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When Terry Bradshaw says Ben Roethlisberger is the best Steelers QB ever, you should listen to him

When Terry Bradshaw says Ben Roethlisberger is the best Steelers QB ever, you should listen to him

If you suspect Terry Bradshaw merely was being humble and magnanimous when he appeared on the radio in Pittsburgh and declared Ben Roethlisberger to be the greatest quarterback in Steelers history, you probably are correct. But so is he.

About Big Ben being better, I mean.

“I would give it to Ben,” Bradshaw told hosts Ron Cook and Joe Starkey on 93.7 The Fan during an interview last week. “His numbers far exceed mine. I may have more Super Bowls, but he is a much better quarterback. I wasn’t bad in my era, but he is big, strong, accurate and puts up monstrous numbers and has two Super Bowls. I passed that baton on to him, gladly. I absolutely have no problem with that. He deserves it.”

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This would seem to be among the least controversial statements Bradshaw has ever made. It wasn’t even the most debatable comment he made that day. Later in the same interview, he suggested new Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady isn’t the best ever at his position, instead nominating Roger Staubach, Dan Fouts and Dan Marino as superior in his eyes.

And yet, with the vacuum of live sporting events persisting, the Ben vs. Brad debate has persisted enough to be revisited Monday on FS1’s Speak for Yourself, with Steelers legend Rod Woodson declaring, “I think Terry Bradshaw is the best quarterback that ever played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Oddly, the case Woodson presented in support of his position primarily involved Bradshaw’s work as a broadcaster and entertainer, but he was firm in his stance.

And neither was he alone. An online poll taken by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review placed Bradshaw ahead by a 60-34 margin, and that was with more than 4,500 responses. It was posted in a column by John Steigerwald, a longtime sportscaster in the city, that also touted Bradshaw’s superiority, so maybe it wasn’t 100 percent scientific. But my own Twitter poll, with the two contestants listed alphabetically and no editorializing, went even heavier for Bradshaw, 68 percent to 32 percent.

The problem seems to be that many recall Bradshaw only at his best: four Super Bowl rings, the beautiful passes to Lynn Swann in Super Bowl 10 and to John Stallworth in Super Bowl 14. But that’s like calling the Clash the greatest rock band ever because they had five strong years while the Rolling Stones have been there grinding out great music for more than half a century.

Many make it as simple as this: Bradshaw won four Super Bowls, Roethlisberger won two, therefore Bradshaw is greater.

The corollary to that is that Mark Rypien, Jeff Hostetler and Brad Johnson all won once, which makes each of them greater than Dan Marino.

Obviously, it is more complicated.

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Neither are we going to stop to presenting Roethlisberger’s dramatically superior passing statistics: more yards, more touchdowns, better accuracy. His superiority in these categories is partly a product of the different brand of football played during the present time.

Those who want to use era as a device to favor Bradshaw, though, insist he would have put up better numbers in the more pass-oriented 21st century. However true that may be, it ignores that this period also is downright unforgiving to quarterbacks who don’t succeed immediately.


Indeed, there were moments in the early stages of his career when Bradshaw was not treated royally by Steelers fans, such as the afternoon in October 1973 when he injured his shoulder and fans either cheered that development or the sight of backup Terry Hanratty trotting on to replace him.

Try to imagine, though, a No. 1 overall pick in 2014 who ranks 17th in passer rating and 20th in completion percentage in his third year, then 22nd in rating and 18th in completion percentage in his fourth year, then loses his job in training camp to a guy with three career starts. That’s where Bradshaw stood in 1974. In today’s NFL, Bradshaw becomes Marcus Mariota.

In actuality, Bradshaw got back the starting job after six games — in which the Steelers went 4-1-1 with Joe Gilliam in charge — and won his first Super Bowl while passing for a combined 191 yards in the AFC championship game and Super Bowl.

He didn’t show consistent glimpses of excellence until 1975, his sixth year in the league, when he completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 18 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions. That began a run of six seasons over seven years — he missed nearly half of 1976 with injuries — in which Bradshaw ranked with the very best in the game.

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Roethlisberger, by contrast, was an immediate smash with the Steelers. He won his first 13 starts. He was in command of the team for a Super Bowl victory in his second season and another in his fifth, and then made it back to the big game in his seventh season but lost.

He has kept the team relevant for nearly two decades. They have not had a losing season since his arrival in 2004. That’s 16 seasons, although he did not contribute to the last because he blew out his elbow in the season’s second week. Aside from 2006, following his motorcycle accident, when he threw 23 interceptions and only 18 touchdown passes, he never has produced a bad season. And he has been brilliant at least as often as Bradshaw: in 2014, when he threw for 32 touchdowns and nine picks; in 2016, when the totals were 29 and 13.

Adjusted passer rating is a statistic designed to work across eras. Roethlisberger’s best single season in that category was 2005, when he recorded a 68.3, and he has posted 11 seasons of better than 56. Bradshaw’s best year as 67.47 in 1978. He had seven seasons above 56.


Roethlsiberger has won an average of 10 starts per season, even counting time missed with injuries. He has led the league in passing yards twice, in yards per game three times, reflecting his heightened importance on a team struggling to rebuild its defense in the salary cap era. He has been the starting quarterback for 37 more Steelers victories than Bradshaw.

He has thousands more passing yards and dozens more TD passes, but playing in the current era aided Roethlisberger’s passing numbers, which is why they’re not really part of the discussion, Bradshaw’s greater team success, though, was assisted by the absence of free agency. If the Steelers of the 1970s made the right call in drafting a player, which they did often, they could hang onto the player until he was ready to retire: Joe Greene, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and so many others.

The cast around Roethlisberger has continued to evolve, often rapidly, sometimes capriciously. The Steelers smartly drafted Le’Veon Bell in the second round in 2013. They couldn’t even get him to play for them in 2018 while trying to stuff $14.5 million in his pocket. They made Antonio Brown the highest-paid receiver in the NFL in 2017. He walked out on the team before the final game of his second season under that contract.

Bradshaw was selected for only three Pro Bowls in his career. Roethlisberger has made it six times, even in an era when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were active and playing in the same conference. The best rival quarterbacks in the AFC during Bradshaw’s time were Fouts and Bob Griese. It’s not the same.

Bradshaw himself admitted to all this, in so many words, when he spoke last week. Few believed he was being sincere. Whether or not he was being honest, though, he was being truthful.

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