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Ben Roethlisberger chases his hero John Elway and pro football immortality

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In a season when his motivation has been questioned, Roethlisberger might be driven by a personal goal.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

“I used to tell the players that professional football is a part-time profession. I used to tell them it gets you ready for your life's work.” (Chuck Noll)

As a youngster, Ben Roethlisberger’s football hero was former Denver Broncos superstar John Elway, in whose honor Big Ben wears No. 7 on his jersey. And indeed, Roethlisberger’s career has, in many ways, mirrored that of Elway, particularly in their shared ability to escape the pass rush, move out of the pocket and make huge, crucial plays downfield.

During the first eight weeks of the 2017 season, Ben’s pedestrian performance has been cited as an indication his competitive spirit might be waning or that, psychologically, No. 7 might already have one foot planted in the sand of his retirement beach.

Of course, this narrative has never been heard from the quarterback himself, except in the wake of a disappointing Week-5 defeat by the Jacksonville Jaguars, when Ben toyed with the sports media by suggesting his gridiron skills might have deserted him. Other than that facetious remark, however, Roethlisberger has adamantly held to the company line, claiming that wins are the only statistic he’s concerned about. But when we examine Ben’s current standing among the game’s greatest quarterbacks, a picture emerges which suggests that No. 7 might have had more than strictly a financial motivation for his decision to return to the field for his 14th NFL season.

Ben currently ranks No. 9 among all active and retired NFL quarterbacks with 48,876 passing yards. John Elway finished his NFL career at 51,475 yards passing, placing him 2,599 yards ahead of Roethlisberger as the Steelers enter the second half of the 2017 season. While Roethlisberger’s performance in the first half of the season has been underwhelming, he’s still averaged 258 passing yards per game. Projecting this average into the future, we find that—barring injury (a big knock on wood)—Ben could surpass Elway within 10 more regular season games, which would extend his time frame through the early part of the 2018 season.

With two retired quarterbacks Peyton Manning (71,940 yards) and Brett Favre (71,838 yards) occupying the top-2 spots on the all-time list, plus ageless wonders Drew Brees (68,325 yards) and Tom Brady (64,123 yards) still adding to their incredible totals, Ben is well aware that, unless he develops the ability to throw the football from a wheelchair, he’ll never crack the top-5 list of NFL passers. But the possibility of surpassing his NFL idol, and the quarterback which Roethlisberger’s playing style most resembles, might have some impact on Ben's retirement plans.

But no matter where the hand of fate might guide him, every Steelers fan ought to revel in the absolutely outstanding career of Big Ben. Hands down and by far, Ben is the greatest quarterback in Pittsburgh Steelers history. Terry Bradshaw might have more Super Bowl rings but Roethlisberger has 99 more touchdown passes while having played 25 more games during his career than Bradshaw. Additionally, whereas Bradshaw had 212 career TDs versus 210 interceptions, Ben has 311 TD passes versus only 169 interceptions.

These numbers place Roethlisberger head and shoulders above not only the Blonde Bomber, but also a host of former great quarterbacks including John Elway (300 TDs); Warren Moon (291 TDs); John Unitas (290 TDs); Joe Montana (273 TDs); Dan Fouts (254 TDs); Drew Bledsoe (251 TDs) and Boomer Esiason (247 TDs). Another statistic which makes Ben’s current standing seem even more incredible is that he’s been sacked 466 times during a rough-and-tumble career placing him at No. 7 on the all-time NFL sacks list.

Those of us who have followed Big Ben’s career closely from the very beginning realize that, anytime No. 7 takes the field, we’re in the presence of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. Thus, the persistent chatter over the years about whether Ben qualifies as an “elite quarterback” has been nothing more than background noise during his superb career. Anything else he’s able to accomplish from now on will simply be more icing on the cake. At age 35, whatever timetable No. 7 chooses for leaving the game to embark on the pursuit of his life’s work, Steelers Nation ought to heartily applaud his decision with gratitude. Big Ben already has given pro football and the Steelers’ fan base far more than we could ever begin to repay.