As Steelers fans were suffering through longest off season in professional sports, ESPN, like many media outlets, relied on speculation to generate content. In June, ESPN asked which AFC North quarterback had the brighter future: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger or Ravens QB Joe Flacco.
At the time, I suggested this question was like asking who is the superior guitarist: Jimi Hendrix or my kid on her fifth birthday when she tried out her Fisher Price banjo for the first time. Lets take a quick look at the absurdity of this question with the benefit of hindsight.
Roethlisberger is by far the superior quarterback both in terms of physical talent and the tools at his disposal. Even with a slew of injuries to his offensive line and important targets, Roethlisberger performed reliably and consistently with very few exceptions. Though injured for several games, playing in only 12, Roethlisberger threw for 3,938 yards in the regular season, averaging 8.4 yards per play, his highest since 2009. He also finished the season with a completion percentage of 68-percent, his best ever.
Flacco could not finish his season due to a torn ACL, but even before his injury, it was clear his level of play was nowhere near that of Roethlisberger. Flacco played in 10 games, only two fewer than Roethlisberger during the regular season. Flacco also had a career-high completion percentage of 64.4-percent, lower than Big Ben. His average yardage was also much lower than Ben's at 6.76-percent.
Statistically, Flacco did not play unusually poorly this season. Flacco was playing on an offense that was missing key players and, perhaps worse, has been hemorrhaging talent since their Super Bowl victory several seasons ago. He was also playing under a new offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, the former head coach of the Bears who was fired after one dismal season.
It is not debatable that Roethlisberger has a brighter future than Joe Flacco. While Flacco is younger, he lacks the talent and offensive tools to rival Big Ben. One of the biggest fallacies in the ESPN hypothetical question was that the two AFC North quarterbacks chosen for the debate were Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are indeed bitter rivals, but it isn't 2012 anymore. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been playing quality football for years now.
A better question to pose would have been a league-level question about Ben Roethlisberger's future. Among the league's elite, it is reasonable to compare his future to that of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Keeping the focus on the AFC North, a better question is: Who has a brighter future: Ben Roethlisberger or Andy Dalton.
With the departure of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and the complete and total collapse of the team in the Wildcard game against the Steelers, the Bengals are already facing two demoralizing challenges. Before his thumb injury, however, Dalton proved to be a strong, effective leader and athlete, leading the Bengals to a 10-4 regular season record, their best since 1988 when they finished 12-4 and had a successful post-season run that ended in a Super Bowl loss.
While the 2015 season was not Ben Roethlisberger's finest, he proved he can excel in adversity, overcoming personal injury and the injury of several key teammates en route to a postseason appearance and Wild Card game victory. The future of the AFC North is in flux with major changes within both the Bengals and Browns organizations and the Ravens in a must-rebuild situation.
For the foreseeable future, Roethlisberger's future is bright. Protected by a talented offensive line led by offensive line coach Mike Munchak and with hyper-talented receivers at his disposal (and enough depth at running back to establish a run game), Roethlisberger should continue to play elite-level football in 2016.