Pittsburgh Steelers: Do Lack of Pass Attempts Keep Ben Roethlisberger Down?

Tim SteelersFanCorrespondent IJuly 6, 2009

Big Ben Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback.

Yes, I said it.  Arguments always incessantly follow such claims about the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.  There are those who see the beauty of this non-stereotypical quarterback, while others call him over-rated or loathe the mention of his name.

There seems to be no middle ground and it’s eerily reminiscent of the same type of love-hate relationship that followed Terry Bradshaw through and after his Hall of Fame career.

Why?  Maybe it’s because he plays in Steel-town.  Champions breed jealousy and contempt.

Maybe it’s media bias.  Clearly he isn’t the media darling like Brady and Manning have been so eloquently sculpted to be.

Maybe it was the stereotypes fashioned for him as a rookie (the year he entered the league and shattered every previously held record for rookie QBs, including the great Dan Marino) like “He’s a game manager” and “He’s blue-color but not pretty.”

Over the years, you would expect those images to change with the improvement in his game.  Certainly winning more games than any QB has in their first five seasons in the history of the NFL should help.  But cries of “It was all due to the defense” typically follow.

Setting a team record 32 TD passes in a season with a 104.1 passer rating for the 2007 season should have helped.  But words and phrases like “fluke” and “he can’t do it consistently” are often heard after.

Accomplishment after accomplishment, his image doesn’t seem to change.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the biggest thing that hurts Ben's reputation is the team he plays for and the system he plays in.  It's a great team, there's no denying that.  Consider this quote from Clark Judge at CBSSportsline.com:

"Things have worked against him," said an AFC offensive coordinator.

"He has the best defense in the league, so people ask, 'Is it the defense or is it him?' He typically has one of the top five rushing attacks in the league. So is it him or the other two?"

"But with the combination of the three, he's a miracle worker. If he had just an ordinary defense or running game, the guy would be unbelievable because he would be forced to make plays."”

This is not only an interesting comment, but a very plausible, realistic argument.  If Ben were in a system that wasn’t so balanced, and so very efficient, Ben may very well be “unbelievable” by Pro-Bowl voting qualifications and absolute statistics.

Ben plays in a system that is built around traditional Steeler football—run the ball, build a consistently stout and strong defense, and control low-scoring games.  

One of the hallmark traits of this offense is severely limited passing attempts for the quarterback.  And it is this very lack of attempts that leave us with only a glimpse of the QB behind the No. 7.

Consider, if you will, that Ben has thrown the ball 1,905 times in his first five seasons as an NFL quarterback.  This translates into an average of 381 attempts per season.  Consider the following QB Pass Attempt stats as a point of comparison:

 * In his first five seasons, Peyton Manning threw the ball 2,817 times (or an average of 563 attempts per season).
 * Drew Brees, in his first full five seasons (omitting his rookie season where he played in one game) averaged 467 pass attempts per season.  In the past three seasons, Brees has averaged 614 attempts per season.
 * Tom Brady (also omitting his rookie season) averaged 509 attempts per season in his first full five seasons.
 * Ben’s attempts have ranked as follows in the league for the past five years (from 2004-2008):  28th, 30th, 11th, 16th, and 14th.

The list could go on.  The point to be made from these bullets is simple: Ben Roethlisberger throws the ball a lower number of times as compared to a large percentage of his peers.  His attempts are obviously growing, but in the Steelers’ style of offense, will likely never be nearly what the typical Pro-Bowl and MVP quarterbacks get on average.

Passing attempts have a direct correlation to absolute passing statistics.

Absolute passing statistics, for at least the basis of this article, are yardage, TDs, and Interceptions.  And it is absolute stats that matter when it comes to voting for the Pro-Bowl, and MVPs, and Players of the Week awards.  And absolute stats are the foundation for many an incorrect perception as to the ability of an NFL quarterback.

Pass Attempt Correlation Statistics

Correlation statistics show a very strong relationship between Pass Attempts and yardage.  The following statistics come from a comparison of all NFL Quarterbacks (who had at least 14 attempts per game) for the past five seasons.  Let’s consider the following correlation numbers:

  • From 2004-2008, the correlation of Pass Attempts to Yardage is as follows (chronologically):  .926, .938, .929, .972, and .945

In correlations, the closer the number is to 1.0, the stronger the correlation.  Typically anything from 0.5 to 1.0 means a strong positive correlation. The 1.0 means an absolute correlation (i.e., the one number is perfectly related to the other).

These Pass Attempts to Yardage correlations cannot be much stronger.  This means there is nearly an absolute relationship between passing attempts leading to yardage.

Now consider Passing Attempts correlated to TDs thrown:

  • From 2004-2008, the correlation of Pass Attempts to TDs is as follows (chronologically):  .776, .790, .738, .810, and .780

Again, we see a very strong (but to a lesser degree) correlation between passing attempts and TDs thrown.

Finally, consider Passing Attempts correlated to Interceptions.  This one is particularly interesting:

  • From 2004-2008, the correlation of Pass Attempts to Interceptions is as follows (chronologically):  .639, .642, .485, .646, and .590.

In only four of the five years is there a strong positive correlation (in 2006, there was only a medium correlation at .485).  Still, the numbers show that as pass attempts increase, so too do interceptions.  But one can see that there is easily a much lower correlation as compared to say yardage.

Overall, the numbers are convincing and compelling.  There is a non-questionable, exceptionally strong correlation between attempts and yards.  There is also a strong, non-questionable correlation between attempts and TDs.  Lastly, there is also a strong relationship between attempts and interceptions (but to a markedly lower degree).

Simply put, five years of NFL data across all QBs show that the QBs with more attempts throw more Yards, TDs, and Interceptions.

And while not a guarantee, the numbers show that (likely) if Roethlisberger had say, 150 more attempts per season, his yardage, TDs, and INTs would increase proportionally.

Efficiency Statistics

Now some may argue there needs to be more justification.  Let’s also look at Ben’s efficiency statistics.

  • In Passing Yards per Attempt, Ben has ranked as follows chronologically since 2004:  2nd (8.9 yards/attempt), 1st (8.9 yards/attempt), 7th (7.5 yards/attempt), 3rd (7.8 yards/attempt), and 17th (7.0 yards per attempt).
    • Ben is typically in the upper echelons of the league in Yards/attempt.
  • In Touchdown %, Ben has also typically ranked as follows since 2004:  7th (5.8%), 1st (6.3%), 17th (3.8%), 2nd (7.9%), and 20th (3.6%).
    • There is a bit more fluctuation here with his TD%s, but overall for his career, Ben is a very noticeable 5.3% in this category.
  • In Interception %, Ben has ranked as follows:  25th (3.7%), 21st (3.4%), 32nd (4.9%), 11th (2.7%), and 30th at 3.2%.
    • Interceptions have been a glaring weakness of Ben’s, there is no question.  But it is this risk taking that also leads to his greatest accomplishments (he’s very Favre-like in this sense), so Steelers fans learn to live with the faults for the gains he makes here (like the 60+ yard TD pass to Santonio Holmes in the AFC Championship Game, a quintessential "he held the ball too long" Touch Down pass).


From the correlation statistics, it is clear that there is a strong and direct correlation between pass attempts and Yards, TDs, and Interceptions.  Simply considering these numbers over the statistically significant period of five seasons, the claim can be made that if Ben had more attempts, naturally his numbers would increase.

The argument is bolstered by the fact that his efficiency stats are so highly ranked, typically.  And as a result, he’d be more often in the discussion of league MVP, Player of the Week, and or Pro-Bowl consideration.

Predicted arguments against this claim would be “he’s not good enough to handle additional attempts”, or “he’s not good enough as a pure passer to put up those numbers even with more attempts”.

All one needs to do is look at his efficiency stats (typically ranked above average to top two or three in NFL ranking, save for interceptions) as justification that Ben gets the most out of his throws as is.

He is one of the best QBs in the league, typically, in efficiencies.

Ben's lack of attempts make what he has done all the more remarkable.  In 2007 Ben threw 32 TDs with only 404 attempts. Comparatively, Tony Romo threw 36 TDs in 520 attempts and Peyton Manning threw 31 TDs in 515 attempts.  It is safe to say that with so few attempts, Ben's accomplishments are under-magnified.

And when you consider that last season, he was 6-2 in games where he threw the ball 30 times or more, the signs are clearly there.  Give Ben more attempts, you’d be looking at one of the best QBs in the NFL in absolute statistics as well (not just in games won, Super Bowl titles, and efficiency stats).


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