Using Stats to Disparage the Pittsburgh Steelers' QB: An Exercise in Absurdity

Todd FlemingAnalyst IJune 4, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws a pass against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Steelers won 27-23. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Far too many people want to compare quarterbacks by simply throwing a bunch of statistics down and saying, “See, I told you so, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger shouldn’t even be starting in this league.  All hail the ground that Peyton Manning walks on.”

Statistics never tell the whole story.  In some cases, the story they do tell is ridiculously wrong, especially when applied to a quarterback.

No two quarterbacks operate in the same situation.  Some play in ball control offenses that focus on running the ball while using short passes to move the chains. 

Others play in systems that are all about putting the ball into the air early and often.

Some have rock solid walls in front of them that allow them to read Tolstoy novels in the pocket while waiting for receivers to come upon. 

Others line up behind guys that much more resemble those cardboard cut-outs with whom you can get your picture taken, kind of like the cut out of that Jared guy on display at many Subway sandwich shops. 

For most of the 2008 season, Roethlisberger played behind what may very well be the worst offensive line to ever win a Super Bowl.  While the unit did improve by the playoffs, where is that on any stat sheet?

The biggest miracle for me was that Ben continued to line up behind center without demanding hazard pay.  

Some quarterbacks have innovative offensive coordinators who call unpredictable plays that always keep the other defense off balance. 

Others have offensive coordinators who believe in finding out which plays are least effective and calling them thirty times in a row.

Of course, defenses play a huge role in quarterback statistics.  If a defense is stingy and unlikely to give up a lot of points, that team's quarterback will throw for more yards in the first half while building a lead before giving way to the running game in the second half. 

The statistics will be skewed with big yardage numbers in the first half followed by miniscule second half stats.  That has typically been the case with Big Ben. 

But, it can cut both ways with a great defense.  A great defense will indeed record more three and outs, providing more opportunities for the offense to take the field. 

But, as a corollary, a terrible defense will give up a ton of points, meaning that their team’s offense will be throwing early and often just to try to stay in the game.  This was the case last year for teams like Arizona and Denver

I think Denver should have cut their punter because the last thing they should have ever willingly done was put the other team's offense back on the field. 

Chances are if you have a defense as bad as last year's Denver squad, just about any quarterback will put up big yardage numbers based on the number of times they will have to put the ball into the air. 

It will be interesting to see how Jay Cutler performs in a very different style offense without the Great Wall of China in front of him.  I'm guessing that his stats will take a hit meaning that he will suddenly become a worse quarterback in the estimation of some. 

Nor will I be at all surprised if Kyle Orton looks a whole lot better playing in Denver than he did in Chicago.

Those two quarterbacks will make an excellent case study following this season on how they perform in the two different systems.

Having a bad defense also brings an added sense of urgency to throw for first downs when you know that a punt is likely to result in a score for the other team.

Was Tom Brady suddenly a better quarterback because his statistics looked better over his last couple seasons playing with better receivers and a worse defense?  No, he was always an elite quarterback.  Anybody who watched him play could see that.

Will Ben Roethlisberger suddenly be a better quarterback if he throws for twice as many yards in a more open style offense?  No, he will be the same great quarterback.

Some moments in games are more illustrative of a quarterback’s talents than others.  This is where “clutch” enters the equation.

How a quarterback performs when the game is on the line, when they are calling the plays in a no huddle situation, is very telling.

If a quarterback repeatedly leads a team down the field to victory in the game’s final moments, they deserve to be called “clutch.”  How many quarterbacks can actually do that on a consistent basis?  Not that many.

Ben Roethlisberger has now done it nineteen times in his relatively short career.    Joe Montana could do it.  So can Tom Brady.  It is a major contributing factor to their overall greatness.

In the movie The Replacements, Gene Hackman is constantly trying to get the character played by Keanu Reeves to become a Roethlisberger or Brady kind of player, a player who wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line, one who can motivate and lead the team.

Statistics do not measure leadership ability, heart, determination, and will.  They don’t measure how a quarterback can inspire his teammates to greatness.  They don't measure his willingness to sacrifice individual stats for the greater cause of winning.

No bad quarterback is ever going to lead a team to multiple Super Bowl wins because he will face some great defenses along the way.  And he will face situations where he has to be “the guy.” 

Roethlisberger has faced several of those situations and not all in traditional situations.  He was “the guy” when Jerome Bettis almost fumbled away a playoff game, making an unlikely tackle on the Colts’ Nick Harper. 

It is ironic that if he doesn't make that tackle, Manning likely has two Super Bowl rings to Ben's one. 

He was “the guy” when he threw a key block on a blitzing linebacker to spring the trick play that put Super Bowl XL away.

He was “the guy” when he led his team 88 yards down the field in a Super Bowl’s waning moments with his top receiver hobbled by injury and absolutely no pass protection in front of him.

He was “the guy” when he was torching the Colts' and the Broncos’ defenses en route to Super Bowl XL.  The Steelers built their big leads in both games on the strength of Roethlisberger’s arm.

With Roethlisberger behind center, Steelers’ fans don’t ever think their team is out of a game, because he has proven so adept at leading them back.

Could he put up Peyton Manning type statistics in a similar style offense?  I don’t know and I don’t really care.  It doesn't matter.

What I do know is that he is a championship caliber quarterback and he has earned the “clutch” moniker. 

And no matter what statistics say, he is the guy the Steelers want leading them into battle week in and week out.