-95. I've made this point before, but it's worth repeating: Those Steelers teams of the 90's were every bit as talented as the ones of the current Super Bowl era, but the one thing Pittsburgh was missing was a quarterback to get it over the hump.
As O'Donnell infamously demonstrated in Super Bowl XXX, he didn't really have the overall talent to lead a team to the Promised Land.
Same holds true for Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox, the quarterbacks of the Steelers' playoff teams of '97, '01 and '02. Pittsburgh lost the AFC Championship Game in '97 thanks, in-large part, to Stewart's failure to come through in key moments. Same holds true for the 2001 season, when again, Stewart couldn't make the plays necessary to defeat New England with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
A season later, this time with Maddox leading the way, the Steelers lost a heartbreaker in Tennessee in the divisional round after the journeyman quarterback couldn't make the critical throws to win the game at the end of regulation.
In the 2004 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh finally had a chance at a franchise quarterback when Roethlisberger was available with the 11th pick in the first round. Thankfully, the front office pulled the trigger, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As soon as Roethlisberger was inserted into the starting lineup in his rookie year and began to do his thing, it was apparent he had the "goods." After two decades of watching men with mostly mediocre talent fling footballs up and down Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field, I finally understood what it meant to have a supremely talented quarterback leading the way for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After struggling in the playoffs in his first year, Roethlisberger proved to be the difference in his second season, as he passed for seven touchdowns to only one interception to help lead Pittsburgh to three road playoff victories on the way to the Super Bowl in Detroit.
People are quick to point out Roethlisberger's huge struggles in Super Bowl XL, but what they often fail to mention is the young quarterback's ability to come through on third down and 28 late in the second quarter when the Steelers were trailing Seattle, 3-0. One could argue that it was the pivotal play in the game, as Pittsburgh soon cashed in with a touchdown and never trailed again on the way to its first championship in over a quarter of a century. To have the ability to scramble to his left, the presence of mind to know the situation, stop right at the 40 yard line (the line of scrimmage) and then have the arm-strength to launch the football downfield and to the right spot? That's what a franchise quarterback does.
Speaking of championships and speaking of talent, Pittsburgh's first franchise quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, often bumbled and fumbled his way through seasons (and even Super Bowls), but when the game was on the line, and the team needed his talents to shine--talents good enough to make him the number one overall selection in the 1970 draft--he came through more often than not, especially in those Super Bowls. As Bradshaw pointed out in a feature on "the History of the Steelers" DVD, he threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of every Super Bowl he ever played in.
Bradshaw didn't put up great stats during his career, but he had tremendous ability, and as he famously told Dwight White one day, "You can lose with me, but you'll never win without me." And really, that sums up what a talented quarterback means to a football team and the difference he can make.
Those 70's Steelers teams fielded nine future Hall of Famers (including Bradshaw) and an all-time great coach in Chuck Noll. However, one has to wonder just how many Super Bowls Pittsburgh would have won without No. 12 leading the way.
The Cowboys of the early 90's may have had the most talented group of players since those 70's Steelers teams. Dallas's roster was full of guys named Smith, Irvin, Lett, Novacek, Sanders, etc, etc. However, the difference for those squads, and the reason they won three Super Bowls in four seasons, may have been Troy Aikman, the quarterback who was picked number one in the '89 draft. Aikman didn't post overwhelming numbers in his career, but when it came to the postseason, he was truly on his game, as he threw 16 touchdown passes to only five interceptions in those three Super Bowl seasons.
Again, how many Super Bowls would those talented Cowboys teams have won without Aikman?
When it comes to a franchise quarterback, the question isn't really, has he led a team to a championship? The real question is, is he capable of doing so?
Fans like to debate the merits of past quarterbacks, and when they do, championships are often used as a criteria. People are often quick to dis all-time great quarterbacks like Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Dan Fouts because all three retired without a ring.
However, if you waved a magic wand and made those guys 25 again, dozens of teams would be willing to wreck their salary structures in order to acquire their talents. Why? Because they had the "goods." They were quarterbacks you could build a franchise around. Did any of them win a championship? No, but they were surely capable.
Again, "You may lose with me, but you'll never win without me."
When it comes to today's "elite or "franchise" quarterbacks, Brady and Manning have been considered, rightly or wrongly, the two best in the NFL for many seasons. Yet, of the last eight Super Bowl champions, two were led by Roethlisberger, two were led by Eli Manning, and the other three were led by Brees, Rodgers and Flacco.
In other words, it doesn't really matter where your team's quarterback is "ranked" in the "elite" pecking order. It's just important that your team has a quarterback who is worthy of even being in the discussion, because that means he's pretty damn good and your team can accomplish a lot with him under center.
As far as Roethlisberger is concerned, it doesn't matter where fans and pundits rank him among the great quarterbacks in the game, and it doesn't really matter if Flacco has "surpassed" him as the best quarterback in the AFC North.
Believe me, there is nobody more defensive about the merits of No. 7 than yours truly. However, when it comes to franchise quarterbacks, it's like having $10,000,000. Does it really matter if your neighbor has $15,000,000? No, because you can achieve a lot in life with $10,000,000.
I'm just happy the Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger. They may lose with him, but they'll never win without him.