With Sunday’s win, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tied Terry Bradshaw for most wins in team history at 107. While Ben still trails in Super Bowl rings, it’s impossible to dispute he’s the best quarterback we’ve had since the Blonde Bomber. But the question has to be asked, is he better? Is Big Ben best Steelers QB ever?
It’s hard to compare eras, especially in a sport like football where frequent rule changes skew statistics. For example, when Bradshaw came into the league they only played a 14 game regular season. While Ben has far surpassed TB in almost every statistical category like career TDs or career passing yards, again, you have to look at the conditions. Early in Bradshaw’s career the league basically allowed straight mugging in the secondary until Steelers legend Mel Blount became so good at it they enacted the well-known “5 yard buffer” rule to give receivers a chance. Pretty much every rule change since then has benefited the passing game, making it easier for even mediocre modern QBs to amass yardage and point totals only Pro Bowlers once achieved.
The number of games may change and rules may change but at the end of the day a win will always be a win. In that sense, it does seem fair to compare the two. It’s weirdly ironic that when you compare and contrast both players, their careers took a similar trajectory despite starting at wildly different points. Bradshaw was the jewel of the 1970 Draft. When the Bears and Steelers agreed to the fateful coin flip for the #1 overall pick there was no doubt who both teams were going to take. Ben, well, he wasn’t totally snubbed on draft day like Aaron Rodgers but all the arguing and dealing was over who got Eli Manning and who got Phillip Rivers. Ben was seen as a consolation prize in the fabled QB Draft of 2004.
Their careers also started quite differently. Bradshaw was installed immediately and struggled. Ben was expected to sit behind Tommy Maddox but an injury thrust him into the spotlight where he only went 13-0 before getting cheated out a Super Bowl shot by the Patriots. People weren’t sure if Bradshaw was the man to take the Steelers to the next level – even today a lot of people think Joe Gilliam was the more talented of the two even if his drug problems and reckless playing style probably would’ve cost the team in the long run. Ben was the future of the franchise from the moment he took his first snap.
While they started different, they wound up in the same place. Early in both their careers, they were mostly relied on to manage games, relying on strong backs and insanely talented defenses to win games. Later on, the team relied more on them and the passing game as putting up points became more important. And of course the calling card for both players is how they played in big games, always saving their best for playoffs.
So who is the best? I guess it depends on your criteria. Bradshaw won in an era with fewer teams, where the talent level per team was much higher and the rules were less conducive to offense. Ben has had to contend with a salary cap and more roster turnover making it harder to keep talented players together. But Bradshaw has four rings to Ben’s two. Regular season wins are important but at the end of the day nobody cares if you went 8-8 or 16-0 as long as you win the Super Bowl. So that’s one era Ben still has some catching up to do.
And, really, that’s the most important criteria of them all.