Is Roethlisberger on the Edge of Greatness?

After four seasons, how does Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger stack up against his current peers -- and some of the greatest from the past 30 years when they were four years into their NFL careers? Scout.com's Ed Thompson takes a look deep inside the numbers from STATS to provide the answers.

With just four years of NFL experience, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is already putting together a convincing case that says he deserves to be respected as one of the top signal-callers in the NFL. And he's on a pace to become not only the best Steelers quarterback of all-time, but one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.  

A subscriber at SteelCityInsider.com, our Pittsburgh Steelers site at Scout.com,  recently submitted a question about Roethlisberger's statistics in comparison with other top quarterbacks in the league. And he also wondered how the four-year veteran compares to some of the all-time best quarterbacks statistically after their first four seasons in the NFL. As I dug through the data, the results were both interesting and eye-opening.

2007
To gauge the former first-round pick's most recent performance against his current-day peers, I took a cursory look at the usual statistics, but then drilled down to get a more in-depth perspective.

The commonly accessible stats show that Roethlisberger finished seventh in the league in completion percentage with a 65.3 percent success rate. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady finished at the top (68.9 percent) while the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre, and the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning were the most prominent names in the spots above Roethlisberger.  While he finished 14th in total yards (3,154) -- an important statistic for fantasy football owners, but not so important when you're trying to get an accurate read on an individual quarterback's skills -- Roethlisberger finished fourth in the league in yards per attempt (7.9) trailing only Tom Brady, Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo, and Manning. He was third in touchdown passes (32) behind Brady's 50 and Romo's 36. And his 11 interceptions placed him as the third-best out of quarterbacks who threw at least 400 pass attempts in 2007. Brady threw just eight while the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb surrendered just seven.

One of the statistics from his 2007 campaign that was particularly impressive was the percentage of passes that Roethlisberger threw that resulted in a first down for his club. At 41.6 percent, he set the pace for all quarterbacks in the league, nosing out Brady at 41.5 percent. 


Roethlisberger on the run against the Cleveland Browns.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

But working against Roethlisberger's image among the top quarterbacks in the game is his frequency of taking a sack. In 2007, his 47 sacks were second-worst only to Detroit Lions quarterback Jon Kitna's 51. And if there's anything that is holding Big Ben from attaining his rightful position among the league's elite QBs, it's the fact that he just doesn't know when to cut his losses and throw the ball away. No matter how poorly their offensive lines may have blocked on a particular play, former great quarterbacks such as Miami's Dan Marino and current stars such as Peyton Manning help their teams by getting rid of the football more often rather than risking a substantial loss in field position. Roethlisberger's 47 sacks set his offense back 347 yards last year, more than any QB in the game.  

That said, the Steelers quarterback was consistently in the top fourth in 2007 in a number of key performance areas that should also be considered when evaluating quarterbacks:

Red zone passing: Roethlisberger was tied for sixth in completion percentage (58.3) out of all quarterbacks who had at least 40 attempts inside the red zone. New Orleans' Drew Brees led the league with an amazing 71.4-percent completion mark, while Brady, Favre, Cincinnati Bengals QB Carson Palmer and Jacksonville Jaguars' QB David Garrard also finished higher. While Roethlisberger tied Brees for second place in red zone touchdown passes with 23, the Steelers quarterback did it in just 72 attempts versus 84 by Brees. Brady had 34 total red zone touchdown passes, but it took him 112 attempts. His resulting 30.4-percent conversion rate was actually lower than Roethlisberger's 31.9 percent. The only NFL quarterback to post a more impressive red zone touchdown success rate was Arizona's Kurt Warner, who converted 20 of his 60 red zone pass attempts into touchdowns (33.3 percent).

Roethlisberger's two red zone interceptions put him in a tie for seventh-most last year, and his six sacks put him as the second-worst behind Kitna's seven. So overall, his red zone performance placed him eighth in the league with a passer rating of 97.5. Brees (116.8), Brady (110.1), Favre (102.0), and Palmer (101.3) were among the group of passers who placed higher.

Third-down passing: Third down is a pivotal play where a misfire means you're heading back to the bench and losing an opportunity to score.  Roethlisberger posted the third-best passer rating (107.8) on third downs in 2007, trailing only Garrard (128.8) and Brady (115.6). His completion percentage on third down (64.6 percent) was fifth-best in the league behind Garrard (71.6), Brees (66.2), the New York Jets' Chad Pennington (64.9), and Brady (64.7). But Roethlisberger's 17 third-down sacks translated into the third-worst rating in the league.

Fourth-quarter passing: A quarterback's performance in the final period can often be the deciding factor in the game -- highlight or lowlight moments that create legendary stories that will be recalled for decades. 

Out of the QBs who threw at least 80 passes during the fourth quarter in 2007, Roethlisberger finished sixth with a very respectable 102.0 passer rating. Brady (114.4), the Houston Texans' Sage Rosenfels (112.9), Manning (108.8), Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck (103.8), and Romo (102.5) earned higher marks. Roethlisberger's 64.8-percent completion percentage was only eighth-best, trailing quarterbacks such as Manning, Brees, Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck and Brady. And his six fourth-quarter touchdown passes put him in a tie for ninth behind some of the same QBs -- Brady, Romo, Favre, Hasselbeck, Manning, and Brees.


Roethlisberger tries to escape from Cincinnati LB Landon Johnson.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Passing against the blitz: Roethlisberger keeps his cool in the face of danger and remains confident that he can make a play despite the added pressure. It's a a trait that is both a blessing and a curse for the Steelers QB.

Believing that he can make a play with players breathing down his neck certainly contributed to Roethlisberger's 17 sacks in blitz situations. And that put him in a tie with Chicago Bears QB Rex Grossman and the New York Jets' Kellen Clemens for the most times dropped to the turf when facing the blitz last season. But that same determination and optimism helped him finish second in the league in passer rating (105.8) in that same situation. Brady was the only quarterback to handle the blitz better, posting a 118.7 rating.  

Passing yards at the catch
An overlooked category that should be considered anytime you're comparing quarterbacks is how much yardage is gained by the length of their completed throws versus how much they're being helped by the receivers who tack on yards while running with the ball after the catch. Among quarterbacks with at least 1000 pass attempts over the past four years, Roethlisberger is second only to Peyton Manning in yards-at-the-catch average with 7.7 yards versus the Colts quarterbacks' 7.9 yards. By comparison, the Patriots' Tom Brady is 12th at 6.8 yards.

After four years
While few would debate that Roethlisberger is easily in the top fourth of the active quarterbacks, I'd go as far as to put him in a tie as the fifth-best in the game today along with Tony Romo. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Brett Favre (assuming he returns for 2008) are performing at a higher level. And Carson Palmer is right on Roethlisberger and Romo's heels.

But let's be clear on this point -- Roethlisberger has only been in the NFL for four years while the others have anywhere from five to 17 years of experience. And the young Steelers quarterback is already on par with -- or ahead of -- numbers posted by some of the game's greatest quarterbacks from the past 30 years.

Below you'll see how Roethlisberger's numbers after four seasons compare with the Colts' Peyton Manning, the Dolphins' Dan Marino, the Broncos' John Elway, the Patriots' Tom Brady, the Bills' Jim Kelly, the Cowboys' Troy Aikman, the Packers' Brett Favre and the 49ers' Joe Montana when they were each entering their fifth NFL season. While other amazing quarterbacks such as Steve Young were certainly deserving to be in the mix, the eight quarterbacks selected will provide a valid point of reference.

Completion Percent: Roethlisberger's 63.2 percent completion rate is better than any of the elite eight's completion percentages after four seasons. He barely nudged out Joe Montana (63.1) and is just slightly ahead of Brett Favre (62.3).  Tom Brady (61.9), Peyton Manning (61.0), Dan Marino (60.9), Troy Aikman (60.2) and Jim Kelly (59.2) weren't far behind, but John Elway (54.0) completed almost ten percent less of his passes than Roethlisberger.   

Yards:  Roethlisberger's 11,673 yards isn't in the same arena with Manning's 16,418 or Marino's 16,177. But it's good enough for fourth place behind Kelly's 12,901 yards. That means that the Pittsburgh QB finished higher than Aikman (10,527), Favre (10,412), Brady (10,233), and Montana (8,069).  


Roethlisberger jogs off the field after a Steelers victory.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Touchdowns: If you compare the quarterbacks based on total touchdown passes over their first four seasons, Big Ben places third with 84 scores behind Marino (142) and Manning (111). But he is second only to Marino in the percent of his passes resulting in a touchdown with 5.8 percent compared to the former Dolphin great's 6.9 percent. Manning tossed an even 5.0 percent for touchdowns, third-best out of the group. Joe Montana put up just 52 scores but that was 4.6 percent of the passes he threw during his first four years. Brady had 69 TD passes (4.5 percent), Favre posted 70 (4.4 percent), Elway threw 66 (3.8 percent), Kelly logged 81 (3.6 percent) and Aikman had 54 (3.5 percent). 

Interceptions: All of the elite eight except Aikman (3.9 percent, 60 INTs) had a lower interception percentage than Roethlisberger's 3.8 percent. But his total of 54 interceptions thrown at this point in his career puts him right around the middle of the group. Not surprisingly, Tom Brady (2.5 percent, 38 INTs) and Joe Montana (2.8 percent, 32 INTs) were the best at keeping the ball away from the opponents' defensive backs in their early years. The rest of the group posted results just slightly better than the Steelers QB with Marino at 3.3 percent (67 INTs), Favre at 3.4 percent (53 INTs), Manning and Kelly both at 3.6 percent (81 and 63 INTs, respectively), and Elway at 3.7 percent (65 INTs). 

Sacks: As mentioned earlier, this is an area where Roethlisberger falls a bit short and needs to improve to help his team as well as his stature among the game's top quarterbacks. He's already been sacked 146 times, 16 more than Buffalo's Jim Kelly (130), a player who had that same blue-collar toughness and never-say-die outlook that Roethlisberger brings to the field. John Elway's 122 sacks during his first four years wasn't anything to brag about either. Troy Aikman (113), Tom Brady (104), and Brett Favre (96) had more of an average experience during their early years, while Marino (58), Montana (61), and Manning (85), learned early that avoiding the sack was essential to maintaining good field position and staying healthy.

Passer rating: People have varying opinions about the validity of the league's passer rating system, but you can't ignore it totally. Roethlisberger's 92.5 score after four seasons places him second in this group behind Dan Marino (95.2). Montana placed third with a rating of 88.0, followed by Brady (85.9), Favre (85.2), Manning (85.1), Kelly (82.7), Aikman (76.4), and the late-blooming Elway (71.9).

What's it all mean?
The bottom line is that Ben Roethlisberger is a quarterback who deserves respect today, and is also a player you should keep an eye on over the next few years. If he continues his development in similar fashion to the top quarterbacks referenced in this analysis, he'll easily become one of the top three to four at his position by the time he's completed another four years of his career.

With Tom Brady entering his ninth season, Manning preparing for his 11th, Brett Favre possibly finished, and even Drew Brees getting ready for his eighth campaign, Roethlisberger has the opportunity to climb even further up the charts over the next three to four seasons. And if he can stay healthy and productive, he would then be in a position to make a run at earning a bust in the Hall of Fame among the other great NFL quarterbacks.

For more coverage of the Steelers, visit SteelCityInsider.com, our Pittsburgh site at Scout.com.

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.


Statistics referenced in this article are provided by STATS, LLC. Copyright 2008 by STATS, LLC. Any use or distribution of such Licensed Materials without the express written consent of STATS is strictly prohibited. 



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