After watching Philip Rivers in his new Indianapolis Colt’s jersey the first few weeks of the 2020 NFL season, and with Eli Manning probably on a golf course somewhere on Sundays, it seems safe to officially crown Ben Roethlisberger the king of the 2004 quarterback draft class.
This is not a slight to Rivers and Manning. Both have had tremendous careers. That 2004 group of QBs will go down in history as one of the most productive ever. And, yes, I know that Philip Rivers is still playing, but if last season is a precursor to his play in 2020 then he should be pulling the clubs out of his bag and joining Eli on the links.
Last season, Rivers shot putted his deep attempts with a perceptible decline in arm strength. He has always had a peculiar delivery, but it was a noticeable difference. Over the past few seasons, Rivers has made Austin Eckler and Melvin Gordon his favorite receivers not named Keenan Allen, as well as tight end Hunter Henry when he can stay healthy on the field. Screens and dump-offs to these short pass targets have become his staple.
42 catches for Gordon, 92 catches for Eckler, and 55 catches for Henry in 2019.
Keenan Allen caught 104 balls, but only for an 11.5 average. There was Mike Williams with an impressive 20.4 average, but the noticeable stat for Rivers was that he threw 20 interceptions against only 24 TDs.
You know these interceptions did not come on his multitude of screens to his RBs. Throwing deep has become a dicey proposition for him.
And, unless his 2020 season changes, Rivers has simply made the Indianapolis Colts the Los Angeles Chargers East. In his first game, Rivers anointed Nyheim Hines the new Austin Eckler with 8 receptions, and even rookie Jonathon Taylor – whose knocks coming out of college were his receiving ability (!) and fumbling – hauled in 6 receptions. To top it off, running back Marlon Mack had 3 receptions before leaving very early with an injury, and add 6 receptions to speedster Parris Campbell who ran short patterns out of the slot, ala Keenan Allen.
Moreover, he threw 2 interceptions and 1 TD. There seems to be little reason to believe he is in any kind of talent ascent or holding pattern. He is still capable but has declined. Can he do a declining Peyton Manning repeat and win a Super Bowl in this descent? Maybe, but it seems unlikely.
So, his career is impressive numbers-wise even though he never hoisted a Lombardi. There very well is a spot in Canton for him even if he does not pull off a Peyton Manning/John Elway-type Super Bowl victory in the future. It may take some time to get in the Hall, but you can’t say he was not a top quarterback of his time. He had some good teams, won many games, put up numbers and came close to the title game, but the top prize was elusive.
Not so for Eli Manning. In fact, winning the Super Bowl is the biggest reason that Manning will probably get his ugly gold jacket. Not only did he win his two attempts, he also was declared MVP of each game. That’s huge. When you are voted the top player on the NFL’s biggest stage, it gets no better than that.
That is every player’s goal each season, or at least it should be. Get to the big game and then be the best in that game. And, the fact that one came against the highly favored and undefeated New England Patriots can’t be understated. It’s a team sport and certainly the Giant’s killer pass rush played a huge role, but Eli’s accomplishment versus the GOAT was his golden moment. And, that he beat the Patriots twice in Super Bowls, well that’s just impressive, enough said.
Now, the rest of Manning’s career is not as sterling. Aside from an impressive longevity streak, Eli was not dominating during his career. Comparing stats and regular season play between Philip Rivers and Eli Manning, you have to favor Rivers. He simply struck more fear into his opponents. Eli was more than capable as a quarterback, but I see him as very good — not great.
His career record was 117-117. His touchdown percentage was 4.5% and his interception percentage was 3.0%.
He certainly was a stat compiler. But, when you start 234 games, you’re going to compile stats. However, his career is over and cemented in the books, and there will be no more stats to compile. So, head-to-head between Rivers and Manning, give Rivers the career “greatness” edge, and give Eli Manning the “Lombardi” nod. Both are impressive QBs who will end up in the Hall of Fame, most likely.
While you can question the election to Canton for both of these players, you can’t question — and nobody of consequence does — that Ben Roethlisberger is a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee. You don’t have to put a “most likely” qualifier with his name.
This has to be extremely gratifying to Roethlisberger. He was not shy at all about revealing how he used as motivation that he was chosen third of those coveted QBs in that draft. Honestly, I remember the Steelers being high on Rivers, so, if given the choice, I’m not so sure they wouldn’t have chosen him.
While the Chargers drafted Eli number one and then, strangely, traded him to the Giants who picked Philip Rivers at four because of Manning’s (petty) public refusal to play for the Chargers, the Steelers were “stuck” with Roethlisberger.
We will never know for sure how the Steelers had all three ranked, but Roethlisberger’s fall to the Steelers ignited the franchise that suffered through poor QB play since Terry Bradshaw retired. Good teams went to waste in that time due to lackluster talent at QB.
Immediately upon insertion, the raw Roethlisberger finally made teams pay for stacking the box against the Steeler’s perennially strong rushing attack. They called him a game manager but any Steeler fan could see that his big, accurate arm finally gave the team the threat of beating you through the air. His career started off with a record string of victories only snapped in the playoffs versus the Brady-led Patriots.
Throughout his career, he has used his size, pocket mobility, and arm to keep the Steelers in the hunt. The combo has been lethal. Can you imagine Rivers — believe it or not a similar size — competing behind some of the Steelers lines over the years? Even when the line did its job, Roethlisberger was extending plays and playing sandlot football extraordinaire. Both Rivers and Manning loved to throw it at the offensive lineman’s feet when pressured. This isn’t always a bad thing, but the unique threat of Big Ben brought his team to another level.
Three Super Bowl appearances and two victories later, Roethlisberger sits with Manning tied for Lombardi trophies. Though he didn’t win MVP in those games, he arguably should have won instead of Santonio Holmes. Big Ben’s pass to Santonio Holmes was every bit as perfect as Holmes’ catch, and, actually, he threw the perfect pass to Holmes the play before – which Holmes muffed. Also, Roethlisberger’s frantic scrambling and play-extension on that game winning drive was the stuff of legends. Had he not run around like a chicken-with-its-head-cut-off, Holmes doesn’t get open for his catches.
The politics of Ben’s legal issues at the time may have played a part in him not receiving MVP. Who knows?
Again, imagine how many times Rivers and Manning would have thrown the ball at their lineman’s feet on that game-winning drive as the pocket continually collapsed. Rivers and Manning played to live for another down, whereas Big Ben played/plays like every down is his last down.
Unlike Manning and — yes — Rivers, Roethlisberger is still competing at a high level if the first few weeks are any indication. If there has been a drop in his ability, it appears to be negligible. With this talented team around him, he is in legitimate competition for more rings. And unlike Rivers, Roethlisberger has the talent still to take the team on his back. If not anything else, he appears poised to add victories and stats to an already high haul of both.
So, Ben Roethlisberger has the stats, the championships, the elite play, the surefire Hall of Fame ticket, and the longevity. He checks all the boxes. And, finally, the last picked elite QB of the 2004 draft has the thing he most desired on his draft day.
He has become the undeniable greatest of his class.