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Who is the most valuable member of the Pittsburgh Steelers of All-Time?

Labeling someone the 'Most Valuable' is never easy, but we take a look at who is the most valuable Pittsburgh Steeler of All-Time.

For anyone even remotely interested in sports statistics, the site is an indispensable source compiling career and team statistics no matter how obscure they are. While looking at the website I noticed their statistic Approximate Value (AV), which is similar to the stat WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in baseball in that it attempts to give a single numerical value to a player's career. You can read more about the history of the statistic here including how the numbers are determined here.

Here is AV's creator Doug Drinen explaining his metric:

"AV is not meant to be a be-all end-all metric. Football stat lines just do not come close to capturing all the contributions of a player the way they do in baseball and basketball. If one player is a 16 and another is a 14, we can't be very confident that the 16AV player actually had a better season than the 14AV player. But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16AV played better, as an entire group, than the collection of all players with 14AV."

In a nutshell the higher the AV, the better the player. The formula is pretty complicated and takes into account the individual achievements as well as the team achievements and can be found in the above link.
For the less mathematically inclined, the formula assigns point values to and takes into account the following:

  • Team points per drive divided by the league average points per drive
  • First team All Pro selections
  • Second Team All Pro Selections
  • Pro Bowl selections
  • Games started
  • Games Played

The formula then divides these numbers up based on how responsible each position is for different aspects of the game. Quarterbacks and receivers get a certain amount of credit for the passing stats while running backs get more credit for rushing stats. Like I said, the formula gets very confusing so I encourage those of you who are interested to check the above link.

It's not a perfect stat as it benefits players that play on good team and stick around for a long time. Quarterbacks rank highly on it thanks to their usually relatively long careers and involvement in a large volume of plays. As noted above the formula takes all pro and pro bowl selections into account which can lead to players past their primes and only selected thanks to reputation getting a boost. AV also doesn't take into account every contribution a player makes. For example, if Markus Wheaton gets a fifteen-yard reception which obviously positively impacts his value, it is entirely possible the only reason Wheaton is open for that pass is because Ben Roethlisberger has a tremendous pump fake to freeze a safety while Antonio Brown is drawing the best defenders to him. Brown and Roethlisberger won't get credit on the play but they sure contributed.

Another aspect that should be noted is that AV is a cumulative career stat. It measures what a player does over their entire career. For example, Brian Dawkins has a career AV of 140 while Troy Polamalu has a career AV of 115. Dawkins played for 16 years versus Polamalu's ten years. You can very well make the argument that at their peaks Polamalu was a better player and no stat can account for all the different looks and versatility Polamalu provided for the defense. In most cases AV should be used a guide to player comparisons, not the end all be all for the argument.
Despite its flaws and limitations AV is a reliable statistic for determining how helpful a player is to their team over their career. The Steelers leader in AV is an interesting surprise that many fans probably wouldn't have guessed on their first try. Go ahead, guess who it is now without looking.

It is not Ben Roethlisberger-yet. He is currently third on the list despite the improved offensive era in which he is playing in. Assuming Roethlisberger stays healthy and keeps up his usual level of play he will be the all-time Steelers leader by around week eight. It is not Antonio Brown, who is actually way down the list- but could reach the top ten if he continues playing at his current pace. It is not Hines Ward, nor the game changing Safety of Troy Polamalu.

No, the player in question is a member of the Steelers glory days of the 70's. It is not Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swan, or John Stallworth. Nor is it defensive greats Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, or Mel Blount.

It is center Mike Webster.

Webster has several things working in his favor. First, he was a Steeler for 15 seasons and was remarkably durable, playing every game of the season 12 of his 15 years. Webster was also a perennial Pro Bowler that played with a quarterback, running back, and two receivers that made it to the Hall of Fame, all of which positively impacts his own value in the equation. Webster's ranking as approximately the best Steeler ever reinforces the notion that games are won and lost in the trenches along the line. Having Webster anchor the line for the better part of two decades was a luxury the Steelers and their fans hopefully didn't take for granted.

Sadly, Webster's life after the Steelers was very rough. He played two years with the Chiefs before retiring at age 38 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997. Years of suspected steroid abuse, head trauma, and mental decay contributed to Webster dying at age 50 in 2002 after years of being basically broke and living in his car. When his body was examined, doctors discovered his brain had unusual protein deposits. They termed this new discovery CTE and the rest is the tragic history of the last decade plus of the NFL as more and more players have been diagnosed with the disease.

While Ben Roethlisberger will likely pass Webster this year and become, according to AV, the most valuable Steeler of all time this list is subjective enough that there's still plenty of room for argument.

The top five Steelers with the best AV are:

1. Mike Webster- 152 AV
2. Jack Ham -148 AV
3. Ben Roethlisberger -145 AV
4. Terry Bradshaw-137AV
5. Joe Greene-137 AV