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Is Ben Roethlisberger as good as Tom Brady?

01.31.11 at 11:42 pm ET
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Tom Brady has a 14-5 career postseason record, but has lost three straight in the playoffs. (AP)

I wasn’t ready for this.

The flood of “With a win, is Ben Roethlisberger as good as Tom Brady?” stories, I mean. Kind of snuck up on me. Ben Roethlisberger? Sure, he’s won two Super Bowls and might pick up a third on Sunday, but in the same class as Tom Brady? By the time the two teams kickoff on Sunday Brady will have more MVP’s (two) than Roethlisberger has Pro Bowl selections (one). Is it too much to ask that a guy make as many Pro Bowl teams as Brandon Meriweather before we give him a seat at the table?

I’m only half-kidding, obviously. Let’s get this out of the way now: Roethlisberger is clearly a creep and a jerk and might be in jail today were it not for a goober-buffet down in Milledgeville. But that’s a different column. Roethlisberger the quarterback is almost as great as Roethlisberger the man is flawed. Lots and lots of praise being thrown his way right now, and at least most of it is deserved.

But as good as Tom Brady? I need a little proof before he gets that bump. So let’s take a look and find out …

Regular Season:

A quick glance tells you Brady in a Reagan/Mondale landslide. All the numbers that fit on the back of a football card point to Brady:

20-TD seasons: Brady eight, Roethlisberger two.

4,000-yard seasons: Brady three, Roethlisberger one.

3,500-yard seasons: Brady eight, Roethlisberger one.

300-completion seasons: Brady seven, Roethlisberger one.

Done and done, right? Well, not exactly. A posit: Passing yards mean almost nothing. Remember how much you complained when talking heads would point to passing yards to tell you Peyton Manning was better than Brady in 2003 and 2004? You were right, it turns out. Matt Schaub has passed for 9,170 yards over the past two seasons. You taking him over Roethlisberger? Drew Bledsoe has as many 4,000-yard passing seasons as Brady. You get the point.

So if we dig just a little deeper, we learn this: There isn’t a whole lot of difference statistically between the two guys.

Career passer rating: Brady 95.2 (fifth all time), Roethlisberger (92.5, eighth all time).

Yards per pass attempt: Brady 7.4 (seventh among active QB’s), Roethlisberger 8.0 (first among active QB’s).

Completion percentage: Brady 63.6 (10th all time), Roethlisberger 63.1 (12th all time).

Passing TD percentage: Brady 5.5 (second among active QB’s), Roethlisberger 5.1 (sixth among active QB’s).

INT percentage: Brady 2.2 (third all time), Roethlisberger 3.1 (42nd all time).

Yards per completion: Brady 11.6 (17th among active QB’s), Roethlisberger 12.7 (first among active QB’s).

See what I mean? Some favor Brady, some Roethlisberger. The reason, of course, that Brady has been able to gain that big edge over Roethlisberger in passing yards and TDs is just volume of pass attempts (also helps that he’s great). Brady has attempted at least 500 passes in a season six times (with another 492-attempt season), Roethlisberger just once. Just look at 2005 — Roethlisberger had a terrific year (66.4 completion percentage, 17-11 TD/INT ratio and a 98.1 passer rating) but attempted just 295 passes in his 14 games. That’s a little more than half a season for Brady. Just different organizational philosophies that clearly work. Could Roethlisberger thrive in the Pats offense, throwing the ball 550 times a year? Maybe, but we haven’t seen it. We have seen Brady, however, excel in a system similar to what Roethlisberger (see 2001, 2004) and that, combined with the minor edge in passer rating, completion and TD percentage and a not-insignificant edge in INT percentage gives the opening round to a guy who will not be sitting at the “Blue Bloods” table at the 2011 Emmy Awards (come to think of it, Roethlisberger probably won’t be either. Another half-thought out joke blowing up in my face. I’m basically Rupert Pupkin with access to pro-football-reference.com.)

Edge: Brady


Postseason:

This was a surprise. I always think of Roethlisberger’s playoff history as spotty, even with the two Super Bowls. You know why? A lousy start defined him for me. In his first postseason he threw five INT’s in two games (including three in the AFC title loss to the Pats), and in his second season he might have offered the single worst winning effort by a QB in a Super Bowl (9-21, 123 yards, zero TDs and two picks, good for a 22.6 passer rating in the win over the Seahawks, a game so bad I switched over to “Cocktail” for a good portion of the second half. Not Elisabeth Shue’s peak, for those paying attention. That would be “Leaving Las Vegas.”)

Meanwhile, people look at Brady as one of the two or three best playoff QB’s of all time and move an. Why? Same reason — his start. When the Patriots beat the Jaguars on January 6, 2007, Tom Brady was 10-0 in his postseason career, with 14 touchdowns against three interceptions. Oh, and three Super Bowls and a pair of Super Bowl MVP’s. But a funny thing happened on the way to lapping Joe Montana. Since that Jacksonville win, Brady has played in nine postseason games, winning four of them, with a Carson Palmer-esque 16-13 TD/INT ratio. Just another guy. And he’s seen his career playoff passer rating dip all the way down to 85.7, which is the career regular season number of David Garrard, just for reference. Another way to view Brady’s playoff passer rating? It’s just three-tenths of a point higher than Roethlisberger’s, who was very solid in the second Super Bowl run (passer ratings of 98.4, 84.4 and 93.2) and had his best playoff game in five years in a home win over Baltimore this season.

And if it’s all about winning, well, Roethlisberger is one away from having three Super Bowls in seven seasons as a starter. His career playoff record is 10-2 (which is eight and a half games better than Peyton Manning’s), good for a .833 winning percentage. Brady already has three Super Bowls, and his career playoff record is 14-5, good for a .737 winning percentage. So this is rarified air, only Bart Starr (9-1) has a better playoff record among guys with at least five games played. Picking nits time when you start trying to criticize 14-5 and 10-2 in the playoffs. Plus I’m not so sure how much wins and losses really mean. Plenty, I suppose, but how much credit do we want to give Roethlisberger for that Seattle win, or even the Jets AFC title game? Brady threw three interceptions in two separate playoff games vs. the Chargers — and won both games.

I don’t know, I guess Roethlisberger has a slightly better playoff record, (let’s see how that goes over the next half-decade or so) but I think Brady has been the better playoff quarterback. Why? Two reasons: Brady’s TD/INT ratio is 30-16, while Roethlisberger’s is just 17-14. And Brady has played better in AFC Title Games and Super Bowls (Roethlisberger hasn’t won a Super Bowl MVP, and hasn’t deserved one. Brady has two, which is probably right. He didn’t deserve it in the Rams game — Ty Law did — but he should have won it over Deion Branch in the Eagles game).

Slight Edge: Brady

Consistency:

As I’ve written before, I think Brady is most consistent great quarterback the NFL has ever seen. He’s never had a bad year, unlike the other legends. Montana had a lousy 1986 (threw more INTs than TDs), Manning stiffed in 2003 (23 picks for a 6-10 Colts team coming off 13-3 and 10-6 seasons), and you can find a season like that for other guy but Brady. He’s always been over 60 percent passing, always a healthy TD over INT edge, and his teams have had a winning record every year. His worst season for passer rating was an 85.7 in 2002, which was ninth in the NFL (he also led the league in TD passes that season). His next bad season will be his first.

Roethlisberger has already had two sub-par seasons in his career, leading the league with 23 INTs (with just 18 TDs) in 2006 and posting a 17-15 linen 2008. Both seasons he was also under 60 percent in completion percentage, and it’s worth noting that 2006 and 2008 were two of his his three highest totals of pass attempts in a season.

Edge: Brady

Best Season:

Again, tough standard for Roethlisberger to match. Brady has two of the half-dozen or so greatest seasons ever at his position, I’m not sure Roethlisberger has one of the top 30. If I had to pick Roethlisberger’s best season I guess I’d go with 2007. He threw 32 TD passes (36th all time) and had a passer rating of 104.1 (a career best, 25th all time). Very good season, flirting with great even, but it doesn’t come close to Brady’s 2007 or 2010.

Edge: Brady

Toughness:

Put it this way: Neither of them is pulling a Cutler.

Edge: Push

Head-to-Head:

This is another reason why it feels strange to even have this discussion. Brady owns the Steelers. The first time Roethlisberger played Brady and the Pats, he was brilliant (18-of-24, two TDs, 126.4 rating) in a 34-20 win that ended the record regular season winning streak. That was in October 2004, that magical time when we thought Vin Diesel might be a movie star and wondered if Raef LaFrentz would be the answer at center (he makes the opposing center leave the paint!) Since then, Roethlisberger and Brady have faced off four times, and Brady has a 4-0 edge. In those wins, Brady has passer ratings of 92.7, 125.2, 117.4 and 130.5, with a total of nine touchdowns against a single interception. That 130.5 rating was authored in the lone playoff showdown between the two, a 41-27 road win for the Patriots that frankly was over in the second quarter, when Rodney Harrison returned a red-zone Roethlisberger pick for a TD.

Edge: Brady

And …

I guess the question shouldn’t have been if Roethlisberger is in Brady’s class, but rather can he one day get there? And I think it’s not an impossible task — if Brady plays another three, four seasons and doesn’t win another Super Bowl and Roethlisberger wins four or five in his career with numbers that aren’t far off from Brady’s a case could absolutely be made that Roethlisberger will have had the better career. But that’s a big leap — when you look at the age of the key guys on each roster it is at least as likely that the Pats could be the stronger franchise for the next few years. Who knows? But when it comes to Brady/Roethlisberger, today it’s pretty clear cut. Better regular season numbers, better playoff numbers, more consistent with a higher peak, and a history of dominance in head-to-head battles.

If the question is who has had the better career, the answer is Tom Brady. He was a better quarterback seven years ago, five years ago, three years ago and remains one today. Ben Roethlisberger is already a Hall of Famer, but he just hasn’t done enough for a seat at that table with the immortals.

At least not yet, but he’s gaining quickly. And if Brady wants to stay ahead of Roethlisberger, it might be time to start winning playoff games again.

Read More: Ben Roethlisberger, Patriots, Steelers, Tom Brady
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