QBing the Pittsburgh Steelers: The Ben Roethlisberger Paradox

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QBing the Pittsburgh Steelers: The Ben Roethlisberger Paradox
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Back in the 1970s, the Steelers established the benchmark for all contemporary NFL dynasties.

The ingredients were as follows:

1. A dominant defense.
2. A powerful running game.
3. An efficient passing game.

The defense was the bedrock of the team, upon which everything else would be built.

On offense, the running game was the preferred method of advancing the football down the field, not because the QB couldn't be trusted, but because running the football is the most fundamental, low-risk method of advancing it.

The passing game was basically used as a secret weapon, emerging only whenever it was absolutely needed. If the offense faced third-and-long, the pass was used to move the chains and keep a drive going.

If the defense allowed more points than normal, the pass helped the team rally from a deficit, and also kept the offense from being one-dimensional.

Due to the high-risk nature of throwing the football, however, if the defense and running game worked well, there was no need to rely on the QB's arm.

It certainly made the QB's job easier, but such a gesture on the coach's part should never be mistaken for a lack of trust in a QB—the way it too often is today.

The way the coaches saw it, their secret weapon was the deadliest of them all precisely because it wasn't used any more than necessary. The less it was used, the less opposing defenses would be prepared to stop it.

Terry Bradshaw was Pittsburgh's secret weapon at the time, and it should come as no surprise that he was deadliest in the playoffs.

He could make all the throws, and, despite perceptions of him as a dim-witted rube, he was smart enough to draw up and call his own plays. Even as more and more teams were relying on their offensive coordinators, Bradshaw was his own offensive coordinator.

And, he clearly had what it took to work two jobs simultaneously—if his 1978 league MVP award, his Super Bowl XIII, and XIV MVP awards are proof of anything.

Many people claim he was "overrated" simply because other QBs of the time, like Roger Staubach and Fran Tarkenton, had better career stat lines.

I'd argue that he was underrated because he not only succeeded as both a QB and an offensive coordinator, but he also played very well in pressure situations. What he meant to the team could never be measured simply by statistics.

The tradition of strong defenses and running games in Pittsburgh has been consistent since Chuck Noll was hired to be the Steelers' head coach in 1969, with few exceptions.

The defense withered in the mid-to-late 1980's, but has ranked outside the top 10 in only three seasons since Bill Cowher became the head coach in 1992.

The running game has had a couple of off-years this decade in 2003 and 2008, but they're directly linked to the performance of the offensive line in general.

Other than those exceptions, the Steelers have not changed their identity since the glory years of the 1970s, and why would they?

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

In spite of the Steelers sticking to their roots, however, they suffered through a championship drought that lasted over a quarter of a century.

From the 1980s through the 1990s and into the beginning of this decade, they trotted out QBs, like Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox.

Malone and Brister never really benefited from defenses and running games the caliber of those enjoyed by the Steelers of the 1970s, but the fact that neither of them were sought after as starting QBs by other teams once they left Pittsburgh is telling.

O'Donnell was the anti-Bradshaw.  His career numbers looked pretty, but he was terribly inefficient in the playoffs. Stewart was a choker who simply couldn't handle the pressure of being a QB, and Maddox was a fluke.

By early this decade, the consensus of NFL fans and experts alike was that the Steelers were a tough team that had been wasting its effort and squandering its opportunities on a string of mediocre QBs.

That brings us to Ben Roethlisberger and the ensuing about-face in consensus.

Since Roethlisberger took over as Pittsburgh's starting QB, his best efforts have been continuously discredited by people who must think it's unfair that somebody should experience such quick success in the NFL.

After his rookie season, people claimed that he was simply in the right place at the right time, even though the team's roster was largely unchanged between 2003, when they finished 6-and-10, and 2004.

After he became the youngest QB to ever win a Super Bowl, people derided him for his poor passer rating in Super Bowl XL, conveniently forgetting that the Steelers probably wouldn't even make it to the Super Bowl without him.

In 2006, people claimed that "the real Ben Roethlisberger was exposed," conveniently forgetting that he suffered three medical emergencies in a matter of four months.

As for 2007, apparently it never happened.

Finally, just a few months ago, after Roethlisberger led the Steelers on a game-winning TD drive in Super Bowl XLIII that will be immortalized by NFL Films, people just snickered about his passer rating in Super Bowl XL.

Which brings me to several questions I have.

If it's so easy to do what Ben Roethlisberger does, then why did the Steelers have to wait 26 years to win a fifth Super Bowl?

Why is Roethlisberger one of only 10 QBs in NFL history to win multiple Super Bowls?

Why do people still compare Roethlisberger to Trent Dilfer, even though Roethlisberger has won twice as many championships and has a career passer rating that's almost 20 points higher than Dilfer's?

If a dominant defense and a powerful running game is all it takes, then why aren't the Minnesota Vikings the runaway favorites to win Super Bowl XLIV?

I think we all know the answers to these questions, but plenty of people will deny them nonetheless. The truth is, Ben Roethlisberger brings something extra to the Steelers that cannot be quantified, much the same way Terry Bradshaw did.

Roethlisberger is the new secret weapon for the Steelers, doing the most damage to opponents when he has to, such as when his team is trailing by three with 2:37 left in a really really really big game.

I call it the Ben Roethlisberger Paradox: that's when so many people claim a player is "overrated" that he becomes underrated in the process.

I think QBs like Mark Malone, Neil O'Donnell, and Kordell Stewart are proof that, no, not "any old QB" can succeed in Pittsburgh.

Even if a dominant defense and powerful running game make life easier for a QB, it's still the hardest position in football to master, and those that do all have a special quality that cannot possibly be reflected in statistics.

Making life easier for a QB is the least a football team can do. It's what the Pittsburgh Steelers have done on a consistent basis since 1969, but only two QBs—Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger—have been good enough to take advantage of it.

That's what makes them special.

That's what makes them much more than just "any old QB."

That's what makes it an honor to have watched them play.

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