If Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger retired tomorrow, would he make the Hall of Fame? It’s no sure thing, but supporters of the nine-year veteran could make a pretty good case. And if he continues to play at even close to his current level for a few more years, his enshrinement is almost guaranteed.
Inductees into pro football’s most prestigious shrine generally need three things to earn a trip to Canton, a bust and a hideous yellow jacket: numbers, longevity and a demonstrable impact on the game.
The first is necessary to lend objectivity to an otherwise subjective process. Though not quite as sacred to the game as they are to baseball, statistics in football do help quantify what a player did over the course of his career. And more importantly, how he compares to his peers and his predecessors. Statistics becomes even more significant as time goes by and the memories of a player’s performances on the field fade away.
Putting up impressive numbers for a year will earn a player a trip to Hawaii. Doing it for many years books his ticket to Canton. NFL history is littered with many players who have shone brightly for a moment and then disappeared. To rank among the best the game has ever seen, a player needs to separate himself from his peers by sustaining excellent performance over a meaningful period of time.
Even gaudy stats and a long career don’t guarantee a spot in the Hall of Fame, though. A candidate also needs to stand out in the minds of the voters. Hall of Famers need to produce moments that resonate. They need to shine in memorable ways. They need to matter. Somebody worthy of the Hall of Fame should inspire fathers and grandfathers to bore their descendants with stories about what it was like to see him play.
So if Big Ben hung it up after nine seasons, how would he stack up against current and future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in these three areas?
Though not a passing machine like first-ballot Hall-of-Famers like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, Roethlisberger’s career stats would make him a competitive candidate for enshrinement. His 92.7 quarterback rating is the ninth best of all time and would rank second among current Hall of Famers. With 29,844 career passing yards, Big Ben ranks 37th in NFL history. If inducted into the Hall of Fame tomorrow, he would rank 13th out of 27 quarterbacks, just behind Sonny Jurgensen, Troy Aikman and Steve Young, and just ahead of Len Dawson and Terry Bradshaw. His 191 touchdown passes rank 42nd all time and would put him 17th among current Hall of Famers, between Bob Griese and Sammy Baugh.
Given that he is only 30, it is not surprising that longevity is the weakest part of Roethlisberger’s resume. If he packed it in tomorrow, his nine seasons and 127 games would put the Steelers quarterback among the least experienced quarterbacks to be immortalized in Canton. Among Hall of Fame inductees, only Otto Graham (10 seasons, 126 games), Bob Waterfield (eight seasons, 91 games) and Jim Finks (seven seasons, 79 games) have spent less time on the field that Big Ben. And those three played in the 1940s and 1950s, when careers were considerably shorter due to poorer medical capabilities and smaller salaries.
At the same time, Roethlisberger has something that many quarterbacks with longer tenures don’t have: a reputation as a winner. And as Aikman’s enshrinement illustrates, that resonates among voters. Big Ben has the fourth highest winning percentage of all time, behind only Brady, Joe Montana and Roger Staubach.
More importantly, Big Ben has made it to and won on the big stage. He has posted the sixth best winning percentage among quarterbacks with at least 10 postseason games played. He has already played in three Super Bowls and emerged triumphant in two of them. Eleven quarterbacks have competed for the NFL’s ultimate prize three or more times. Only two—Brady and Kurt Warner—aren’t in the Hall of Fame. The first is a lock to be enshrined once he’s eligible, and the second has a decent chance of making it.
Football is a team sport, so remembering quarterbacks by their Super Bowl appearances is somewhat unfair. Even the best quarterbacks need a good team around them to achieve success. One can always argue that starting behind center for a conference champion is more a product of luck than skill. And certainly Roethlisberger was not the main driving force behind the Steelers’ 2005-2006 Super Bowl run during his second season. Nor did he play particularly well in his most recent appearance against Green Bay.
However, Pittsburgh’s quarterback has put together enough quality crunch-time work to be considered a winner independent of the team surrounding him. Roethlisberger has staged 29 game-winning drives, tying him with Hall-of-Famers Johnny Unitas and Jim Kelly for the 14th most ever. Big Ben’s late-game heroics stand out even more when adjusted for the length of his career.
Roethlisberger ranks third all-time in game-winning drives per season with 3.22 per year, just behind Peyton Manning’s 3.5. Even if the Steelers quarterback slows down significantly in the later stages of his career and averages only two game-winning drives per season over the next five, he will still rank between John Elway and Kelly on the all-time list. And when it comes to voters, it doesn’t hurt that one of those drives came at the end of Super Bowl XLIII.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh fans, Big Ben’s career isn’t coming to an end before the 2013 season. Another five seasons behind center for the Steelers seems reasonable given the current state of sports medicine. That would give plenty of time for Roethlisberger to bolster the case that he belongs in Canton. Here are a few things he could do to improve his chances before he retires.
As far as his numbers are concerned, the biggest challenge that Roethlisberger faces is separating himself from other active quarterbacks. Though his current numbers and pace look good historically, he will be facing competition from many of his peers who are putting up similar stats.
Thanks to changes in the passing game in the 1980s and 1990s, throwing the ball has become the preferred mode of attack in today’s NFL. As a result, passing statistics based on rates or averages are dominated by players who came into the league during or after that time. For example, 10 of the 16 quarterbacks whose career passing yards per game exceed Roethlisberger’s 235 are currently active. Seven of the 10 highest rated quarterbacks of all time are also still playing. As are seven of the 11 players with higher career completion percentages than Big Ben’s 63.1. Two of the others retired in the past three years.
So even though Big Ben’s numbers compare favorably to Kelly’s, they also match up pretty well with those from Matt Hasselbeck's nine best years. The trick for Roethlisberger will be to hit overall marks that will make him a shoo-in from a numbers point of view, regardless of what Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan or Philip Rivers do in the future.
For example, if Big Ben can make it to 40,000 yards and 280 touchdowns, it would be hard to argue with his statistical credentials. There are 14 NFL quarterbacks with that many career passing yards, and only three (Kerry Collins, Drew Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde) are not Hall of Famers or future enshrinees. Getting to the second mark would put Roethlisberger in the top 10 all-time, behind nine current or future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks.
Both targets seem pretty hittable. Getting to 40,000 passing yards within five years would take 2,031 yards per year, almost 1,300 less than Big Ben’s career average. Roethlisberger could essentially turn into 2012 Mark Sanchez for the rest of his career and still make the mark easily as long as he plays for another half-decade. If he could average 3,031 yards per year for the next five seasons, he would make it to 45,000 yards and into the top 10 all-time. This is also not unrealistic, given that he’s averaged more than 3,500 yards per year after throwing less than 300 passes in each his first two seasons in the league.
Reaching 280 touchdowns would be a little tougher. It requires that Big Ben throw 18.2 per season for each of the next five. Over the course of his career, he has averaged 21.2 per year, leaving him little room for a drop-off in production. The 17 touchdowns he threw in his low-usage first two years didn’t affect that rate much. Without them, his average only rises to 22.4. Getting to 300 touchdowns, which would make him a virtual statistical lock for the Hall of Fame, would require him to average about that many per year. Not impossible, but somewhat improbable for a quarterback on the wrong side of 30.
Playing into his mid-30s will be critical to reaching these numbers, but will be equally important in its own right. Longevity is a critical part of any player’s candidacy, but it is particularly crucial for quarterbacks. An aging running back whose legs lose their pop is finished. As a result, voters can forgive players with short but memorable careers. A veteran quarterback, however, can overcome a weakening arm by using his experience to read defenses better.
The careers of those currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame bear this out. The 26 quarterbacks currently in the Hall of Fame played an average of 180 games and 14.8 seasons. The 219 Hall of Famers at all other positions averaged 154.1 tilts and 12.4 campaigns.
If Roethlisberger plays for another five seasons, the longevity issue should take care of itself. Playing at least 14 games per season until the 2017 campaign would give Big Ben 14 seasons and 197 games. Not even close to George Blanda’s 27 and 340, but solidly near the average among Hall of Fame quarterbacks and good enough for his tenure not to be an issue for voters.
The trick, of course, will be staying healthy. Despite a playing style that attracts hits that leads to bumps and bruises, Roethlisberger has missed only 10 games due to injury or illness in his career. However, as he slows down and loses the escapability that is one of his greatest strengths as a quarterback, he will probably take more direct hits that will sideline him for longer periods of time.
Playing 12 games a year for the next five would still leave Big Ben above the Hall of Fame average. However, a catastrophic injury that cuts his career short by a couple of years could move his candidacy onto the bubble. Ten to 12 very good but not transcendent seasons in the modern era may not be enough to get to Canton.
Staying in the minds of voters is not quite as straightforward, because it is such a subjective measure to begin with. Aside from continuing his ability to manufacture wins late in the game, the best thing Roethlisberger could do would be to win another Super Bowl. Not that such a feat is within his control.
There are only four quarterbacks who have won three Super Bowls: Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Aikman and Brady. Three current Hall of Famers and one who will join them as soon as he’s eligible. Adding a third title would all but ensure Big Ben a bust in Canton.