Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s not exactly a joke, more like a smirk the collective football world seems to be having for much of the offseason when they talk about Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It goes like this: “Big Ben has had a great career, but he’s, you know, big, so he must be out of shape. And after last season, he’s obviously finished.”
Sometimes it’s couched in a compliment, such as CBS Sports’ Cody Benjamin writing the other week that Ben, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady are all dead solid locks for the Hall of Fame, but starting Big Ben’s write up with, “Roethlisberger hasn’t necessarily aged as gracefully as Brady and Rodgers...”
Sometimes it’s disguised as wisdom, like when Fansided runs stories with headlines like “3 reasons Ben Roethlisberger can’t be on the Steelers in 2021,” or featuring subheads like, “Roethlisberger’s overall regression will hurt the Steelers.”
Sometimes it’s myriad NFL writers ranking him fourth among AFC North quarterbacks, behind Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, and Joe Burrow (a prediction they’ll keep making over and over until it’s true, I suppose).
Sometimes it’s Mike Tannenbaum, former GM and now ESPN yapping head, saying he expects Ben to get benched this season for poor play. (With insights like that, one wonders why he’s a former GM and not running someone’s club right now...)
Sometimes it’s even Ike Taylor (of all people) telling TMZ (of all places), “I think [Ben] should shut it down.”
In some ways this is just the latest attempt to withhold credit from Roethlisberger. The argument used to be that the Steelers only won because of their defense — until the all-star defenders retired, and Ben kept winning. For a while, they would say that the Steelers were mostly a running team — except that Ben has more 500 yard passing games than anyone in history, and has led the NFL in attempts, completions, and yards multiple times. For a while, people could backhand compliment him by claiming he was a great back-yard baller, but not a much of a surgeon — except that he has more perfect games than anyone in history too. So now, we’re left with, “he used to be good, but it’s over.”
There are all sorts of responses I have to this, such as, “the guy played with half-an-offensive coordinator last year and no running game to speak of, one year off elbow surgery that nearly cost his career, with a receiving corps that led the league in dropped passes, and he still put up Pro Bowl type numbers and won 12 games (including 11 in a row).” But answers like this are too easy to issue.
Instead, I find myself a little fixated on the comparison to Brady and Rodgers. The talking heads can’t stop to wipe the drool off their faces when discussing Brady’s fitness (though the eyeball test seems to suggest that TB12 doesn’t have a lot of zing left in his fastball). And though Rodgers is only two years younger than Roethlisberger, and missed half a season just a couple years ago, I never hear chatter about his health declining. Yet, it’s the biggest certainty I can seem to find about Ben: the guy isn’t a star anymore. He’s finished.
It just hasn’t looked that way to me. So I went looking for numbers to bear this out.
Brady and Rodgers are generally regarded as the two prototype passers of this era, and they’re conveniently in the same age-bracket as Roethlisberger. So I lined up the three of them over the last seven seasons (since 2014), using all the typical passing stats. Seven years is a good sample size, and begins at a time when all three men were vets in their 30s, when all three had already won titles, and when all three had missed plenty of time with injuries. If Ben is the one that’s in decline, this stretch should make it easy to see.
I also isolated Ben’s 2020 season — the one that has given all these writers their juice this summer — to see if it shows a man hitting his end.
Ultimately, this wasn’t an attempt to claim that one of these guys was BETTER than another. Rather, I wanted to find out if Ben is clearly the worst, and if he appears to be spiraling toward the end.
(One more quick note: I ultimately didn’t factor Ben’s lost 2019 season into any averages. He played less than six quarters that year, so including it did nothing except make his per-season averages appear artificially low. That means Brady’s and Rodgers’ per season numbers will be averaged over seven years; Ben’s will be over six. It won’t affect any per-game averages, obviously.)
Alright, let’s go.
I’ve always thought “wins” was an overblown metric for quarterbacks; too many other factors go into wins and losses. But I’m in the minority on that. And I’ll admit that winning isn’t meaningless either (it’s hard to find a good team in this era that doesn’t also have a good QB). So let’s start there:
Wins & Losses
|Ben (just 2020)||-||-||-||-||-||.||15.0||12.0||3.0||0.0||0.800|
That’s odd. It looks like these guys are pretty comparable. All three are leaders of consistent winners, and Roethlisberger is even ahead of Rodgers.
And what’s this? Ben’s 2020 season (the “harbinger of doom” that convinced the NFL talk-o-sphere that he’s finished) was a more successful one than Brady or Rodgers typically? How strange.
Perhaps wins and losses shouldn’t be the #1 criteria for quarterback greatness. Or perhaps Ben’s not regressing as much as everyone thinks. Maybe a little of both. Let’s keep going.
Workload and Efficiency
This category is a way to ask how much the passer is expected to do (i.e. how many times he throws), as well as how good he is at getting that job done (how many of those are caught). Again, it’s not the only stat that counts, but It’s hard to imagine a dead-armed quarterback attempting a boat-load of passes for a winning team, and completing at a high rate.
|Player||Cmp||Att||Cmp%||.||per year||Att||Cmp%||.||per game||Att||Cmp%|
|Player||Cmp||Att||Cmp%||.||per year||Att||Cmp%||.||per game||Att||Cmp%|
|Ben (just 2020)||-||-||-||.||399||608||65.6||.||26.6||40.5||65.6|
This isn’t coming together the way one might expect. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Ben’s been asked to do the most, and has done it the most efficiently. And yet, Brady and Rodgers get the MVP awards every year (they’ve won three over the seven years surveyed). That doesn’t seem right.
Also, what are we supposed to do with the knowledge that Ben’s “ungraceful” decline in 2020 was still better than a typical year for Rodgers or Brady in their primes? And all this despite the fact that Roethlisberger’s teammates led the league in dropped passes this year.
We should all be so lucky as to decline “ungracefully” like this…
All three of these guys missed time with injuries, so yards-per-game is probably a more useful stat than total yards or yards-per-season. Meanwhile, yards per attempt is said to be one of the biggest hidden stats that predict passing success in the NFL.
|Ben (just 2020)||-||3803||254||6.25|
Again, these guys are pretty comparable across the board, but I’m actually starting to be struck with how many ways Roethlisberger seems stronger than the other two. In this case, he’s the yardage king — leading the way in yards per season, yards per game, and yards per attempt.
I figured Ben would represent better than he’s been given credit, but I’m surprised at just how well he shows.
Looking at this past season’s stats, clearly 2020 was a short-ball game for the Steelers (we all saw that). When the Steelers were healthy and winning, Ben drew up plays in the sand half the time because Randy Fichtner was so far out of his depth. And yet, even in 2020, he’s not too far off the pace in yards per game or yards for the season. His per-attempt yards is the only area that is truly weak, but that was partially by design.
I’m not ready to give Big Ben his gold watch based on bad scheming by a coach the Steelers subsequently let go.
Totals like TDs or INTs (just like raw yardage totals) can be misleading; after all, more attempts will almost always yield more picks. That’s why percentages and ratings are so useful. Part of the Roethlisberger joke is that he throws a lot of INTs; let’s see if that one’s true.
TDs, INTs, and QB Rating
|Ben (just 2020)||-||5.4||-||1.6||.||33||10||.||2.2||0.7||.||94.1|
Rodgers dominates in both TDs and INTs; that seems clear. But Ben is pretty comparable to Brady in TD percentage, and TDs per game and per year (as well as rating). I don’t think I expected that. Meanwhile, in 2020, his per-game numbers and percentages are right next to Brady’s averages across the board, and he threw more total TDs in 2020 than any of them throw on average.
All that said, Ben does appear to be a significant step behind these guys in throwing interceptions. There’s really no two ways about that. It turns out that you can put the gunslinger in surgical gear, and you might even get an excellent surgeon, but he’s still a gunslinger at heart...
Here’s the thing, though: Ben’s INT numbers are actually still pretty good.
Detractors often point to 2018, when Ben led the league in INTs. He threw 16 that year, on an absurd 675 passes (that’s 2.4%). That same year, NFL MVP Pat Mahomes threw 12 on 580 attempts (2.1%). The following season, the league leader was Jaemis Winston, who threw 30 picks on his 626 attempts (a whopping 4.8%). It appears that “leading the league in interceptions” can be a relative term. In fact, this past year, Brady tossed picks 2.0% of the time (12 on 610 passes), while Ben threw them on 1.6% of his passes.
Too many people see that Ben led the league in ‘18, and place him next to Winston, when the numbers suggest that he belongs just behind Brady or Mahomes.
Sacks and fumbles typically go hand in hand; it’s the reason quarterbacks usually lead the league in fumbles lost. And pocket-awareness is one of those traits that’s hard to measure, except in the negative (if a guy gets dropped a lot). So let’s see what these three look like:
Sacks and Fumbles
|Ben (just 2020)||-||-||2.09||.||13||118||.||0.9||7.9||.||-||5||0.33|
This is going to come as a surprise to some, but Ben is outstanding in terms of avoiding sacks. He’s the least sacked of these three any way you slice it, despite passing more often, and completing more of his attempts (i.e. not throwing it away). We can say that his lightning release last year contributed to this, but his averages since 2014 — when he was throwing deep to Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant a lot more — bear this out as well.
If you’ve watched Steelers games, you also know that (contrary to his early-career reputation) this isn’t just a function of Ben taking a lot of hits and shrugging them off. He’s certainly better at that than Brady or Rodgers (and one of the best who’s ever played, by that criteria), but he hasn’t regularly played Houdini since Bruce Ariens left in 2012.
These numbers reflect a smart, savvy, veteran who knows how to read the field, feel the rush, and find the open man.
|Ben (just 2020)||-||193||12.9||.||-||4.0||-||4.0||.||84|
And again, Ben practically sweeps these categories.
He and Brady are about equal in average first downs thrown, and even in a year in which Ben passed much shorter (and had a lot of dropped balls) he’s still out ahead of Rodgers, per game and per year.
Meanwhile, Ben’s long ball has always been outstanding. He’s thrown the longest pass in football three of the six years I collected for him, which is nothing short of amazing. His reconstructed arm lost some accuracy in 2020, but he was apparently still capable of connecting. His 84 yard bomb to Chase Claypool was nowhere near his deepest toss of this stretch, but it’s still longer than any pass Brady or Rodgers have completed in the last seven seasons.
Finally, 4th quarter comebacks and game winning drives are no contest. Despite Brady’s reputation as a comeback master, and Rodgers’ ridiculous rep for completing Hail Mary passes (which have practically nothing to do with the quarterback who threw them), Ben is simply head and shoulders above these guys. Perhaps more importantly, his four comebacks and four GWDs in 2020 represented more of each than Brady or Rodgers have pulled off in any one season over the last seven years (and in Rodgers’ case, more than he’s ever had in a single season).
I suppose this is where I should say, again, that for a guy who’s “clearly” at the end of his career, he sure seems able to carry the load, play efficient ball, limit mistakes, and turn on the intensity when it matters. It’s almost as if he can still play ball, and had a pretty decent season last year.
Okay, this is the last section to compare. Any time Brady, Rodgers, or Ben led the league in any category, I marked it. Brady led the league in attempts one time, so he got a 1 in that column. Ben led the league in longest pass completed three times, so he got a 3 there.
The final tally:
Brady led the league in something 7 times.
Rodgers led the league in something 12 times.
Roethlisberger led the league in something 15 times.
For a guy in a long slow decline, Ben seems to lead the league an awful lot. He’s got more than twice as many #1 rankings as Tom Brady over the last seven years, and nearly as many as Brady and Rodgers combined. And that’s with Ben only getting six years to play, while they got seven.
Maybe this will be the year Ben hits the wall. These things are hard to predict. But can we please retire the lazy “wisdom” that his career is already over, and that everyone could see it last year. It’s just not true.
He lost some accuracy on his deep throw last year after massive elbow surgery (predictable after reconstructive surgery, and fixable with time). He probably wasn’t as mobile after a knee injury (understandable, and not the hallmark of his game for a while anyway). He had a bad OC and no running game (both of which are now rectified ). And now he’s had a year (and a healthy offseason) with all the young talent at WR that he’d never met until last season. He had a decent season last year even with all these circumstantial hurdles, and now most of those circumstances have changed.
The numbers suggest that he’s aged every bit as gracefully as Rodgers and Brady—at least over the last seven seasons—and that even in 2020, he was ahead of their curve in plenty of ways. If those two guys represent the standard for aging with excellence, then Ben deserves that same recognition. Just like he always has.
As they say, Father Time is undefeated, and Ben isn’t the same kid who threw the back-corner touchdown to Santonio Holmes 13 years ago, but I haven’t seen any reason to think the arrow is pointing down on his career just yet.