Because who doesn’t like a list to argue about?
There’s certainly a lot of subjectivity here, as there always is with a list like this, mainly because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to compare players from different eras. Kordell Stewart’s passing numbers, in many cases, are superior to Terry Bradshaw’s, but that doesn’t mean anybody would take No. 10 over No. 12 with the game on the line. Or at any point, really. Some of Stewart’s numbers appear better than Bradshaw’s because Bradshaw played in an era that wasn’t aimed at improving offensive output or inflating passing statistics. There was no five-yard chuck rule, pass interference was unheard of, and wide receivers weren’t ever considered to be defenseless. It was a different era, with different rules, a different style of play and the numbers reflect that. Simply comparing the raw numbers without any context can be misleading, that’s why you have to try and compare how each player did against peers across the league in that particular season.
I place a high value on Yards Per Pass Attempt, and that plays a large role in my rankings. It paints a nice picture of how effective a quarterback is each time the football leaves his hand, and the higher the number, the bigger the play. And if there’s one thing we know about winning and losing in the NFL, it’s that the team with the most big plays is usually going to come out with the “W”.
So let’s get on with it…
5) Ben Roethlisberger, 2010 (Complete Game Log)
This season will be remembered more for the four-game suspension and the loss in Super Bowl XLV, but for the 12 games Roethlisberger was in the lineup he was on top of his game. An incredible 17-to-5 TD/int ratio, a completion percentage north of 60 percent, third in the NFL in yards per attempt and first in the NFL (for the second time in his career) in yards per completion. It was also one of his best seasons in terms of protecting the football, throwing only five interceptions in 389 attempts, a rate that was the 12th best single-season number in the history of the NFL.
4) Bobby Layne, 1958 (Career Stats, no game-by-game data for the 1958 season)
The more I read about Bobby Layne the more I’m convinced he was reincarnated into Ben Roethlisberger. The words “clutch” and “toughness” are always mentioned and he was a noted party animal, probably to the point that if he was in today’s NFL … well, he probably wouldn’t have been able to play in Goodell’s NFL without a couple lengthy suspensions. He was also one of the last players to suit up without a face mask, which I guess is kind of like riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
Layne spent the last five years of his career with the Steelers after being acquired in 1958 in an early season trade with the Detroit Lions that convinced him to curse the Lions organization. They have been at the bottom of the NFL ever since. So there’s that.
He started 10 games with the Steelers in ’58 posting a 7-2-1 record for what had been, at that time, the NFL’s worst franchise. In those 10 starts he averaged almost nine yards per attempt, leading the league for the only time in his career, and threw 13 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions while also completing 50 percent of his passes (more than respectable numbers given the time period). His passer rating of 80.4 that year was good enough for (a distant) second in the NFL to only Johnny Unitas. In the end he finished in the top-three in the following categories: Yards per attempt (first), yards per completion (first by a wide margin), attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, passer rating, yards per game, and lowest interception ration (second lowest, trailing, again, only Unitas). It was one of the most effective and best seasons of his remarkable career, and it happened with the Steelers.
3) Terry Bradshaw, 1979 (Complete Game Log)
For the early part of Bradshaw’s career he didn’t really stack up all that well with quarterbacks across the league. His early struggles in Pittsburgh are well documented, and the Steelers also had a powerful running game to rely on. But around the mid to late ’70′s, Bradshaw’s career went to another level and the Steelers passing game began to open up. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also around the time Lynn Swann and John Stallworth became members of the offense. In 1979 the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl with a come-from-behind win against the Los Angeles Rams in a game that saw Bradshaw throw for over 300 yards on just 21 passes, including two huge touchdowns to Swann and Stallworth.
The interception total during the regular season was a bit high (25, second most in the league) but across the board he was one of the best passers in the NFL, finishing in the top-four in yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt, yards per completion and touchdown percentage.
2) Terry Bradshaw, 1978 (Complete Game Log)
The third of Bradshaw’s four championship seasons was perhaps his best. The Steelers went 14-2 in the regular season, rolled through the AFC playoffs by a combined score of 77-15, and then edged Dallas in another classic Super Bowl, 35-31. Bradshaw led the NFL with 28 touchdown passes (he’s still the only Steeler quarterback to ever accomplish this, also leading the league in the strike-shortened 1982 season), averaged a league-best 7.9 yards per attempt, finished fourth with 14.1 yards per completion and had the second-best passer rating in the league (his highest finish in that category) trailing only Roger Staubach with an 84.7 mark.
1) Ben Roethlisberger, 2005 (Complete Game Log)
Roethlisberger’s second season in the NFL was, to this point, his best in my view. It was also the first of his three Super Bowl appearances and first of his two wins. The one thing most people take away from it is his Super Bowl XL performance, and how he was simply along for the ride on a great team. Clowns like Warren Sapp and Marshall Faulk use this game as the foundation for their argument that Roethlisberger is not among the game’s elite quarterbacks, and do everything in their power to knock him down to the ranks of Trent Dilfer in the annals of Super Bowl-winning Quarterbacks. And that is simply nonsense.
Ben was a machine during the 2005 season and for as forgettable as his showing in the final game was, the Steelers would have never been in a position to play in the game without his play.
He finished the regular season leading the NFL in yards per Pass attempt (8.9, 26th best single season in NFL history), and was one of only three players that season to average over eight yards per attempt. He also averaged 14.2 yards per completion, a full yard higher than the No. 2 passer on the list, Carolina’s Jake Delhomme (don’t laugh too hard, Delhomme and Steve Smith were a formidable connection in 2005, carrying the Panthers all the way to the NFC title game, and he was just two seasons removed from taking Carolina to the Super Bowl. This wasn’t Cleveland’s Jake Delhomme).
The playoff games leading up the 21-10 win over Seattle were simply dominating. During that three-game stretch against Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver (the No’s 1, 2 and 3 seeds in the AFC … all on the road) Roethlisberger completed over 68 percent of his passes, averaged almost nine-and-a-half yards per pass, and tossed seven touchdowns to just one interception. I remember watching the Broncos beat New England in the Divisional Round on a Saturday night, and listening to, I think it was Phil Simms, talk about the Steelers-Colts game the following day. His analysis came down to the Steelers needing a miracle to win, and the Steelers trying to “establish their will,” or some other line of football cliche, and attempt to come out and grind out a win on the ground. The Steelers came out with the exact opposite game plan, allowed Roethlisberger to throw it all over the Colts defense from the opening drive, and built a 21-3 lead, turning the game over to the ground attack. It was a similar strategy in the AFC Championship game in Denver. As it was for much of that season. And they did it with a group of pass catchers that consisted of Hines Ward, Heath Miller (rookie), Cedric Wilson, Antwaan Randle El and Quincy Morgan.
In some ways this season is a perfect example as to why Roethlisberger never gets the credit he deserves as a football player: He didn’t throw for a lot of yards or a lot of touchdowns … mainly because he didn’t have to. But when he did throw the football, he was as efficient and dominant as any passer in the NFL and was consistently making big, game-changing plays.