For perhaps the first time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger is strongly being considered an NFL MVP candidate following his record feat of back-to-back games with six touchdown passes. He's playing as well as he has at any point in his career and the numbers put him in the same company as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and Tom Brady this season.
Roethlisberger's always kept great company, but he's often been pushed aside to the shadows when it comes to the discussion of great quarterbacks despite a resume that has been building towards the Hall of Fame since his rookie season.
The perception of Roethlisberger has never matched the reality, which is that of being one of the best quarterbacks of his era. He is not the pretty pocket passer in the Brady-Manning dominated era of quarterbacks. He plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are known for running the ball and tough defense. He's more "meathead" than "methodical." More cocky than cerebral. Too daring to be durable. He's the ugly duckling of the pack, always picked over for the flashier choices.
That's what made Sunday so fitting. On a day when the football world stopped for Brady-Manning XVI and watched the Steelers retire Joe Greene's number at halftime, Roethlisberger was the story of the week again with six more touchdown passes against rival Baltimore.
During his first five seasons (2004-08), I thought Roethlisberger was clearly the best quarterback in the NFL behind Manning and Brady. He's always played in their shadows, but no one else had that combination of efficient statistics and team success on such a consistent basis in that time. Despite getting an early lead on the two quarterbacks (Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) drafted ahead of him in that famed 2004 class, a record-setting rookie season wasn't enough to outshine Manning's MVP campaign or Brady's completion of a dynasty in New England. But Roethlisberger made a mark with his unique style of making plays under pressure in the league's most vertical offense. His volume numbers were low, branding him a dreaded game manager, but he played a high-risk, high-reward style and was very efficient at doing so, ranking third and second in DVOA his first two years.
Winning a Super Bowl in his second season did not provide the instant credibility we expect from the media today, because Super Bowl XL did not go so well for Roethlisberger. His 22.6 passer rating against Seattle is cited so often you think he never won the game. What's never mentioned is how he converted eight third downs in that game with his arm and legs, including the longest third-down conversion in Super Bowl history: a 37-yard pass to Hines Ward on third-and-28.
Super Bowl aside, Roethlisberger made his first major off-field headline that summer in 2006 with a highly publicized motorcycle accident where he was not wearing a helmet. Add an emergency appendectomy before the regular season started and a concussion midway through and Roethlisberger struggled in the worst season of his career. Some analysts soon began to flock to young quarterbacks in pass-happier offenses like Carson Palmer, Jay Cutler, the emerging Tony Romo in Dallas, or Rivers, who led the Chargers to a No. 1 seed in 2006. Roethlisberger rebounded statistically in 2007 and made it through an injury-plagued 2008 behind what was likely the worst offensive line to ever win a Super Bowl.
After that second Super Bowl win, I thought Roethlisberger would finally get the Manning-Brady recognition, but 2009 proved to be a pivotal year. The first allegation of sexual assault emerged that summer, which brought into question his character. Around the league, Drew Brees had his best year in a Super Bowl season and Aaron Rodgers had a breakout performance for Green Bay. While Roethlisberger played very well in 2009, the Steelers missed the playoffs. That offseason a more detailed allegation of sexual assault in a Georgia restroom was headline news. Despite never being charged or arrested in either case, Roethlisberger was suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell to start the 2010 season, which damaged his reputation for many.
Roethlisberger played very well after returning from suspension, ranking second in DVOA in 2010. He led the Steelers to a Super Bowl for the third time, but lost to Rodgers and the Packers after being unable to deliver another drive for the ages. In this fantasy football-crazed world, people just are not going to respect a season with 3,200 yards and 17 touchdown passes. Roethlisberger has five seasons in his career with 17 or 18 touchdown passes, because he rarely ever plays a full season due to injuries.
In 2011, Rodgers had his ring and ascended to another level with a MVP season. Brees was making 5,000-yard seasons look routine in New Orleans and that big four of Manning (neck pending), Brady, Brees and Rodgers was well established in NFL circles. Roethlisberger continued to take poundings behind a bad offensive line in Bruce Arians' system and a high-ankle sprain left him in bad shape for the end of the season. Tim Tebow embarrassed Pittsburgh's defense in the 2011 AFC Wild Card and that is the last we saw of Roethlisberger in a playoff game. Eli Manning and Joe Flacco even stole some of Roethlisberger's thunder in the quarterback pecking order after both followed up claims of being "elite quarterbacks" with Super Bowl MVP-winning seasons in 2011 and 2012.
Roethlisberger threw some crucial interceptions to lose games in 2012 and had a miserable 0-4 start along with the rest of the team in 2013. Both seasons ended 8-8 and out of the playoffs. In this time many experts were falling in love with the new breed of "athletic" quarterbacks, such as Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. These guys were getting to the playoffs and Super Bowls while Roethlisberger sat idle in January, losing relevance in the growing franchise quarterback market.
Speaking of markets, that's another area where Roethlisberger has fallen behind his peers. Signing his big deal in 2008, Roethlisberger's average salary ranks 14th at his position with unaccomplished (relative to Ben) players like Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton and Alex Smith ahead of him. The good news is he's playing his way into one nice final payday that should put him ahead of some of those names.
When it comes to great quarterbacks from this era, Roethlisberger should be the first guy after the big four. Given those players could all be among the top 15 quarterbacks in NFL history when it's all said and done, fifth is a great spot to be and more than worthy for the Hall of Fame one day.
Roethlisberger has proven that when healthy, he's one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league. He's gotten better at getting rid of the football faster and has taken fewer hits the last few years. This season he's finally enjoying a talented receiving back in Le'Veon Bell. He's never gotten real credit for his always changing core of wide receivers, including his role in the development of several mid-to-late-round draft picks. Last year he no longer had Mike Wallace, so he threw 10 touchdowns to Jerricho Cotchery. This season he's already found rookie Martavis Bryant for five scores in three games. That's what you expect from a quarterback who is accurate with the ball. He makes his teammates better and we know he's succeeded in spite of many subpar offensive lines.
Roethlisberger does the "backyard football" thing as well as anyone. He's one of the few quarterbacks actually capable of breaking out of sacks, but most of his damage is still done from the pocket. Despite the "cerebral" criticisms, the Steelers are consistently successful in the no-huddle offense with Roethlisberger calling his own plays. He has the efficiency stats. He's getting up there in volume with 40,000 yards and 300 touchdown passes in sight. He has many memorable moments with 23 fourth-quarter comebacks and 33 game-winning drives. The game-winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII is as good as it gets. He probably has the all-time highlight in NFL history for a quarterback that's not a pass or run: the tackle in Indianapolis that saved Jerome Bettis' legacy and a Super Bowl championship.
In this golden era of quarterbacks with the absurd numbers put up every week, it's Roethlisberger who will always be the first quarterback with multiple 500-yard passing games. It's Roethlisberger who will always be the first quarterback to throw six touchdowns in back-to-back games. Not Peyton. Not Rodgers. Not Brady. Not Brees. Not the flavor of the month.
A lot of quarterbacks have received praise over the last decade, but Roethlisberger is still going strong in his 11th season, which could go down as his finest yet. Does he need 40 touchdown passes and a MVP for more vindication? No. He's a future Hall of Famer in his own way.
Now if only we could let him step out of the shadows and into the proper light he deserves.