Recently I saw a tweet where a fan was complaining that even though the team was in the process of interviewing coaches and general managers, all anyone could talk about was the franchise quarterback. The quarterback in question is particularly divisive, so it did make sense that he was being discussed, but if we’re being honest, is there ever really a time when quarterbacks aren’t the focus of the discussion? People wanted to change the rules of overtime for a quarterback, since 2000, 16 of 23 first overall picks have been quarterbacks. Love them or hate them, this league revolves around quarterbacks. They get the blame, they get the credit, and at the end of the day, they’re who you remember.
Ben Roethlisberger has been a very good quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. And I have no doubt in my mind that he will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio his very first time on the ballot. But you know what? He doesn’t deserve to be, and I’ll tell yinz why.
Is Ben Roethlisberger a First Ballot Hall of Fame Quarterback?
Why He Is
The best way to explain why something shouldn’t happen is to explain why it should. I personally have my thoughts about Ben Roethlisberger, but most people would disagree with me. To some, “Big Ben” is an all-time great who should be immortalized amongst his peers, namely Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, in the annals of league history. And it’s not a completely baseless claim.
If you look at the league’s all-time passing stats, you don’t have to search far before you find Ben Roethlisberger’s name. He is fifth all-time in passing yards (64,088), eighth all-time in passing touchdowns (418), and essentially has a stranglehold on every passing record in franchise history. When you consider that all four of the quarterbacks ahead of him in passing yards either are or will be first-ballot guys, you can’t sneeze at his stats.
Of the eligible quarterbacks in league history, only Jim Plunkett has won multiple championships without being enshrined in Canton, and that’s because in both seasons, he did so after starting the year as a backup. With the exception of quarterbacks like Trent Green and Brad Johnson, winning a Super Bowl is a pretty consistent barometer for elite quarterback play, let alone two.
Obviously, given the context, Ben Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls. In the second one, he successfully out-dueled Kurt Warner and found Santonio Holmes for an iconic game-winner. Sure, he didn’t bring four home like Terry Bradshaw did, but he still has as many Super Bowls by himself as the AFC South does as a division.
One of my measurements for whether or not someone belongs in the Hall of Fame is “can you tell the history of the NFL without this person?” Sure, Philip Rivers had great numbers, but if you “Obliviate” the NFL fanbase, and they forget he ever existed, does the history of the league feel incomplete? Not really. Can you tell the history of the NFL without Big Ben? Absolutely not.
By virtue of that throw to Santonio Holmes alone, Ben is immortalized. But had more iconic moments than that! He had a number of absolutely ridiculous game-winning plays against the Baltimore Ravens, and it wasn’t a throw, but what about the shoestring tackle on Nick Harper after he recovered Jerome Bettis’ fumble? That tackle not only saved their season, but Jerome’s legacy. If he fumbles that season away, The Bus might not have been enshrined himself.
Ben Roethlisberger’s finger prints are all over the last twenty years of professional football, and for that, as well as the outright favoritism the league’s favorite franchise gets (I’m bitter), he’s obviously a Hall of Famer.
But you can’t look me in the eyes and say he deserves to get in on the first ballot. Not with a straight face or the terrible towel draped around your neck.
Why He Isn’t
The Hall of Fame is reserved for the best of the best of the best… and can it really be argued that Ben was ever in that conversation? Can you honestly say that in any given year, he was the best quarterback in football? Was he ever top two? Top three? Ben was always pretty good, but I don’t think you can really argue he was ever elite. Let’s take a closer look.
Passing numbers in today’s NFL are meaningless. I wrote an article about it, ironically based on someone who compared 2015 Derek Carr to 2005 Ben Roethlisberger, that shows how the rule changes have completely devalued passing stats. Accumulation stats for a quarterback who played ten years in Bill Polian’s NFL mean absolutely nothing, and I can prove it.
Yes, Ben Roethlisberger is top ten in passing yards and touchdowns. Guess what? So are most of his peers. If you look at the top 15 in passing yards, 11 of them are Ben’s contemporaries. And passing touchdowns? 12 of the top 15 have been active since Ben was drafted. Of the top ten in both categories, the only one who wasn’t active in 2010 was Dan Marino.
In 2010, five quarterbacks broke 4,000 yards, and five quarterbacks had 30 touchdowns. Tom Brady, who was both the league’s MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, threw for 3,900 yards and 36 touchdowns. Nine quarterbacks had 500 attempts, and four passers had a quarterback rating over 100, with an additional 9 having a rating over 90.
In 2020, 12 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards and 10 quarterbacks broke 30 touchdowns. League MVP Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,299 yards and 48 touchdowns. 15 quarterbacks, that’s nearly half the league, had over 500 attempts, and 10 passers had a quarterback rating over 100, with 22 breaking 90.
Because yeah, compared to someone from 1985, Ben’s stats look good, but what about those peers we talked about? He’s top ten in everything, surely he was putting up elite numbers, right? Well… No. Not really. Not at all.
The Numbers… Really
It’s true, he led the NFL in passing yards twice, which is impressive, even if his yards per attempt both years were mediocre. Something else he led the NFL in twice? Interceptions. Not so ironically, he led the NFL in passing and picks in the same year… probably because he also led the NFL in passing attempts. Never sniffed the NFL lead in passing touchdowns, completion percentage, or quarterback rating.
And yes, he won the popularity contest known as the Pro Bowl a few times, but he never sniffed an All-Pro. Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, and Matt Ryan had at least one season where they were named first-team All-Pro, but Ben was never even second-team. Even Carson Wentz was a second-team All-Pro once. At no point in his career has anyone outside of a city with more bridges than hospitals argued that he was the best quarterback in football.
I’m not going to dig too deep into the “wins are a QB/team stat” debate with you guys. How much credit a quarterback does or doesn’t deserve for a team’s success is something we could argue about for weeks without reaching resolution because there are just so many variables.
However, we can look at his performances in those games. In that first Super Bowl against Seattle, he completed nine of 21 passes for 123 yards and two interceptions. He did rush for 25 yards and a touchdown, but it’s still one of the worst championship performances by a winning quarterback since the advent of the forward pass. Ultimately, the other players rushed for more yards (156) than Ben was responsible for independently, and the defense held the Hawks to 10 points. A ring is a ring, to be sure, but he didn’t even have the most memorable touchdown pass by a Steeler in that game.
His second Super Bowl victory was much more impressive, completing 21 of 30 passes for 256 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He averaged 8.5 yards per attempt, and that throw to Santonio Holmes will live on forever in NFL history. Say what you will, but you can’t take that away from Ben.
However… the 2008 Steelers defense is one for the record books. They were number one in points and yards allowed, number one in passing yards allowed, number one in rushing yards per attempt, and number two in first downs allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, rushing yards and touchdowns allowed, and points per drive. The 2005 Steelers, who were only top five in points, yards, forced fumbles, passing touchdowns, rushing yards, yards per attempt, and points per drive, seem pedestrian in comparison.
It Doesn’t Matter
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Ben Roethlisberger will be a First Ballot Hall of Famer. He played long enough and won enough games playing for the right team at the right time that people will ignore how pedestrian he actually was, overlooking his off the field behavior, and enshrine him next to Peyton Manning and Johnny Unitas.
At least he’ll retire with a losing record against the Raiders.