Another series, a collaborative one, to take you through the remaining weeks of the offseason. Jon Ledyard and I will pick a side in choosing the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers at each position. Tell us who is right and who won the debate – those don’t have to be the same answer – in the comments.
We’ll kick off the series with quarterback and there are two obvious choices. Jon states his case for Ben Roethlisberger while I side with Terry Bradshaw.
Selecting Ben Roethlisberger over Terry Bradshaw certainly wasn’t an easy task, especially because both were in fairly similar situations throughout their careers. Both quarterbacks have had top-tier defenses and excellent running games throughout the majority of their NFL tenures, and both were highly-acclaimed first round picks. Roethlisberger and Bradshaw were both blessed to play for extraordinary head coaches, albeit that Ben had only three years with Bill Cowher, but the pair did win a Super Bowl together.
So the divisive factors must come down to on-field performance and statistics. On paper there is absolutely no comparison between Roethlisberger and Bradshaw, as the Steelers present signal caller’s numbers dwarf that of the all-time great. Completion percentage (63.7 to 51.9), touchdown passes (251 to 212), and QB rating (93.9 to 70.9) all favor Ben dramatically despite the fact that Roethlisberger has played in nine less NFL games at this point in his career.
Perhaps the statistic that most swung my vote to Roethlisberger was interception numbers, as Ben’s 131 picks appear as minimal damage to Bradshaw’s whopping 210. That’s a lot of throws that put your team and defense in jeopardy they wouldn’t otherwise have been in. As great as Bradshaw was, the ups-and-downs of his career were definitely a reality, and often manifested itself in turnovers and erratic throws. Five seasons of 20+ interceptions is basically unheard of even in the modern pass-heavy NFL, but Bradshaw notched that number with ease during his 14 years in Pittsburgh.
There is also the simple fact that Roethlisberger has been under far more duress as a passer over the course of his career, as the Miami (Ohio) product has been sacked an incredible 419 times, or 112 more times than Bradshaw in nine less games. That number is truly remarkable, but I must add that Roethlisberger has also dropped back to pass over a thousand more times than Bradshaw, which undoubtedly contributes to the discrepancy. Nevertheless, having superior numbers in every major passing category despite being under consistent pressure truly sets Roethlisberger apart as a passer in my opinion.
Of course, one can certainly take off-the-field attributes and leadership into consideration as well here, in which case it would be easier to make an argument for Bradshaw. The legendary passer was a key piece in leading perhaps the greatest dynasty in NFL history to four Super Bowl titles, while absorbing consistently reckless criticism from the media despite his typically excellent results. While the Steelers quarterback may have a bit of an enigmatic personality, there was no denying his toughness and competitive fire during his time as the team’s franchise signal caller.
That toughness and fire are shared by Roethlisberger, but unfortunately the Steelers present-day passer has had to overcome several off-the-field issues before becoming the leader he is today. While the motorcycle accident and the accusations of sexual assault seem like a lifetime ago, they are significant when measuring the character of Roethlisberger. However, despite whatever may have happened in the past, Roethlisberger has clearly done what most NFL players with his history have never been able to do; change his reputation and become one of the more respected faces of a franchise in the league today. Considering the direction it appeared his career could be headed early on, that feat may be among Roethlisberger’s greatest accomplishments.
So while Bradshaw may have won more Super Bowls (so far), I think in the end, it is undeniable that Roethlisberger is the better pure quarterback. I will always have endless amounts of respect and admiration for what Bradshaw accomplished in Pittsburgh, as he will go down as an all-time legend in this city. When it is all said and done however, Roethlisberger will be the one going down as Pittsburgh’s greatest quarterback.
There are certain jobs that are defined by only one criteria. Lawyer who can’t win a lawsuit? Chef who could burn a milkshake? Dentist who yells at you for not flossing – I swear that’s in the job description. All dealbreakers in the business.
So is winning Super Bowls for quarterbacks. There are no left tackles judged on their ability to win the big game. Or anyone who knocked Alan Page for his Minnesota Vikings falling to the Steelers in 1974.
Though Ben Roethlisberger has clearly shown the ability to win the big game, please don’t think I am doubting that point, he hasn’t won four. Only one quarterback in franchise history has done that, and that’s why Terry Bradshaw is still the greatest of all-time.
Sure, Bradshaw played with numerous Hall of Famers on both sides of the ball. But he didn’t waltz into a 15-1 season like Roethlisberger. Big Ben was never benched for Terry Hanratty. There was never a discussion if Brian St. Pierre was better than Roethlisberger, the way a competition existed between Bradshaw, Hanratty, and Joe Gilliam. Roethlisberger’s rookie season consisted of nearly all highlights; Bradshaw couldn’t complete 40% of his passes and threw 24 interceptions. He carried the perception as the dumb southern boy.
To me, it makes what #12 did all the more impressive. There was a very clear time where he didn’t appear to be worthy of his first overall selection, let alone a chance to win four – count them four – Super Bowls.
Who threw a prettier deep ball than Bradshaw? The touchdown to John Stallworth in ’79 to help beat the Los Angeles Rams? Picture perfect. He was every bit as tough of Roethlisberger, absorbing blow after blow, even illegal ones from Turkey Jones. And he was arguably the better athlete, with a penchant for extending plays just like Ben. Remember, the Immaculate Reception isn’t even possible without Bradshaw’s initial elusiveness.
Era debates are awful. There’s no way to win it. But you can’t use Roethlisberger’s numbers as a point for him. In Ben’s third season, still generally viewed as a “manage the game” type, he attempted 469 passes in 15 games. Bradshaw only threw for more than that once in his entire career, 1979 with 472 attempts. A less open offense in 14 game seasons makes the statistics not even worth comparing.
Perhaps, as Jon mentions, at the conclusion of his career, Big Ben will be universally thought of as the better quarterback. But that point isn’t now and what has been accomplished is the only part that can be debated. When Bradshaw retired, he was a shoo-in Hall of Famer. Right or wrong, Ben isn’t.
Roethlisberger may have given the franchise the one for the thumb but only Bradshaw made that a possibility.