Big Ben’s time has come

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 26, 2007



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts swimsuit model
 
"Big" Ben Roethlisberger is the most visible, most widely recognized mystery in all of sports.
 
Roethlisberger, who played the first half of Pittsburgh's 27-13 preseason win over Philadelphia last night, has already established himself as one of the game's great winners in a three-year career wrapped in both glory and tumult. It's been a remarkably newsworthy span for a kid who's just 25 years old and who has appeared in just 41 NFL games (40 starts).
 
But few fans truly appreciate the historic productivity that has marked his short career. Like many of the game's great winners – the Bart Starrs and Tom Bradys of the football world – Roethlisberger is often seen as something of a pigskin perfunctory: a "system" quarterback who simply "manages" the game for his talent-laden teams.
 
The chorus of Cold, Hard Football Facts sing quite a different tune: Roethlisberger, at this very early point in his career, is poised to join the short list of most ruthlessly efficient quarterbacks in NFL history.
 
And as history has shown, ruthlessly efficient quarterbacks win more games and sport more rings than the glitzy gunslingers coveted by the faux-fan fantasy-football and video-game crowd. (Amazing that so many "system" quarterbacks wear so many rings, isn't it? Maybe a story for another day.)
 
The Team Study
The bottom line for quarterbacks is winning and losing, and Roethlisberger's team accomplishments are fairly well documented. His Steelers went a remarkable 15-1 and reached the AFC title game in his rookie season, an unprecedented pair of achievements for a first-year quarterback. In his sophomore year, his Steelers won three straight road playoff games and Roethlisberger became the youngest-ever Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
 
Then, like a Soapbox Derby racer under the weight of an overfed CHFF reader, the wheels seemed to spin off the Roethlisberger wagon last year: An offseason motorcycle accident, followed by an unexpected appendectomy, led to a textbook Super Bowl hangover season. Roethlisberger tossed a Favre-esque 23 INTs, while Pittsburgh bumbled its way through an 8-8 season.
 
Still, like a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, the body of work is impressive, if incomplete.
 
For those of you keeping score at home, that's one Super Bowl title and a 34-12 (.739) record, including playoffs, for a player who won't turn 26 until March. Among active quarterbacks who have played more than one full season, only three-time champion Brady has won at a more prolific clip (82-26; .759). (See a full list of QBs' regular-season winning percentage here.)
 
That's the well-documented side of Roethlisberger. Now here's the side of him that could make history. Here are ...
 
The Cold, Hard Football Facts
Roethlisberger's 87.9 passer rating stands as the ninth-best in NFL history – one spot behind Brady (88.4) and one spot ahead of Drew Brees (87.5), two quarterbacks you routinely hear mentioned among the game's elite.
 
With just 1,032 career pass attempts, Roethlisberger isn't officially on the all-time passer rating list just yet. The NFL requires 1,500 pass attempts for consideration. But it's quite possible he'll reach that mark by the end of the 2007 season. Roethlisberger attemped 469 passes last year. (See the whole list of all-time passer rating leaders here.)
 
More importantly, though, is Roethlisberger's amazing 8.25 yards per pass attempt. Topping 8.0 YPA is virtually unheard of at the pro level.
 
In fact, his amazing 8.25 YPA stands as third-best in NFL history, behind just two of the greatest quarterbacks ever: Otto Graham and Sid Luckman. These are no ordinary Ottos and Sids who Roethlisberger finds himself among. In 18 years of NFL play, Graham and Luckman appeared in 11 championship games, winning seven of those title tilts.
 
Just five quarterbacks in NFL history topped 8.0 YPA for their career. There are no Swatches on this list of NFL record-setters, just the sweet dulcet chimes of Rolexes, Bulovas and Big Bens.
 
TOP 5 ALL-TIME PASSING YPA LEADERS
Player (Years)
Yards
Att.
YPA
Title Games
Titles
Otto Graham (1950-55)
13,499
1,565
8.63
6
3
Sid Luckman (1939-50)
14,686
1,744
8.42
5
4
Ben Roethlisberger (2004-present)
8,519
1,032
8.25
1
1
Kurt Warner (1998-present)
20,591
2,508
8.21
2
1
Norm Van Brocklin (1949-60)
23,611
2,895
8.16
5
2
- Among players with a minimum 40 NFL games and 1,000 pass attempts
- Bold indicates HOF quarterbacks
 
To put this list in prosaic terms, among all the quarterbacks who have taken a snap in the NFL over the past 50 years, none have carved up opposing defenses with their passing arm as efficiently as Roethlisberger.
 
As loyal Cold, Hard Football Facts readers (Hi Cousin Cooter!) are aware, we put a lot of stock in passing YPA. It is, in fact, one of our all-important Quality Stats.
 
 Is it the be all and end all of football stats? No. There is no such thing.
 
But we would argue, vigorously, that no individual stat in all of sports is easier to comprehend and yet has a more direct correlation to winning football games. We would not only make this argument vigorously, we would win this argument.
 
And, right now, at this point in his career, Roethlisberger is among the very best in the history of football at matriculating the ball down the field via the pass.
 
The company he keeps is fairly impressive.
 
Graham is inarguably the most successful quarterback in NFL history – he led the Browns to an unmatched six straight NFL title game appearances, winning three of them, from 1950 to 1955. He did this after leading the Browns to four straight titles in the four-year existence of the All-American Football Conference (1946-49). Put most simply, Graham was the keystone of the greatest dynasty in pro football history. (His 8.63 YPA includes only his NFL career. If we include his AAFC numbers, it balloons to 8.98 YPA: 23,584 yards on just 2,626 pass attempts.)
 
In light of these unprecedented accomplishments, Graham's history-leading passing YPA makes as much sense as beer and pizza.
 
Luckman, meanwhile, all but invented the modern quarterback position. He was a running back at Columbia, and the first pick in the 1939 draft, who was then converted to a T-formation quarterback in Chicago by Papa Bear Halas. In his second season, Luckman led the Bears to a 73-0 win over Washington in the 1940 title game. It remains the biggest blowout in NFL history and one of the most pivotal games ever, for it ushered in the era of the modern offense, with a quarterback taking the bulk of direct snaps from center. 
 
Luckman's numbers might have been inflated by playing in the midst of the talent-depleted World War II years. But by winning championships both before (1940) and after the war (1946), he proved more than a wartime fluke. More than a half century after he last played, Luckman remains the all-time leading passer in Bears history.
 
An Amazing List of Performers
Roethlisberger's company is impressive even if we expand the list.
 
TOP 15 ALL-TIME PASSING YPA LEADERS
Player (Years)
Yards
Att.
YPA
Title Games
Titles
Otto Graham (1950-55)
13,499
1,565
8.63
6
3
Sid Luckman (1939-50)
14,686
1,744
8.42
5
4
Ben Roethlisberger (2004-present)
8,519
1,032
8.25
1
1
Kurt Warner (1998-present)
20,591
2,508
8.21
2
1
Norm Van Brocklin (1949-60)
23,611
2,895
8.16
5
2
Steve Young (1985-99)
33,124
4,149
7.98
1
1
Ed Brown (1954-65)
15,600
1,987
7.85
1
0
Bart Starr (1956-71)
24,718
3,149
7.85
6
5
Bob Berry (1965-75)
9,197
1,173
7.84
0
0
Earl Morrall (1956-76)
20,809
2,689
7.74
3*
2*
Marc Bulger (2000-present)
16,233
2,106
7.71
0
0
Daunte Culpepper (1999-present)
21,097
2,743
7.69
0
0
Peyton Manning (1998-present)
37,586
4,890
7.68
1
1
Len Dawson (1957-75)
28,711
3,741
7.67
2
1
Roger Staubach (1969-79)
22,700
2,958
7.67
4
2
- Among players with a minimum 40 NFL games and 1,000 pass attempts
- Bold indicates HOF quarterbacks
* Includes only those championship seasons in which Morrall played a key role for his respective teams (1968 Colts, 1970 Colts, 1972 Dolphins)
 
All in all, it's a fairly amazing list of performers.
  • All but contemporary quarterback Culpepper have suited up for at least one NFL championship game or Super Bowl.
  • These 15 all-time YPA leaders won 23 championships.
  • 7 of the 10 retired YPA leaders are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • Young, No. 6 on the list, is No. 1 all-time in passer rating (96.8).
  • Starr, No. 8 on the list, is the only quarterback to lead his team to five NFL championships.
Even the players who seem like they don't belong have interesting stories. Ed Brown, who died earlier this month, is all but forgotten among modern football fans. Yet in 1951, he was the quarterback of arguably the greatest college football team of all time, the University of San Francisco Dons. The 1951 Dons went undefeated and sent three players on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Ollie Matson, Bob St. Clair and Gino Marchetti. Brown was a two-time Pro Bowler who led the Bears to the 1956 NFL championship game, where they lost to the Giants.
 
Bob Berry is probably the only name that really doesn't seem like it belongs. He spent most of his career as a backup to Fran Tarkenton in Minnesota, and suited up for Super Bowls VIII and IX, both losses. The few opportunities he did get to play, he was obviously an efficient performer. Playing for head coach Van Brocklin, he made a Pro Bowl with Atlanta in 1969.
 
The list is important because it pretty much spans the entire history of the modern offensive era of pro football. The pan-historic nature of the list indicates that YPA is better than passer rating as a way to compare quarterbacks of different eras. Passer rating has consistently grown higher over the years. But passing YPA, with the exception of some spikes here and there, most notably in the early 1960s, has remained fairly constant throughout NFL history (around 6.7 YPA or 6.8 YPA is average league-wide). Basically, modern passers put a premium on short, high-percentage passes. This has the result of reducing the number of INTs and boosting completion percentage, both of which have sparked the increase in passer rating among modern quarterbacks.
 
The consistent growth of passer rating has been well chronicled by the Cold, Hard Football Facts. For proof of passer rating's futility as a comparative measure of quarterbacks throughout history, simply look at that list of the 20 all-time passer rating leaders. You'll see that every single quarterback on the list played in the Live Ball Era (1978-present). Fifteen of them are still active.
  • As mentioned above, the 15 all-time YPA leaders won 23 NFL championships.
  • The 15 all-time passer rating leaders won 11 NFL championships, with Joe Montana and Brady accounting for seven of the 11.
  • The 15 all-time passing yardage leaders also won 11 NFL championships, with Montana and Unitas accounting for seven of the 11.
Big Ben's Future
The great and productive winners had one thing in common: almost all were closely aligned with a single Hall of Fame coach. Graham had Paul Brown; Sid Luckman had Papa Bear; Starr had Vince Lombardi.
 
Morrall's great years were spent under the tutelage of Don Shula. Dawson prospered under Hank Stram. Staubach led Tom Landry's Cowboys. Manning has spent most of his career playing for future Hall of Famer Tony Dungy.
 
Roethlisberger, however, suddenly finds himself at a career tipping point. Future Hall of Fame coach Bill Cowher split town and, in all likelihood, the 50-year-old coach will land another NFL coaching gig somewhere in the future.
 
So Big Ben's career is now, in many respects, at the mercy of 35-year-old rookie coach Mike Tomlin.
 
If Roethlisberger responds over the next few seasons with the vintage efficient performance that marked his first two years in the league, we may be able to talk about him as one of the all-time great quarterbacks.
 
If he does not respond, we may be looking at a player whose time has come ... and gone.
 

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