For the better part of the past decade, one of the most interesting debates in pro football has been whether Peyton Manning or Tom Brady should be viewed as the top quarterback in the sport. With Ben Roethlisberger one victory away from winning a third Super Bowl ring, many commentators have called for the Steelers signal caller to be entered into this discussion as well. Those making such claims cite Roethlisberger’s postseason record, which stands at 10-2, as well as the fact that he has won multiple Super Bowls. However, looking at these arguments, which attribute team success to the individual, and taking into account the accomplishments of both Manning and Brady, Roethlisberger is not on the level of the other two.
To say Roethlisberger is not in the same class as Manning or Brady is not to diminish the achievements of his career or say he is not a quality NFL quarterback. Behind Manning and Brady, he is without question among the best active quarterbacks in the league. That said, when looking at the career achievements of the trio, Roethlisberger is clearly behind the other two. In terms of production, Brady and especially Manning dwarf Roethlisberger, statistically speaking. The Pittsburgh quarterback has never won an MVP award, nor has he led the league in passing yards or touchdowns. While he has only been in the league seven years, Manning and Brady had done all these things in their first seven seasons as starters.
With these things in mind, it is true that those arguing in Roethlisberger’s favor do not claim regular season dominance. Instead, they argue his postseason performances put him among the elite. They note with a Steelers win over the Packers in Super Bowl XLV, he will have won his third Super Bowl, the same number as Brady and two more than Manning. They also cite Roethlisberger’s postseason record, which stands at 10-2. By comparison, Brady’s postseason record is 14-5 and Manning’s is 9-10.
If we accept these arguments as valid, Roethlisberger is still behind Brady, as the difference between their playoff winning percentages is negligible. In all three of his Super Bowl victories, Brady led game winning drives in the fourth quarter. Plus, in his lone Super Bowl loss, to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, Brady led another fourth quarter comeback which would have been a game winner, had it not been for the heroics of the Giants offense. In total, Brady has led eight go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in playoff games, and six of these were game winning drives (all of them came in his first seven seasons as a starter, so there is no issue when making comparisons with Roethlisberger). In Roethlisberger’s postseason career, he has led four fourth quarter/overtime go-ahead drives, an impressive amount but still half of Brady’s total. Considering his edge in this area, as well as his statistical advantage in numerous playoff categories (not to mention more impressive regular season numbers), Brady must be considered better than Roethlisberger.
As for comparing Roethlisberger with Manning, the former’s superior playoff record is often brought up, and is said to give Roethlisberger an edge. However, this analysis has flaws. For starters, using a quarterback’s record as a measuring stick is dubious, as Doug Farrar of Yahoo Sports, among others, have said. Granted, winning games is the objective and now more than ever, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. That said, football is still a team sport, so using a team’s record to judge an individual is questionable. Is there any doubt that Manning’s postseason record would be better if he had the defenses Roethlisberger has had throughout his career?
Those who support Roethlisberger claim that the disparity in post-season records between Manning and Roethlisberger is due to the Steelers quarterback playing significantly better when it counts most. An assessment of the individual playoff accomplishments of both players would challenge that. As a whole, although Manning has not been stellar in the postseason relative to his career as a whole, Roethlisberger hardly has a decisive advantage over the Colts quarterback. Manning is ahead of Roethlisberger in a number of career postseason statistics, including completion percentage, passer rating, touchdown to interception ratio, and touchdown passes per game. Thus, there is apparently little in terms of individual performance to account for the disparity in Manning and Roethlisberger’s playoff records. It can therefore be concluded the difference is due to Roethlisberger playing on better teams.
Of course, some instead attribute this difference to arbitrary factors, such as Roethlisberger being “a winner,” or Manning not being “clutch.” However, one cannot honestly overlook the fact that the Steelers defense has consistently ranked near the top, if not at the top, of the league in recent years, and the defenses playing behind Manning, particularly early in his career, have mostly been poor. Since the start of Roethlisberger’s career, the Steelers defense has ranked lower than third in the league in terms of scoring only twice. During this span, it led the league in this category three times. By comparison, over the course of Manning’s 13 year career, the Colts defense has ranked in the top-16 in scoring only five times.
Furthermore, while Manning has taken criticism for failing to put up enough points in playoff losses, this too can be attributed, at least in part, to subpar defense, as well as poor special teams. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Manning ranks dead last in terms of average starting field position among quarterbacks in the playoffs since 1980 (minimum 8 starts). Manning’s average postseason touchdown drive spans 70.6 yards, which is the most of any player in the study with at least eight starts. Also, of his playoff touchdown drives, only one has been less than 40 yards, according to the study. As the article notes, “when you so often have games where the offense touches the ball 8-9 times, and has to go 75, 80, 85 or even 90+ yards to score touchdowns, you have to play at a very high level offensively to score a lot of points, and even the best offenses can struggle to do that in the postseason against the best competition.”
On the flip side of this is Roethlisberger, whose average playoff touchdown drive spans 58.5 yards, near the bottom of the list. In terms of average starting field position, he has had the fifth best and is only percentage points behind the leader (Brett Favre). The study adds that “only 27.8% of Roethlisberger’s TD drives have gone 70+ yards. The average is 48.2%.” (As a side note, Brady ranks near the middle of the list in terms of average starting field position, and touchdown drive length). These figures show that Manning has had to do more to win in the playoffs, while Roethlisberger has had the benefit of a strong defense putting him in favorable situations. Taking all this into consideration, Roethlisberger’s playoff record cannot be used to rank him above Manning. And without a true postsesaon advantage for the Steelers quarterback, Manning’s career obliterates that of Roethlisberger.
As for the argument that Roethlisberger has guided the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles, his mediocre performance in Super Bowl XL casts doubt on the value of such claims. In that game, he completed 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards and threw a pair of interceptions. Also, his 22.6 quarterback rating was the worst of any Super Bowl winning quarterback. It is true Roethlisberger was brilliant in Super Bowl XLIII and any argument in his favor should center on this game. If he can duplicate performances like this in the future, and consistently produce in the regular season, this debate will need to be reopened. Until then, Roethlisberger cannot join Manning or Brady in the top-tier of quarterbacks in the game today.