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Ben Roethlisberger Making MVP Case in Periphery of Elite QB Contemporaries

Sean Jensen@seankjensenSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 14, 2014

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If the NFL were to select and sculpt its Mount Rushmore of active quarterbacks, the faces would undoubtedly bear the likeness of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

Those quarterbacks are no-brainers. If you want to win a Super Bowl now, those are the guys you want leading your team.

Brady, Manning, Brees and Rodgers earned entry into the velvety-rope "elite" category by each consistently posting incredible statistics, selling jerseys, setting league records, earning endorsements and winning at least one Super Bowl MVP award for a championship team.

To be considered elite, though, the ring is not the only thing.

Take the Manning brothers.

Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings. Peyton Manning has one. Yet no rational argument can be made that Eli is a better quarterback than Peyton and his career of unbelievable statistics and records.

Brady is the standard with three Super Bowl rings and two other Super Bowl appearances.

But there's another quarterback with two Super Bowl rings and designs on his fourth Super Bowl appearance in the last decade.

For that man, there's little talk of "elite" status and no Mount Rushmore face or MVP awards on the shelf. This could finally be the year Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger changes that.

Two for the Record Books

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 02:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to pass during the third quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on November 2, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Days after putting the final touches on a two-game stretch unmatched by his more highly touted contemporaries, Roethlisberger wasn't interested in discussing his legacy.

"Hopefully, it's a long way off so I don't have time to think about that for now," Roethlisberger, 32, told Bleacher Report.

Roethlisberger did something that no quarterback—not past legends like John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas, nor current ones like Brady, Brees, Peyton Manning or Rodgers—has ever done: tossed 12 touchdowns in a two-game span. In those two games, Roethlisberger totaled 862 passing yards and put up quarterback ratings in the stratosphere. Or in other words, numbers you would expect from the NFL's most elite quarterbacks.

Naturally, in the always unpredictable NFL, the Steelers were upset in their next game, losing 20-13 last Sunday to the previously 1-8 New York Jets, who had conceded a league-high 24 touchdown passes entering the game. Roethlisberger did top the 300-yard mark (343), and while he also tossed a pair of interceptions, he connected with rookie receiver Martavis Bryant on an 80-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to at least give his team a chance at a comeback.

He also took the blame for his mistakes—something a leader and MVP candidate should do.

"You can't turn the ball over, and we did it too much," Roethlisberger told reporters. "This stings."

After a 3-3 start, head coach Mike Tomlin's job security and Roethlisberger's long-term future were in question. But the Steelers rattled off three consecutive wins, averaging 41.3 points per game, with Roethlisberger putting up dizzying numbers—and mystifying fans and analysts in the process. His two-game domination came against a pair of six-win teams, the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens.

Meanwhile, the AFC North is seemingly on its collective head: The Cleveland Browns are atop the division, followed by the Cincinnati Bengals, Steelers and Ravens.

Roethlisberger has an opportunity to dramatically impact his career in the short and long term if he keeps up his torrid 2014 campaign. His eight-year, $102 million contract expires after the 2015 season but likely will be addressed in the upcoming offseason. With six games remaining, Roethlisberger is playing better than ever, on pace to set career highs in completions (417), completion percentage (68.5), yards (4,900) and touchdowns (36).

Those projections are comparable or exceed some of the numbers produced by Manning in his five MVP seasons.

But the lofty statistics this season are an exception for Roethlisberger.

Drafted by the franchise with the most Super Bowl wins, Roethlisberger wasn't anointed a savior, benefiting from the Steelers tradition of fielding a playmaking defense and a bruising run game. He was just the co-pilot on a much bigger aircraft.

Consequently, Roethlisberger's numbers have never been in the same solar system as Brady, Brees, Manning and Rodgers. Since 2008, when Rodgers became a full-time starter, Roethlisberger has 158 passing touchdowns. The rest of the group put up far gaudier numbers, with Brady providing the next fewest with 184 touchdowns, despite missing 15 games in 2008.

Passing TDs Since 2008
Drew Brees247
Peyton Manning214
Aaron Rodgers212
Tom Brady184
Ben Roethlisberger158
B/R

And while he has the ultimate NFL hardware in duplicate, Roethlisberger's fireplace mantle isn't nearly as crowded or decorated as Brady's, Brees', Manning's or Rodgers'.

His most notable individual career highlight is that he's a two-time Pro Bowl selection.

"It doesn't matter," Roethlisberger said when asked how he feels when he's not mentioned with the aforementioned quarterbacks. "It's a team sport. I'm just trying to win football games for my team."

In the process, he's stumbling headfirst into the MVP discussion.

Perceptions and Reality

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Brady, Brees, Manning and Rodgers.

Brian Billick, who led the Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV, doesn't understand why people stop there in the discussion of elite quarterbacks.

"For some reason, we always seem to exclude Ben," said Billick, now an analyst for the NFL Network. "I don't know why. But there's a Big Five in the NFL."

AJ Mast/Associated Press

Brady, Brees, Manning and Rodgers are indisputably the straw that stirs the drink for the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers, respectively. All four are Madison Avenue darlings, starring in national commercials and being among the league leaders in jersey sales. It's hard to watch an NFL game without seeing a State Farm commercial featuring Rodgers or a Papa John's, DirecTV or Nationwide insurance commercial featuring Manning. In a recent Visa commercial, Arizona Cardinals star receiver Larry Fitzgerald appears with three quarterbacks: Brees, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck.

You don't get those kinds of endorsement deals without being an elite (or future elite) player.

In Pittsburgh, though, Roethlisberger has never been the brightest star, playing alongside popular players such as Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu. As a rookie, thanks to a dominant defense and elusive running back named Willie Parker, Roethlisberger was called upon to be a game manager as the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. In Super Bowl XLIII, despite making one of the most clutch game-winning touchdown passes in postseason history, Roethlisberger was denied the MVP trophy by the man who caught that pass, Santonio Holmes.

Even this season, as Roethlisberger puts up MVP-caliber numbers, the most popular Steelers jersey is that of Polamalu, whose career is clearly in decline, and who ranks 25th leaguewide in sales, according to NFLShop.com.

Roethlisberger's Q rating, of course, has been adversely affected by two sexual assault allegations, the most recent in March 2010. The following month, a Pittsburgh-based beef jerky company ended a sponsorship deal with Roethlisberger for "falling short" of its standards, and the NFL suspended him six games without pay for violating the personal conduct policy.

In July 2011, Roethlisberger got married, and he's since become the father of two, doing his best to move on from those incidents. The NFL and its fans (and sponsors, to a degree) aren't quick to forgive and forget, though.

Growing in His Game

Don Wright/Associated Press

Roethlisberger has earned a reputation as tough and strong, possessor of a rocket arm who's capable of making any throw. Though not fast, he's resourceful enough to pick up first downs and score rushing touchdowns.

And given the team's commitment to keeping star defenders, the Steelers have largely provided him a leaky, makeshift offensive line.

Roethlisberger, though, deflected credit for his two-game tear, passing it off to his offensive line and again reinforcing his willingness to redistribute the praise elsewhere.

"Well, I think our offensive line is playing great," Roethlisberger told Bleacher Report. "They make it easy for me. I can just sit back and throw it and let the receivers make plays for me."

Roethlisberger downplayed his offseason focus ("Just trying to get better, get in the best shape that you can, learn the offense better," he said), but Billick said he's noticed subtle improvements.

"I'm seeing some mechanics in the pocket that has taken him to the next level, more along the lines of Brady and Manning," Billick said. "He's stepping up and getting the throw down the field.

"At this stage in his career, I am seeing some growth in the pocket."

Some quarterbacks get queasy or antsy when they see or feel pass-rushers surging toward them. Whether it's his size (6'5", 241 pounds), his focus or his courage, Roethlisberger isn't afraid to stand his ground and take a hit, and he's often at his best when the called play goes awry.

"I don't know a quarterback who extends a play and does more outside the structure of an offense than Ben," Billick said. "He's always been, in my opinion, a very accurate quarterback in an unconventional way."

This season, though, Roethlisberger is in the MVP conversation because his numbers stack up favorably with his counterparts. He leads the group in completions, passing yards and completion percentage, and his passer rating of 107.3 trails only Rodgers (120.1) and Manning (112.0). And he's doing it in his own unconventional but effective way.

Despite his poor performance against the Jets, Roethlisberger can just as quickly get back on track; up next are two sub-.500 teams with mediocre defenses (the Tennessee Titans and Saints), followed by games against two teams with abysmal defenses (Bengals and Atlanta Falcons).

All four teams rank 15th or lower in total defense.

And the Steelers will need him to shine, especially after having fallen apart against inferior teams at least twice already this season.

The club's defense is a shell of its once-formidable self, which means the Steelers are more dependent than ever on their offense. The Steelers have been encouraged by the emergence of running back Le'Veon Bell, and they are excited about the potential of Bryant, who at 6'4" is an ideal complement to their No. 1 receiver, Antonio Brown. On Sunday, Bryant provided his team a glimmer of hope with his career-best 143-yard performance.

"We'll sit here and chew on this loss," Roethlisberger told reporters. "New week, new challenges."

Roethlisberger is living in the moment, putting on the proverbial blinders and focusing solely on the next opponent. But what he does over the next month and a half will go a long way to defining where he fits in the discussion of the top quarterbacks of his generation, which might just hinge on the back half of a potential MVP campaign.

Gene Puskar/Associated Press

Billick said Roethlisberger cannot be denied in any conversation among the current greats if the Steelers win another title.

"His numbers will hold up," Billick said. "The key is if he can get another Super Bowl [win]."

That probably isn't enough. Without the stats, he's just another above-average quarterback who was unable to break through to the other side.

Without at least one league or even Super Bowl MVP award and a couple of prolific statistical seasons, Roethlisberger may take a historical seat alongside Bob Griese, a good quarterback who happened to helm great, star-studded teams.

While he may not be publicly talking about his personal goals, Roethlisberger surely is thinking about them. In leading the Steelers to three AFC titles, Roethlisberger has always provided his team with exactly what it has needed.

This season, the Steelers need more from him. So far, he's giving it to them.

Bell is a weapon, but he is the antithesis of Bettis' battering ram style. Bell is a runner and receiver, a dual threat, but he hasn't been able to get the Steelers run offense from being anything more than average.

And while the defensive rankings are solid, in terms of yardage (top 15 in passing, rushing and total yards allowed), they've generated just 13 takeaways, tied for 18th-most in the NFL.

If the Steelers are going to get hot and make it to the Super Bowl, they'll need Roethlisberger to play like an MVP to get there, just as he did against the Colts and Ravens. They need Roethlisberger to be a savior for perhaps the first time in his professional career. That's the stuff MVPs are made of.

For 16 years, Sean Jensen served as a beat writer or NFL columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Chicago Sun-Times. He has also been an NFL contributor or columnist for AOL Sports, Yahoo Sports, Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine.

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