Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Pittsburgh Steelers have played in eight Super Bowls, winning six. Seven of those eight Super Bowls featured just two quarterbacks under center—Terry Bradshaw, who played with the Steelers from 1970 until 1983, and Ben Roethlisberger, their current starter, who has held that job since his rookie 2004 season.
Considering the comparable success of the two quarterbacks, it makes sense to compare them in other ways and see if Roethlisberger has already outshone Bradshaw's Hall of Fame career years before retirement. While Bradshaw's playing career, as of now, is longer than Roethlisberger's, and though the eras in which they each played are quite different, they can still be looked at side-by-side to try to determine if the Steelers' present quarterback is better than the legendary Bradshaw.
Bradshaw was the first overall pick in the 1970 draft, taken by the Steelers after they went 1-13 the previous season. Roethlisberger was a first-round pick as well, taken 11th overall after Pittsburgh went 6-10 in the 2003 season. In both instances, the Steelers needed a quarterback to take over the reigns of the offense; however, in Bradshaw's case, he had a bit more time.
The Steelers' plan when drafting Roethlisberger was to allow him at least a season to get accustomed to the NFL before naming him the starter. In 2004, he went into the season behind quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox. However, Batch fell injured in the preseason, and Maddox struggled in the early weeks of the regular season, resulting in Roethlisberger getting the start in Week 3.
Bradshaw, too, needed time to adjust to the NFL, but the Steelers were able to afford him it. Though he appeared in 13 games in 1970, he started only eight and the struggles were apparent. Bradshaw threw just six touchdowns to an agonizing 24 interceptions in his rookie year. Though Bradshaw was the full-time starter in his second season, his touchdown-to-interception ratio didn't drastically improve, throwing 13 touchdowns to 22 picks.
In contrast, when Roethlisberger was asked to step up, he handled the job as though it had been his for years. The Steelers went 13-0 with Roethlisberger as their starter in 2004, and he threw 17 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Their 15-1 record led the AFC North, and the Steelers subsequently made it all the way to the conference championship, ultimately falling to the New England Patriots. For his efforts, Roethlisberger was named the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year.
In Roethlisberger's second season, the Steelers went to and won the Super Bowl, defeating the NFC's Seattle Seahawks, 21-10. This made him the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl. Bradshaw eventually would catch up to Roethlisberger, but it would take him three seasons in the league before he saw his first playoff action.
In the two quarterbacks' early years in the NFL, it's clear that Roethlisberger had the easier transition and overall better performance than Bradshaw.
Over the length of the two quarterbacks' careers, the numbers game favors Roethlisberger. While during Bradshaw's time in the league, the emphasis on a high-octane, strong-armed, deadly accurate quarterback was drastically less than it is now. The claims that the Steelers had so much success despite Bradshaw wasn't always an incorrect assessment.
Only once, in his final, 1983 season, did Bradshaw ever post a per-season completion percentage in the 60s, while Roethlisberger has been under 60 percent just twice—and only slightly (59.7 in 2006 and 59.9 in 2008). Further, Roethlisberger has just one season in which he threw more interceptions to touchdowns (2006, with 18 touchdown passes to 23 interceptions) while Bradshaw had five, along with another season with 12 scores to 12 picks.
It isn't all bad for Bradshaw, however—as we all know. The one place where he really shined, and where he's similar to Roethlisberger, was his ability to move the chains. Eventually, Bradshaw's yards per attempt reached around the eight-yard mark, and his career average was 7.2; his yards per completion were even better, averaging 13.8 in his career and a high of 15.3 in 1980.
So far, Roethlisberger's career average in yards per attempt is 7.9, and his yards per completion average is 12.6. His highs of 8.9 in the former and 14.2 in the latter both came in 2005.
The other thing to consider is that while Bradshaw's touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio over the course of his career is fairly poor, he still managed to throw a comparable amount of touchdowns in comparison to Roethlisberger. Of Bradshaw's 3,901 career pass attempts, 212 resulted in touchdowns—or, 5.4 percent; Roethlisberger has so far thrown 3,762 career passes with 191 touchdowns—5.1 percent.
Though interceptions are deadly, and though Bradshaw clearly threw too many (especially by today's standards), he more than made up for it by effectively moving the ball down the field when he wasn't being picked off, and by scoring so many touchdowns despite a conservative number of pass attempts (again, by today's standards).
Most interestingly, however, are the rushing numbers of the two quarterbacks. Generally, one thinks of Roethlisberger as a loose cannon who will take off running—or, more accurately, scrambling in a small space—in order to extend plays and find a receiver to throw to. This results in many thrilling sequences of events but not flashy rushing numbers—Roethlisberger has 318 career rushes, for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 8.2 rushing yards per game.
Bradshaw, however, was more traditionally mobile, and he used that skill often. In his career, he ran with the ball 444 times for 2,257 yards and an impressive 32 touchdowns. He averaged 13.4 rushing yards per game, and though this seems paltry in the face of present-day quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, it does show that Bradshaw was ultimately more effective on the ground than Roethlisberger, at least in an orthodox sense.
This extends into another important discussion when comparing Bradshaw to Roethlisberger—sacks. Bradshaw took 307 sacks in his career, with 7.3 percent of his dropbacks resulting in a sack. Roethlisberger, one of the most punished quarterbacks in NFL history, has 344 sacks to his name, taking one on 8.4 percent of his dropbacks thus far. With Bradshaw having a 14-year career and Roethlisberger about to embark on his 10th, this seems like a massive disparity.
Actually, it's not. Looking at the passing numbers, Bradshaw's 3,901 attempts over 14 years is quite low—Roethlisberger has attempted 3,762 passes over nine years and will exceed Bradshaw's number this season easily.
Granted, Roethlisberger's sack rate is higher, but it's not hard to extrapolate that Bradshaw would have had similar numbers had he simply attempted more passes. The numbers serve to illustrate how both quarterbacks have been wildly successful despite being brutalized by opposing defenses.
The Championship Factor
The single biggest argument in favor of Bradshaw over Roethlisberger is the number of Super Bowl rings—four of them for the Hall of Famer, two for the present-day starter. All four times the Bradshaw-led Steelers reached the NFL's biggest game, they won it; with the Roethlisberger-era Steelers, it was three Super Bowls with two wins.
NFL teams are more than just their quarterbacks, of course—as we all know, the Steelers' defense gets as much or more credit for the team's six Lombardi trophies than do the two quarterbacks on those teams. But quarterbacks get a great deal of credit and blame, even if it isn't due to them, so it's easy to fall back on Bradshaw's four titles to Roethlisberger's two and conclude it's going to take more work for Roethlisberger to supplant Bradshaw's legacy.
More telling than the rings are other accolades. For example, Bradshaw won Super Bowl MVP twice while Roethlisberger never won the award in his Steelers' two Super Bowl victories. There are the All-Pro nods, which are more valuable than Pro Bowl accolades, and of which Bradshaw has two—one first-team, one second-team—and Roethlisberger, none.
These awards carry more weight than a Super Bowl ring, simply because there are more factors beyond the quarterback—and a lot of them dependent on chance and luck—that lead a team to a Super Bowl win. We don't think any less of Peyton Manning and his spot in NFL history because he currently holds just one Super Bowl ring in his safety deposit box. He's not on par with Trent Dilfer, who also can boast a Super Bowl win. Making it about the rings misses the bigger picture.
Both Bradshaw and Roethlisberger are more than worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon them over the course of their careers. Bradshaw is a deserving Hall of Famer and was the right quarterback for the Steelers in the 1970s and 1980s. There's no diminishing his accomplishments, to be sure, but a side-by-side comparison between him and Roethlisberger puts Roethlisberger ahead of him.
The reason for this is simple: Roethlisberger is a great quarterback today and would have been great had he played during Bradshaw's era, but the same cannot be said for Bradshaw in today's NFL. Though he was skilled at moving the chains and producing touchdowns, Bradshaw's completion percentages and interceptions wouldn't likely have resulted in a long, productive, Super Bowl-winning career in the 21st century.
That's not to say that Bradshaw wouldn't have success in the modern NFL, but he'd be more of a serviceable game manager in his better moments. Roethlisberger's arm, his ability to withstand punishment, his readiness to play in his rookie season and his consistency are all desirable attributes of a quarterback, regardless of decade.
Though Bradshaw certainly did possess some of these traits, he didn't have all of them and not in the same, more complete manner of Roethlisberger. If judging a quarterback's overall talent level and value comes down to his ability to (hypothetically) produce regardless of the era, then Roethlisberger is indeed the better of the two Steelers Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.
All statistical data provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.