Commentary

Why Big Ben is in Brady's league

Roethlisberger can match Brady's rings; can he match his stats? Answer will surprise

Updated: February 5, 2011, 3:26 AM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

Tom Brady and Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThrough their first seven years, respectively, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady have strikingly similar numbers, even in the playoffs.

Tom Brady's reputation is on the line Sunday, and there's nothing he can do about it.

Widely viewed as the best postseason quarterback of his generation, Brady is part of an elite group with three Super Bowl titles to his credit. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana have four, while Brady and Troy Aikman claim three apiece.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can win his third. If he does, there's a new debate to be had. Forget Brady versus Manning.

If the Steelers win Sunday, it's time to ask: Brady or Roethlisberger?

Looking at their career numbers, it's not even close. Brady has 117 more touchdown passes and only 17 more interceptions. He's rewritten much of the NFL record book, whether it was his 50 touchdown passes in 2007 or his historically low turnover rate this season.

Brady is about to win his second MVP award. Roethlisberger has only made one Pro Bowl.

No doubt, Brady is the better quarterback statistically. Combine that with the postseason success that Roethlisberger is trying to equal, and the answer is clear: Brady.

But this ignores a key point. Brady's prolific statistical accomplishments came in the years after his postseason success. His career résumé currently has two distinct chapters: 1) The postseason success that marked his first five seasons. 2) The record-breaking regular seasons since.

That second chapter really began in 2007, Brady's eighth season. Roethlisberger just finished his seventh.

So perhaps the real question should be is Roethlisberger a more accomplished quarterback than Brady through his first seven seasons?

If he wins on Sunday, the answer will be much closer you'd think.

Thanks to riding the bench in 2000, Brady made 94 starts in his first seven seasons. Essentially a starter right away, Roethlisberger still only has four more starts (98), thanks to injuries and suspension. There's an unending debate on whether rookie quarterbacks are better off starting or sitting. But the point remains that we're effectively dealing with the same sample size.

Through his first seven seasons, each quarterback holds edges in certain categories. However, the most striking thing about their numbers is just how similar they are.

Roethlisberger's 92.5 passer rating tops Brady's 88.4, and that doesn't even take into account his 14-3 edge in rushing touchdowns. He can also claim a higher completion percentage, but only by 1.2 percentage points. Meanwhile, Brady threw eight fewer interceptions and three more touchdowns, while starting four fewer games.

While their stats are effectively a wash, Brady did not become revered for his individual accomplishments. He became a legend as a winner.

Brady won 70 games in his first seven seasons, an NFL record, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Here again, Roethlisberger is right there with Brady. With 69 wins, he's one shy of Brady and has three more than anyone else.

But Brady was more clutch, right? Not so fast.

Roethlisberger has 23 fourth-quarter comebacks to his credit. Brady only had 18 at this point in his career.

Roethlisberger boasts an 88.1 passer rating in the fourth quarter, a slight edge over Brady's 84.5 through his first seven seasons.

Looking just at their first seven regular seasons, it's probably a push. If anything, Roethlisberger may hold the edge.

So let's look at the postseason, where Brady truly made his name.

Brady won Super Bowls in three of his first five seasons in the NFL. Through his seventh season, he had a 12-2 postseason record. According to Elias, that's the NFL record for most postseason wins through seven seasons.

With a win Sunday, Roethlisberger will have his 11th postseason win, breaking a tie with Aikman for second-most through seven seasons.

Again, Roethlisberger and Brady have nearly identical postseason numbers in their first seven seasons. While Roethlisberger was a bit more prolific, Brady was less prone to mistakes. Roethlisberger has an 85.4 passer rating in the postseason, while Brady's was 86.2.

Roethlisberger has certainly benefitted from the vaunted Steelers defense. In this year's AFC Championship Game, he finished with a 35.5 rating. That looks impressive compared to his 22.6 rating in Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks. Yet, Pittsburgh won both games. Meanwhile, Brady has only had a rating that low once in his entire career -- regular or postseason.

But Roethlisberger also won three straight road games to get his team to Super Bowl XL, throwing seven touchdowns to just one interception along the way. Brady only has three postseason road wins in his career.

Age is another important criterion when looking at the two QBs historically. Roethlisberger was still just 23 years old when he won Super Bowl XL, the youngest quarterback ever to do so. Brady didn't even make his first NFL start until he was 24.

Even if it takes Roethlisberger two more seasons than Brady to win his third Super Bowl, he's still just 28, a year older than Brady was when he won his third.

Nearly all the numbers point to highly comparable careers through seven seasons. Yet, Roethlisberger hasn't received nearly the same amount of attention that Brady did -- at least not positive attention, that is.

Perhaps he just lacks Brady's charisma. It could be a reflection of his poor off-field behavior. Maybe it's Brady's improbable journey from sixth-round draft pick to superstar.

Yet, this much is hard to argue: If the Steelers win on Sunday, Roethlisberger will be right where Brady was four years ago.

No one can predict what the future holds for Big Ben.

Who would have predicted that Brady would throw for 50 touchdowns when his previous career-high was 28?

The better quarterback? Brady's historic numbers in the past four seasons leave no doubt about that.

But who could have foreseen his postseason struggles?

Brady has lost five of his last nine postseason games, including three in a row. Because of that, Sunday could have even greater meaning.

A distinction that seemed Brady's for life -- the best postseason quarterback of this generation  might actually be up for grabs.

With his recent struggles, he's left that door open.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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