As fans, we all want to find a silver lining in every game. The NFL is a harsh sport for fans, as parity gives the illusion our favorite team is great one week, and a dumpster fire the next. For Pittsburgh Steelers fans last week, they saw the dumpster fire side of the team. But if there was one takeaway for them to be excited about is that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed Terry Bradshaw for the all time leader in passing yards in franchise history. But to quote the immortal Austin Powers, “Whooptydo. But what does it all mean, Basil?’
I caught some heat a week or so ago when I wrote that I wasn’t overly impressed with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees breaking the consecutive games with a touchdown pass streak set by Johnny Unitas. My contention was that what Unitas did was far more impressive, and while I respect and admire Brees and his accomplishments a great deal, I wasn’t going to laud over him for his record.
So having said that, what do I take from Roethlisberger breaking Bradshaw’s record? Personally, I think it tells us quite a bit about Roethlisberger, Bradshaw, and the state of the NFL.
First on Bradshaw. I grew up watching him play, the 70’s Steelers teams are why I am a Steelers fan today, and my memories of their four Super Bowl wins will be forever burned into my long-term memory. Having said all that, Bradshaw wasn’t a really talented quarterback. Aside from what many believe, the Steelers liked to throw the football around during Bradshaw’s time in the league. This was in itself a challenge because the rules at the time allowed defensive backs to really mug the wide outs. But it didn’t stop them from trying, as Bradshaw averaged 25 pass attempts per game in his starts. Not too shabby for that era.
By comparison, Roethlisberger has averaged almost 30 attempts per game so far in his career. Much closer to Bradshaw than most would probably have guessed. But the number that stands out is that Roethlisberger has a 63% pass percentage, and Bradshaw sits at 52%. Over the course of a career, that’s a huge number of completions, yards, and touchdowns missed.
I obviously don’t put all that on Bradshaw, as I stated the rules during his time greatly favored the defense and so sledding was tough. But no matter what, as a fan, I have always looked at Bradshaw’s accomplishments with a cynical eye. He was surrounded by Hall of Fame players, and in many cases, they won in spite of him. Fans who didn’t follow the team always point to the four Super Bowl wins as proof of Bradshaw’s greatness, but you really must dig deeper to get a better understanding of his role in those wins.
So, having said that, what do I think of Roethlisberger setting the record nearly 6 seasons quicker? It’s fine, but I think most figured pretty quickly into his rookie year if he stays healthy, it’s a matter of when not if. And it’s for a mix of reasons. Roethlisberger is talented. Few quarterbacks can extend the play and pull plays from nowhere like he can. He also plays in a league that rewards the passing game and that benefits him. He’s also fortunate. Lots of plays Roethlisberger makes, he has no business doing so, keeping drives alive and adding to his numbers.
And while it’s not the popular opinion, I consider Roethlisberger the greatest quarterback in Steelers history. And I say this based solely on talent. Yes, Bradshaw has more Super Bowls(for now), but in every empirical, rational measure, Roethlisberger is a better quarterback. Anyone who would disagree, I invite you to go back and watch some of Bradshaw’s games, not just highlight reels. I don’t completely disregard Bradshaw’s role in his team’s success, but he played some bad football for stretches, but when you have 2 Hall of Fame wide outs, 2 Hall of Fame running backs, and a defense stacked with Hall of Fame players, you don’t have to be great, to be, well, great. One thing Bradshaw had going for him was he was a very opportunistic quarterback, who made some very big throws(and his wide receivers made big catches) in huge games, which are indelible in our memories.
What does it say about the league? That it’s evolved so much. And that’s a good thing. Pro Bowl quarterbacks completing The great debate, which has no answer is, “How would Bradshaw be as a quarterback today?” It is impossible to predict, but fascinating to debate. You could say his dreadful completion percentage would go up, but one could say that since he’d want to throw more, he’s end up with even more interceptions (210 in his career compared to 212 td), but these are all just guesses.
The Steelers went through some dark times after Bradshaw retired until Roethlisberger was drafted. And because of there has been such a long stretch, I think it’s created 2 factions of Steelers fans. Those old school types who look to the 4 Super Bowls in a decade and use that to defend their case for all the players from that era. On the other side you have new school fans, who came on board after that, wallowed through mediocrity for 2 decades, and now point to the current players as far superior. I think both sides are right and wrong. I look at them individually, and judge them on their own merits.
So, I say congratulations to Roethlisberger for becoming the career passing leader for the Steelers, but his career is just hitting his arc, so the best is yet to come. By the time he retires, he should hold every majors Steelers passing record, and with a little luck, win a Super Bowl or 2 more along the way.
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