Attempting to ‘rate’ players across eras is a daunting task that many see as a fool’s errand. Rules have change the game so dramatically that it’s impossible to seamlessly compare performances, let alone statistics, across era without accounting for the different on-field factors that the confines of the rulebook introduce.
Not that that’s ever going to stop people from making the attempt, and Elliott Harrison recently made a valiant one for the league’s website, endeavoring to compile a list of the 25 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. It might not surprise you that the Pittsburgh Steelers had two names on the list, though you may be surprised by the order.
Harrison ranked Ben Roethlisberger as the 19th-best quarterback in NFL history, and in discussing him immediately began by offering that he is “maybe the most difficult guy to rate on this list”. Russell Wilson was ranked 18th ahead of him, but just in front of Wilson was Terry Bradshaw at 17. First, let’s circle back to Harrison on Big Ben.
Citing his league lead in passing yards, his rookie success, and his championship history, he offered that “on those merits alone, he should probably go higher than 19th here”. But naturally, there was a caveat to that discussion.
“Then again, has Roethlisberger ever been the best or second-best player at his position?”, he posed. “Another question: How often has he been at the center of a distraction to the team? Roethlisberger is a Hall of Famer right now. How high he climbs on the list of all-time great quarterbacks might depend on the next couple of seasons”.
As for Bradshaw, one of only three quarterback to hold at least four Super Bowl rings as a starter—and the first of them—Harrison began by pointing out that there are many, particularly statisticians, who view him as “an average NFL quarterback”.
He did allow that his numbers early in his career were pedestrian, but as the 1970s wore on, the Steelers’ success lay more and more upon his shoulders. And particularly when it mattered most. “When it came to big games, particularly the Super Bowl, he was often masterful”, he wrote.
“Of the 29 QBs who’ve attempted at least 40 passes in the Super Bowl, Bradshaw is No. 1 in yards per attempt with 11.1 (no one else is over 10)”, Harrison wrote. “Similarly, Bradshaw produced a gaudy 10.7 touchdown percentage. What does that mean? That 10.7 percent of his passes went for TDs”.
Not bad at all when you look at it that way, and perhaps an important bit of perspective for the younger generations (very much including myself) that were too young to watch the Bradshaw era of the Steelers as it occurred.
In case you were wondering, Tom Brady was listed as the greatest quarterback of all time, followed by Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Drew Brees, Dan Marino, Roger Staubach, John Elway, and finally Aaron Rodgers rounding out the top 10.
I would recommend taking a look at the article. You may not agree with many of the rankings (or perhaps you will), but Harrison provides some interesting insights here and there.