No matter how many Super Bowls they win, they'll never get respect for being central to that success. Call it the Steeler Syndrome.
"When you talk about the Steelers, it's always about the defense, it's never about Ben," said Trent Dilfer, who helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl in the 2000 season and now works as an analyst with ESPN. "To me, there are five truly great quarterbacks in the league right now: Tom Brady(notes), Peyton Manning(notes), Ben, Drew Brees(notes) and Philip Rivers(notes). Aaron Rodgers(notes) is getting there, but he doesn't have the championship pelts or, in Rivers' case, some pretty impressive playoff performances in conference championship games.
"You can take those five and put them in any order you want one thru five and it doesn't matter. I wouldn't call anyone crazy no matter what order you put those guys in. You can justify Tom being No. 1, Peyton No. 2 and Ben No. 3. You can justify Peyton being No. 1. You can justify Ben being No. 1, in my opinion. But, for whatever reasons, Ben doesn't get as much respect as the others."
Said another former signal caller turned analyst, Rich Gannon: "It's like when Bradshaw was the Steelers quarterback and people didn't think of him as one of the truly elite. You talk about Ben and people don't give him his due, but then you look at some of the numbers and they're amazing. Then you consider that he has two Super Bowl wins already and getting close to maybe getting a third and you say, 'Man, there's something pretty special going on here.' "
Yet both men notice the same thing that happens whenever any member of the media dares to compare Roethlisberger with Brady or Manning. The emails or calls pour in with criticism about how no one in their right mind would ever dare to really think that Roethlisberger is as good as those other guys. Any appreciation of Roethlisberger on that level is almost seen as heresy.
Dilfer and Gannon isolated a number of reasons why Roethlisberger, in particular, doesn't get the same level of respect as other top passers.
The Fantasy Football Effect
The growth in fantasy football has changed the perception of what is a great quarterback. Rather than being about how effective a quarterback can be in a given offensive system (and in concert with the way a team plays defense), the measurable factors are simply yards, touchdowns and all the other numbers that go with individual performance. From that perspective, Roethlisberger isn't bad, but he's not in Manning, Brady, Brees or Rivers' territory. Likewise, he's not as explosive as Rodgers or Michael Vick(notes).
"It's absolutely fantasy football driven," Dilfer said. "He's not the fantasy football juggernaut like Peyton, Tom, Philip or Drew or even Aaron. A lot of the perception about quarterbacks now is fantasy driven. There's no question in my mind from having worked in the media side for awhile now."
In seven years, Roethlisberger has thrown more than 18 touchdowns in a season only twice, averaged more than 30 throws a game only three times and topped 4,000 yards in a season only once. Conversely, when it comes to statistics that actually may be a little more indicative of team success, Roethlisberger has put up some amazing numbers. He has averaged 8.0 yards per pass attempt for his career and 8.5 yards over the past two seasons.
Anything over 7.5 yards per attempt is in championship range.
Likewise, Roethlisberger's touchdown-to-interception ratio in recent years has been mostly excellent. In three of the past four years, Roethlisberger has at least a 2-to-1 ratio, if not at or near 3-to-1.
"You break down the numbers and some of the things like that are just amazing," Gannon said. "Yards per attempt, his rating … I mean, he had five interceptions this season. With the way he plays, the way he really pushes to get the big play downfield, to do that and not throw more interceptions is just incredible."
On top of all that, there is the most important stat: Roethlisberger is 9-2 in the playoffs. That's the second-best record in NFL postseason history behind Bart Starr at 9-1.
"If you're talking about playing within the system that a team wants and doing what works for your team, Ben is pretty amazing," Gannon said. "They don't really block that well for him and they know it, but they call plays knowing that he's going to get hit and he still executes what they're trying to do. Like I said, that's really amazing."
Roethlisberger is unconventional
To put this another way, Roethlisberger doesn't play pretty football. Other passers like Manning, Brady and Brees have perfected the art of throwing on time and running their offenses with great precision, executing plays the way they are drawn on the blackboard … or the way so many fans drew up plays on paper or in the dirt when they were kids.
"Ben doesn't play the way your dad said a quarterback should play," Dilfer said.
Instead, Roethlisberger looks like the guy in high school who switched from tight end to quarterback after the starter got hurt. He sort of looks like he knows the plays and is winging it because he's big enough to take a few hits. The expression "by design" doesn't exist in the Roethlisberger playbook.
"He's running around, throwing guys off of him, buying time and waiting for something to happen downfield," Gannon said. "He has the greatest left arm I've ever seen. He's holding the ball in his right arm, waiting to throw and just tossing these 300-pound linemen away with his left arm."
Dilfer said that, like many fans and passing observers, he didn't put Roethlisberger on the same pedestal as other quarterbacks until he studied Roethlisberger very carefully.
"I watched 20 of his games. I took two days and watched him really play, studied what they were trying to do and really came away understanding how great this guy is," Dilfer said. "I appreciate what he does now. He takes poise to a whole different level. By poise, I mean that we all know what it's like to stare down a pass rusher and deliver the ball. I get that. But with him, you have a defensive lineman dragging you down and he's still reading coverage. It's unreal.
"The really good quarterbacks, they know they're going to get hit. They know there's going to be pain, but it's not the pain they're afraid of. It's the consequences of getting hit, what might happen, whether you fumble or throw an interception. … With the really great quarterbacks, there is zero fear of failure. They are 100 percent dialed in on success, whatever the next great thing that can happen. The next play is an opportunity for greatness. Dude, this guy can take six sacks or whatever it was against Baltimore and he's still holding the ball even longer at the end of the game, waiting for the next big play."
The obvious detraction from Roethlisberger's image has been the off-field issues that plagued him in the previous two offseasons. Before the 2009 season, a lawsuit was filed in civil court in Nevada alleging sexual assault. In 2010, Roethlisberger was investigated in a separate incident in Georgia for sexual assault.
Although no charges were ever filed in the latter case, Roethlisberger was eventually suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, missing the first four games of this season.
"Obviously, people talk about that stuff with him and it takes away from what they think of him as a player," Gannon said.
Fair or not, that's simply reality. For many people, Roethlisberger isn't judged solely by numbers or playing style or how many titles he wins, he is judged for his actions both on and off the field.
"It has to have an effect," Gannon said. "Me, I just look at him as a football player. As a football player, he's great. There's no question, he's truly great."
- Trent Dilfer
- Rich Gannon