This is one of those things you might be thinking but generally don't express, as it carries with it an evident blasphemous component. It did not occur to me explicitly, but when it appeared in print from a reliably eloquent, consistently insightful correspondent, one Gordon Bloom, it looked an awful lot like the truth.
Ben Roethlisberger is a better quarterback than was Terry Bradshaw.
That was No. 6 among 10 random observations Bloom mailed me in the spring. He uses a manual typewriter, the U.S. Post Office, and an uncommon lucidity. Several times a year, he sends me a list of random sports and political observations, each its own literate jewel.
This was No. 2 from that batch.
"More and more, the Pirates' 16 losing seasons seems a fantastical thing, like some element of 'magical realism' straight from the pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a village where it rains for four years, a colonel with 17 sons by 17 different wives, a woman who ascends to heaven while folding bed sheets, a man who walks 50 years for the chance to marry his beloved. The losing streak seems like something only a flight of fancy could produce. But unfortunately for local baseball fans, it's all too real."
God I wish I'd said that.
Obviously, as I'm in no position to edit Mr. Bloom then, here is the entirety of No. 6.
"Ben Roethlisberger is the greatest quarterback in Steeler history -- better than Terry Bradshaw, better than Bobby Layne, even better than the great Jimmy Finks.
Bradshaw was a great quarterback, but he was also surrounded by a greater number of outstanding players than Ben has around him. During the most productive years of Bradshaw's career, eight or so of his fellow teammates were future Hall of Famers, not to mention his head coach. I can't think of eight players on the present Steeler team who are likely candidates for Canton. Ben is getting it done with a very good team, but not a team so excellent that virtually everywhere you look there is a future Hall of Famer. Which is why I say that, in my opinion, Ben's overall football talent surpasses even that of the great number 12."
I spent part of this training camp week putting this argument to current and former Steelers coaches and officials and some journalists old enough to judge, not indicating whether I agreed or not. Ben's better than Brad either got minimal resistance or solid support, though not always for attribution.
Only Art Rooney Jr., who scouted Bradshaw and most of his Hall of Fame entourage, offered nominal caution, but nothing that achieved the level of flat disagreement.
"Ben is a work in progress," Rooney said. "Bradshaw was just an outstanding athlete. He was a champion javelin thrower, which takes a lot of coordination. In those days, guys took physicals on the treadmill. He was among our top four or five guys with his capacity on that. Toward the second half of his career, the rules in the league changed (to benefit the passing game) and he kind of blossomed into the new rules. I saw him on TV one time and they were asking him about his career and he just held up four fingers. 'That's all I have to say,' he said. I kind of liked that."
Bradshaw won four Super Bowls, which is his signature statistic, not only because it's the most important statistic, but because the balance of Terry's numerological profile, though distinguished, is hardly sensational. He threw almost as many interceptions (210) as touchdown passes (212) in his 14 years with the Steelers. In his first five seasons, he threw 48 touchdown passes and 81 interceptions. In Roethlisberger's five years, the corresponding numbers are 101 and 69.
But it has to be more complicated than that, right? Is Ben better than Brad?
"He's on his way," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who put more responsibility on Roethlisberger than ever before last year, with the result being Ben's second Super Bowl victory. "Terry's record stands for itself, and it's not like there aren't Hall of Famers on this team. Hines Ward is probably headed there. And Troy (Polamalu) too. James Harrison, if he has a couple more years like last year. Terry won four Super Bowls."
But there were likely more Hall of Famers in Bradshaw's huddle -- Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Mike Webster, and Terry Bradshaw -- than there might be on all the Steeler rosters of which Ben will part.
"I've thought for a long time that Ben was better, but I never wanted it attributed to me," said one former club executive whose career coincided with Bradshaw. "What Ben's done is amazing and he's done it from Day 1. Bradshaw, as a rookie, threw six touchdowns and 24 interceptions. Plus I think Ben is a better leader. He gets things done in all kinds of adverse situations. Terry was not that confident. He was fragile in his relationship with Chuck Noll. Rarely did he bring the Steelers from behind."
Statistical guidelines on what exactly constitutes a come-from-behind win are not always uniform, but it's instructive to note that the Steelers list 19 comebacks [20 with the latest Titans game]
as authored by Roethlisberger in his five seasons, the 19th of which won Super Bowl XLIII, where most sources credit Bradshaw with 19 for his entire career.
Ben's won more games (51) in his first five years than any quarterback in NFL history, and the club records for touchdown passes in a season (32), passer rating in a season (104.1), career completion percentage (62.4) all belong to him. But while the top three seasonal passer ratings in Steeler history all belong to Ben as well, there are a myriad of additional stats that appear to favor Ben when they probably really don't.
It's not terribly relevant, for example, that Ben has seven [8 with the Titans game]
300-yard performances in his career while Bradshaw had only four, because the nature of offensive football has evolved so dramatically toward the passing game in 35 years. Remember as well that Bradshaw called his own plays, was the MVP of two Super Bowls (two more than Ben) and was the league's MVP in 1978 (once more than Ben).
All that said, and staring blasphemy in the face, I think I agree with Mr. Bloom.