One of the time-honored traditions in sports is that of the comparison between two great players. Most of the time, we already have a preconceived notion of who we believe is the better based solely on a couple of key statistics or key wins.
For fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the inevitable debate would surround the two greatest quarterbacks in the team’s history. One, now retired and with four Super Bowl rings and the other, in his prime with two Super Bowl rings and three appearances.
Whenever you compare players from different eras, it becomes subjective in many ways because the game changes so much as it has in this particular case, but what I’ve decided to focus on here are the first eight years of the respective careers and also, the intangible factors that has made each a little better (or worse) than the other.
Part One will start with the important numbers first which means playoffs and Super Bowls.
- Playoff Record (’70-’77) – 8 wins 4 losses
- Playoff Game-Winning Comebacks – ’72, ’74, 75 (3)
- Super Bowl (’75 and ’76) – 2 wins 0 losses
- Combined SB stats: 18/33 305 yards 3TD/0INT
- Playoff Record (’04-’11) 10 wins 3 losses
- Playoff Game-Winning Comebacks – ’04, ’08, ’10 (3)
- Super Bowl (’06, ’09, ’11) 2 wins 1 loss
- Combined SB stats: 55/91 642 yards 3TD/5INT
Breaking Them Down: Roethlisberger himself admits his performance in SB XL was brutal and it accounts for a significant portion of his less than stellar Super Bowl numbers. What people often forget is that in the three road playoff games Roethlisberger was excellent as Head Coach Bill Cowher opened up the offense for his 2nd year QB.
Obviously, his performance in SB XLIII was a ‘nice’ one until the final drive which of course culminated in the dramatic touchdown toss to Santonio Holmes with :35 remaining. His numbers in SB XLV weren’t horrible (25/40 263 yard 2TD/2INT) but there were two huge factors at play here. One was the eventual pick-six and the other was the failed final drive that seemingly had everyone thinking deja vu prior to it failing before it really got started.
In Bradshaw’s two Super Bowl performances, neither were anything to shout about statistically, with the exception being that he did not throw any interceptions against the Minnesota Vikings and then the Dallas Cowboys. At a time when ‘managing’ a game was much more prevalent and the running game a larger part, Bradshaw did what he needed to do in terms of running the offense (he called the plays) and being efficient.
Ironically, both Bradshaw and Roethlisberger would complete just nine passes in their first Super Bowl appearances. One of Bradshaw’s found the end zone while two of Roethlisberger’s were picked.
The Intangibles: Although both teams had statistically excellent defenses, the original Steel Curtain was far more dominant in those two Bradshaw Super Bowl appearances. This isn’t to diminish the defensive strengths of Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl teams, but this is where the subjectivity is so evident.
In SB IX, the Steelers’ D gave up six points while scoring two of their own on a Dwight White safety and dominated the Fran Tarkenton-led Vikes all day. In SB X, the Cowboys gained just over 300 total yards, but the Steelers intercepted Roger Staubach three times that day.
Roethlisberger’s defenses were obviously very good, but showed some serious cracks that the original Steel Curtain wouldn’t show until SB XIII. The defense in SB XL surrendered over 400 total yards to Matt Hasselbeck and the Seattle Seahawks but Seattle shot itself in the foot too often. Several huge penalties, some dropped passes and a key interception all sealed the Seahawks fate on a day when the Pittsburgh offense was anything but solid.
Roethlisberger would come to the defense’s rescue in SB XLIII as the Steelers gave up a 20-7 fourth quarter lead to Arizona. Big Ben led one of the great drives in the history of the Super Bowl in helping the Steelers earn their sixth Super Bowl title.
In his third Super Bowl, Roethlisberger was playing without his Rookie All-Pro Center Maurkice Pouncey who was out with a leg injury and it showed as Green Bay was able to get constant pressure. Despite a huge early deficit, Roethlisberger was able to rally the Steelers to within a field goal in the second half before the Packers eventually won 31-25.
The Verdict: In their first eight seasons and two Super Bowl titles each, I give the slight edge to Roethlisberger in terms of better overall quarterback as it relates to the playoff part of this comparison. The biggest reason is simply that in the playoffs and the Super Bowls themselves Roethlisberger had more on his shoulders than did Bradshaw did despite some failures along the way too.
Several times Roethlisberger faced comeback situations and rose to the occasion more often than not. In Bradshaw’s predicament, he allowed the running game and the defense to dictate the games while doing his best to limit mistakes. Bradshaw was not without huge moments himself however as he delivered on several key third down plays and threw passes where receivers like Lynn Swann could make spectacular catches.
As I complete the Playoff/Super Bowl phase of the “Eight Years Comparison,” it’s clear that these men played in vastly different eras and styles of offensive football, but I feel there is one more key intangible that gives Roethlisberger the edge and that is in offensive line play where clearly Bradshaw was behind a much more stable and skilled group versus Roethlisberger who has grown accustomed to running for his life more so than Bradshaw had to in his first eight seasons.
Coming tomorrow: A look at the Regular Seasons for the first eight years of Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger as quarterbacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers.