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Top 10 Quarterbacks in Pittsburgh Steelers History

Now that Ben Roethlisberger has signed a five-year contract that likely will keep him a Pittsburgh Steeler for the rest of his career, what better time to rank the top 10 quarterbacks in Pittsburgh Steelers history?

This doesn’t mean the Steelers have had 10 good quarterbacks in their 82-year history. There might be if they had been a little more patient with some of them, but Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson will not appear on this list because they went on to become great quarterbacks with other teams.

Still, we’re including 10 quarterbacks here because some at least provided Steelers fans with a few pleasant memories. Also, the longer this article is, the more the suspense builds.

Everyone knows the top two on this list, but who’s No. 1? It’s become one of the more riveting modern-day sports debates.

So resist the temptation to scroll down to the bottom. It will be worth it to wade through the riff-raff and wait for the big revelation.

No. 10: Charlie Batch

Yep, we have to include a backup to fill out the list. But if it weren’t for Charlie Batch, there might be just five Lombardi Trophies in Pittsburgh and the Steelers might have appeared in just six Super Bowls rather than eight.

Not only did Batch mentor Ben Roethlisberger during his formative years, he went 2-0 as a starter when Roethlisberger was hurt in 2005. The Steelers won Super Bowl XL that year. Batch also helped the Steelers go 3-1 when Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of 2010. He replaced an injured Dennis Dixon in a Week 2 win at Tennessee, then led the Steelers to a 38-13 win at Tampa Bay the following week.

Batch rallied the Steelers to a 23-20 win at Baltimore in Week 13 of the 2012 season for his final career victory. Not counting the meaningless season finale that year, it was the last time the Steelers won without Le’Veon Bell.

No. 9: Ed Brown

Ed Brown quarterbacked the Steelers to a 7-4-3 record in 1963, their last winning season before Chuck Noll was hired in 1969. Brown led the NFL with 17.8 yards per completion that season and his 2,982 passing yards were more than Terry Bradshaw threw for when he was the NFL MVP in 1978.

Brown engineered eight fourth-quarter comebacks, fourth in Steelers history.

The Steelers played the New York Giants in the season finale with the winner going on to face the Chicago Bears the NFL title game. But Brown completed just 13 of 33 passes at Yankee Stadium with two touchdowns and three interceptions in a 33-17 loss. He’s not the only quarterback on this list to choke in a big game.

No. 8: Bubby Brister

Bubby Brister called the signals for the 1989 Steelers, who will always have a special place in Pittsburgh sports lore.

That team started the season 0-2, losing the opener 51-0 at home to the Cleveland Browns and 41-10 at Cincinnati in Week 2. But Brister completed 75 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions to lead the Steelers to wins in their next two games, and the Steelers recovered from their woeful start to make the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

After upsetting the Houston Oilers 26-23 in overtime at the Astrodome in the wild-card game, the Steelers led John Elway and the Broncos in the fourth quarter before falling 24-23 in the divisional round at Denver.

A 9-7 record wasn’t good enough to get the Steelers into the playoffs in 1990, but Brister threw for 20 touchdowns and 2,725 yards, both career highs. He’s fifth on the Steelers’ all-time list with 28 victories and 10,104 passing yards.

No. 7: Tommy Maddox

The Steelers’ magic-carpet ride of 2002 is enough to make Tommy Maddox the seventh-greatest quarterback in franchise history.

A journeyman who revived his career in the XFL, Maddox backed up Kordell Stewart in 2001. Then in 2002, the Steelers started 0-2 and were in danger of falling to 0-3 when Maddox replaced Stewart and sparked a 16-13 comeback win over the Browns in overtime.

Maddox rallied the Steelers from an 11-point deficit with seven and a half minutes left to beat the Ravens 34-31 and complete a 10-5-1 regular season. The following week, Maddox and the Steelers overcame a bigger deficit in the wild-card game against the Browns.

The Steelers were down 17 in the third quarter and still trailed 33-21 with less than five minutes left before pulling out a 36-33 victory. The Steelers climbed out of an early 14-0 hole the following week at Tennessee in the divisional round, but their season ended with a 34-31, overtime loss.

Maddox was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year in 2002. Even though the Steelers slumped to 6-10 in 2003, Maddox threw for 3,414 yards, the most in a single season by a Steelers quarterback not named Terry Bradshaw or Ben Roethlisberger.

No. 6: Jim Finks

Jim Finks made the Pro Bowl in 1952, leading the NFL with 20 touchdown passes. That was the first of four years as the Steelers starter. He led the league with 2,270 passing yards in 1955.

Although it didn’t bring much success in the standings, Finks brought some stability to the Steelers’ quarterback position. He was the only player to lead the team in passing for four straight seasons before the 1970s.

Finks went on to become general manager of the Vikings, Bears and Saints. He helped develop the talent that carried the Vikings to four Super Bowls in the 1970s and the Saints had their first winning season and division title under his leadership. He is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an administrator.

No. 5: Bobby Layne

The Steelers’ best run of success before the 1970s came during Bobby Layne’s Pittsburgh years.

Layne is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame largely for his accomplishments with the Detroit Lions. He was traded to the Steelers for Earl Morrall two games into the 1958 season.

The Steelers went 7-4-1 in 1958 and 6-5-1 in 1959. Those were the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history and the last two of Layne’s six Pro Bowl seasons. Layne led the Steelers to their first nine-win season (9-5) in 1962.

Layne ranks fifth in Steelers history with 66 touchdown passes and sixth in passing yards (9,030) and wins (27).

Morrall was a Pro Bowler with the Steelers in 1957, but he doesn’t make this list because unlike Ed Brown, he didn’t lead the Steelers to within a win of the NFL championship game. He gained his notoriety with the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins later in his career.

Riding the bench for the Steelers during their first consecutive winning seasons in 1958 and 1959 was Len Dawson. He started just one game for the Steelers in 1957. The Steelers traded him to the Browns after the 1959 season, and he eventually earned his Hall of Fame credentials with the Chiefs.

Layne wouldn’t rank ahead of Dawson on the list of NFL quarterbacks, but since Steelers coach Buddy Parker had little patience for young players, the 32-year-old Layne won the starting job over Dawson and accomplished more as a Steeler.

No. 4: Kordell Stewart

Kordell Stewart came to be known as “Slash” in Pittsburgh because not only did he throw the ball, he also could catch it and run with it, hence the slashes (quarterback/running back/wide receiver) in his job description.

Stewart would rank higher on this list if he took the Steelers to a Super Bowl. He threw one touchdown pass and six interceptions in two AFC championship games. But the Steelers wouldn’t have made it to the 1997 AFC title game if it weren’t for his 40-yard touchdown run on the game’s opening drive against the New England Patriots at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers were held scoreless for the game’s final 59 minutes and hung on for a 7-6 win.

Stewart threw 21 touchdown passes that year and ran for 11 more TDs, but as a quarterback he always was on a short leash. He was benched when the Steelers faltered late in the 1998 season. With five games remaining in a 6-10 season in 1999, Stewart was relegated exclusively to receiver and Mike Tomczak started for the rest of the season.

The Steelers acquired Kent Graham and started him ahead of Stewart to begin the 2000 season. But the Steelers started 0-3 and Stewart got his job back, leading the Steelers to four wins in their final five games to help salvage a 9-7 record.

Stewart carried that momentum into the 2001 season and made the Pro Bowl. He threw for 3,109 yards and 14 touchdowns along with 537 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. Stewart’s performance combined with the NFL’s top-ranked defense lifted the Steelers to a 13-3 record in 2001. But Stewart’s demise began in the AFC championship game, when he threw interceptions on each of the Steelers’ final two possessions in a stunning 24-17 home loss to the New England Patriots, the game that spawned the Patriots’ dynasty in the early 2000s.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher pulled Stewart for Tommy Maddox after the Steelers started 0-2 in 2002. Although the Steelers won both games that Stewart started when Maddox was injured later in the year, it was his last season in Pittsburgh.

Stewart is third on the Steelers’ all-time list with 46 victories, 13,328 passing yards and 70 touchdown passes.

No. 3: Neil O’Donnell

Neil O’Donnell is one of the most accursed names in Pittsburgh sports history for the two silver-platter interceptions he threw to Dallas Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown in the second half of Super Bowl XXX, which the Steelers lost 27-17.

But only three quarterbacks have brought the Steelers to the Super Bowl, and O’Donnell is one of them. Only two quarterbacks have led the Steelers to the playoffs in four straight seasons, and O’Donnell is one of them. O’Donnell gets the edge here over Kordell Stewart because he was a better quarterback and he threw more touchdown passes (68) as a Steeler than interceptions (39). Stewart threw 70 touchdown passes and 72 interceptions.

O’Donnell made the Pro Bowl in 1992, the first of six consecutive playoff seasons for the Steelers. Pittsburgh was stunned by the San Diego Chargers 17-13 in the 1994 AFC championship game. Then in 1995, the Steelers started 3-4 before winning eight straight behind O’Donnell and eventually making the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in 16 years.

The Steelers scored 407 points that year and O’Donnell led the league with three fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives. The Steelers didn’t score that many points again until they put up a franchise-record 436 in 2014,

O’Donnell signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the New York Jets in free agency after the 1995 season. His 81.8 quarterback rating with the Steelers is second in franchise history among quarterbacks with at least 65 attempts. His 39 wins, 12,867 passing yards and 68 touchdown passes all are fourth in Steelers history.

No. 2: Terry Bradshaw

The first overall pick in the 1970 draft, Terry Bradshaw is a big reason why the Steelers haven’t had the No. 1 pick in the draft since then. Bradshaw played a central role in ending the franchise’s four decades of futility. He became the first quarterback to win four Super Bowls, a feat matched only by Joe Montana and Tom Brady.

The MVP of Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV, Bradshaw was the first quarterback to throw for four touchdowns in a Super Bowl when the Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys 35-31 in Super Bowl XIII. The following year, he threw the game-winning touchdown pass to John Stallworth in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV, a 31-19 decision against the Los Angeles Rams. He led the NFL with five fourth-quarter comebacks during the 1979 season.

Bradshaw also was the NFL MVP in 1978 when he led the league with 28 touchdown passes and 7.9 yards per attempt. So far Bradshaw is the only quarterback on this list to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his achievements in Pittsburgh. He was a Pro Bowler in 1975, 1978 and 1979 and a First-Team All-Pro in 1978.

Bradshaw holds the Steelers record with 15 postseason victories and still clings to the franchise mark with 107 career regular-season wins. He once held the franchise record with 212 touchdown passes, 27,989 passing yards, 19 fourth-quarter comebacks and 27 game-winning drives, but those numbers have been surpassed by the No. 1 quarterback on this list.

No. 1: Ben Roethlisberger

Even if Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t play another snap for the Steelers, he’s the best quarterback in Steelers history.

Roethlisberger is 2-1 in Super Bowls and Terry Bradshaw is 4-0. It’s all about rings in Pittsburgh. But in today’s NFL, Bradshaw might never have had the chance to win those Super Bowls because it took him nearly five years to really earn the starting job.

Bradshaw threw 81 interceptions in his first five seasons and just 48 touchdown passes. In this day and age, a team would be trading up to draft another quarterback after a year or two. Bradshaw wasn’t even the starter entering 1974, the year of the Steelers’ first championship. He didn’t step in until Week 7, replacing opening-day starter Joe Gilliam, and even then he was completing less than half his passes while the Steel Curtain defense carried the team. Chuck Noll even benched Bradshaw in favor of Terry Hanratty one week. It wasn’t until the playoffs that Bradshaw firmly established himself as the Steelers’ franchise quarterback.

Roethlisberger, meanwhile, replaced an injured Tommy Maddox in Week 2 of his rookie year and set an NFL record with wins in each of his first 13 starts as the Steelers went 15-1 in 2004. Sure, Roethlisberger had an elite defense behind him just like Bradshaw, but not even the Steelers of the 1970s went 15-1.

While it took five years for Bradshaw to win his first championship, Roethlisberger did it in two years and unlike Bradshaw early in his career he’s always performed well enough to prevent any quarterback controversy.

Roethlisberger is the all-time franchise leader with 39,057 passing yards, 251 touchdown passes, a 93.9 quarterback rating, a 63.6 completion percentage, 25 fourth-quarter comebacks and 35 game-winning drives.

That last statistic doesn’t include Roethlisberger’s game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLIII, a 27-23 win over the Cardinals. He threw the deciding touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left. Bradshaw was never under that kind of last-minute pressure in a Super Bowl, although he did respond on fourth-and-10 with 22 seconds left and the Steelers down 7-6 in a playoff game against the Raiders, firing the pass that turned into the Immaculate Reception.

No play has altered Steelers history like that one, but a strong candidate for second place is The Tackle, when Roethlisberger brought down Nick Harper after the Colts defensive back picked up Jerome Bettis’ fumble and ran it back with 1:20 left in a 2005 AFC divisional playoff game at Indianapolis. Roethlisberger prevented a touchdown that would have given the Colts a lead with about a minute left. The Steelers hung on for a 21-18 upset of Peyton Manning and the Colts and went on to win Super Bowl XL.

Roethlisberger has a ways to go to catch Bradshaw in the interception department. Bradshaw threw almost as many interceptions (210) as touchdown passes (212). Roethlisberger’s 251 touchdowns have come with 131 interceptions.

Much of what Roethlisberger has achieved has come behind shoddy offensive lines. Sacks weren’t officially recorded until 1982, but according to Pro Football Reference, Bradshaw was sacked 307 times in 168 career games. Roethlisberger has been sacked 419 times in 159 games.

Not only was Bradshaw protected better, he also was surrounded by eight Hall of Famers. So far, the only Hall of Famer Roethlisberger has played with is Jerome Bettis, and that was just the first two years of his career. There could be more Canton-bound Steelers from this era, but probably not seven more.

With one more regular-season win, Roethlisberger will match Bradshaw’s franchise record of 107.

It will take some doing for Roethlisberger to match Bradshaw’s four Super Bowl wins, and he’s not even a lock for the Hall of Fame. But Roethlisberger is a better quarterback than Bradshaw. That makes him the best Steelers quarterback of all-time, and the more he plays, the more evident that will become.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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6 comments

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  1. Milliken Steeler

    Sorry Guy, but you need to flip those last two. You aren’t going to tell me that Big Ben is better than Terry. I have heard the team made Bradshaw comments enough and that Steel Curtain, was abused by the Cowboys twice in the Superbowl.

    Speaking of those Cowboys, that team alone makes the difference. Nobody and I mean nobody else would have beaten those Cowboy Teams. Facing Captain Comeback alone twice and Fran Trakenton another time makes the quality of the opponent indisputable.

    Two Time MVP on a team loaded with potential MVP’s The only quarterback in Superbowl history with a 100 QB rating in all four games. A 4th quarter QB rating of a 158 in those Superbowls.

    Ben’s a good Quarterback, but he doesn’t get to leap frog TB and his four wins.

  2. Dan

    There’s no doubt about it………….TB is the best.

  3. Troy

    Are u kidding me here which quarterback has four rings to his credit? And which damn quarterback cannot get out of his own damn way when he holds on to the ball so damn long,and runs like a girl in tight panties when he tries to run ROETHLISBERGER!!!!

  4. Mozart

    This is probably the most idiotic article I have ever read. This is equivalent to saying Lincoln did not have the abilities and character to solve today’s problems. This writer should never have been allowed to graduate from Ist grade because he displays none of the attributes of a reasonable adult. You are taking a player conditioned by a specific philosophy of this game, the prevailing environment, the competition level of a different era and transplanting it to today’s prevailing philosophy, environment, rules, conditioning and competition. Obviously, the doctor didn’t bother to slap you hard enough at your birth because no one has, it seems, jolted your head strong enough to jell a grain or two of grey cells that might be occupying your brain. The fatal flaw in your space filling rant could have been corrected by your editors with this: ” you are assuming if Terry Bradshaw were to play today against the very average QB we have in Ben (rescued by two questionable calls, one in each of the two SB wins) that he would not have evolved and adapted to the sport’s current requirements. Just contemplate this for a minute (if you can, just for a minute since longer than that might test the limit of your mental strength) could any player of today similarly transported to the far less regulated environment, comparatively speaking,have survived the sheer brutality of the sport of that era?

  5. Mark

    Until Ben wins 4, show TB the respect e deserves. He won 4, no losses.

  6. Henry

    Bradshaw is the QB in Steelers history or the NFL since he called his own plays and Quarterbacks now depend on coordinators for play calling.

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