by Stuart Fraser
Since the Pittsburgh Steelers just signed Ben Roethlisberger to an 8-year, $102 million contract, now is a good time to take a look at just what their money has bought them. Despite being second in quarterback rushing DPAR in 2007, Roethlisberger is far from a typical scrambling quarterback; when forced from the pocket -- there's no "if" when you're playing behind Pittsburgh's current offensive line -- he has a strong preference to throw on the run rather than pull the ball down and scramble for yardage.
Of course, he's equally far -- probably further -- from being your normal dropback passer. What he does is in some respects so unusual that people forget how unique a player Roethlisberger is. This isn't about his unusually high yards per attempt totals for his age or his incredible rookie season, though both of those are certainly impressive feats. There's a wider issue in terms of his overall style of play and the success he's had almost despite this.
Let's take his 2007 season. According to Football Outsiders metrics, it looked like this:
There are a couple of numbers missing there, though, so let's add them:
That's insane. Despite getting sacked on one out of every ten dropbacks, Ben still put up a top-ten season in DPAR and DVOA. (Remember, those count sacks against him in FO stats. In terms of yards per attempt, where sacks don't count, he ranked third in the NFL.)
Unprecedented? Almost. Let's look at every other quarterback to throw at least 100 passes in a season since 1997 whilst having a personal adjusted sack rate of 10 percent or higher. There were 74 such quarterback-seasons, ranging from Roethlisberger's effort last year to David Carr's rookie year. That's quite a few. It seems that many quarterbacks who get sacked a lot end up being benched or injured -- which, if the protection problems weren't the quarterback's fault, just exposes another passer to the same treatment. In such ways are the 2004 Chicago Bears formed.
Of those 74 quarterback-seasons, only 28 managed to turn in performances better than replacement level (i.e., positive DPAR), and only 18 of them were above average (positive DVOA). Since that's Big Ben's end of the spectrum, let's take a closer look at those 18. Quarterbacks are ranked by DVOA instead of DPAR, because the number of passes thrown by each passer varies widely:
|Billy Joe Tolliver||KC||7.1||3.1||0.4%||-7.3%||1997||132|
There are a few items of interest here. First, 13 of these 18 seasons were prior to 2001. What we're seeing here is statistical evidence of the oft-repeated statement that "statuesque" passers were much more able to contribute in the NFL of 10 years ago than they are today -- the increased speed of defensive ends has put a premium on pocket presence. In addition, eight of these are partial seasons in which the quarterback threw 252 passes or fewer, implying it's easier to maintain NFL-starting quality performances whilst being sacked a lot for a shorter time than a full season -- which isn't that suprising, if only because of the injury risk.
Finally, let's take a look at the top of the chart, the closest comparable players to Roethlisberger in 2007. One of the commonalities between the rest of top five sack-tolerant quarterbacks is age. Chris Chandler was 32 in 1998, Jeff George was 30 in 1997, Tony Banks was 30 in 2003, Jim Harbaugh was 34 in 1997. Ben Roethlisberger was 25 during the 2007 season. This difference makes their subsequent performance less predictive when it comes to Big Ben's future, and that's a good thing because none of them were all that good the season after their performances here. Chandler was below average, while George and Harbaugh were below replacement level. (Tony Banks threw two passes in 2004, one of which was complete.)
OK, so Roethlisberger's 2007 was exceptional, especially considering the climate in which it took place. But what about the rest of his career? Well, the Steelers haven't been all that great in pass protection (or Big Ben has been holding on to the ball for too long) the entire time he's been with them. Roethlisberger's career adjusted sack rate is approximately 9.2 oercent (a figure reached by a weighted average of his ASR for each season in his career). There have been 50 quarterback seasons with an adjusted sack rate within 0.5 percent of this mark, including 27 above replacement level and 13 above average. Listing, again, only the players with positive DVOA, plus a career average for Roethlisberger, and ranking by DVOA:
Gannon had more total value in 1999 than Big Ben has managed in any single-season to date, by virtue of throwing 99 more passes than Roethlisberger has in any season so far. In per-play terms the title goes to Roethlisberger again. Most of these quarterbacks are again aging veterans rather than youngsters -- and the presence of Chris Simms isn't much more predictive, unless we're expecting Roethlisberger to have a splenectomy in the 2008 season. Daunte Culpepper in 2003 was of a similar age and in many ways played in a similar style to Big Ben -- which augurs both good and ill for the Steelers. Good, because in his next campaign, 2004, Culpepper had one of the greatest quarterback seasons ever only to be overshadowed by Peyton Manning having an even better one; ill, because his play dropped off a cliff thereafter.
In terms of Roethlisberger's career averages compared to the full list of 50 quarterbacks in a similar situation, the difference is pretty stark:
|Average Other QB||324||3.6||-12.8%|
It may be overstating things to say that Roethlisberger is truly unique. A very few other quarterbacks have played as well as Roethlisberger despite being sacked as frequently as he has during the opening years of his career. It's likely that Jeff George and Chris Chandler would struggle to replicate their performances of a decade ago against modern pass-rushers. In either case, the ability to be a game-winning quarterback despite repeated breakdowns in pass protection is clearly extremely rare, and Roethlisberger has it. In fact, there's a truly strange trend developing with regards to Big Ben's best seasons:
Yes, Roethlisberger's passing DPAR appears to drop when he is sacked less frequently. This, assuming it's a real trend â€“- this may be the smallest sample size ever published on Football Outsiders -â€“ has probably less to do with Ben needing to be regularly banged on the helmet to stay awake and more because he isn't particularly smart when it comes to throwing the ball away, and a decrease in sacks is most likely caused by an increase in foolish throws.
What, then, does this mean for the Steelers, as they try to rebuild the offensive line this off-season? The first thing to note is that Pittsburgh's line may not be as bad at pass protection as the crude adjusted sack rate ranking suggests. Roethlisberger often holds onto the football for a long time, hoping to make the big play and trusting to the improvisational skills of his pass-catchers. Often he can buy the time with his legs â€“- but sometimes he can't, and by no means were all 47 sacks he took last year the offensive line's fault. Many were, however. Roethlisberger's consistency (if we can discount 2006 as a motorcycle-caused aberration -- Big Ben's new contract does indeed have a no-motorbike clause) in performing at a high level with such poor protection is close to unprecedented (Batch, Brunell, Chandler, and George all managed two above-average sack-tolerant seasons in a four-year period; Roethlisberger has four), making it both really impressive and difficult to use as an indicator.
If the Steelers feel like taking a risk, they could reason that the best way to rebuild their offensive line would be to focus on run-blocking with pass blocking as a secondary concern; provided the protection isn't too horrible and his receivers remain capable of improvisation, Roethlisberger seems to be able to cope. An improved running game would certainly be of use in the Steel City, since the current inconsistency of gains on the ground often leaves Pittsburgh in third-and-long situations, which don't help with pass protection, or for that matter with keeping the offense on the field.
The problem with this logic is that Roethlisberger, hundred-million dollar contract and all, represents a substantial investment for Pittsburgh. Given how much he gets hit, missing only seven games (and two of those were Week 17 affairs in which he probably could have played had there been a need) in four seasons speaks well of his durability, but there's no doubt a quarterback has to be considered more of an injury risk the more often he's sacked. In addition, and the presence of his backup Charlie Batch on the list of sack-tolerant quarterbacks notwithstanding, the nature of Roethlisberger's playing style would make him far more difficult to replace if he goes down.
More realistically, though, Roethlisberger's abilities behind a shaky offensive line give the Steelers more time to put together a less shaky unit whilst remaining in contention, and mean that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin don't have to mortgage the future of the franchise in the name of overpaying free agent linemen in order to keep the quarterback upright. And that makes him worth every penny of his new mega-contract, and me as a Steelers fan very thankful he fell to the 11th pick in the 2004 draft and no further.