Steelers' talent part of Roethlisberger's success
Despite Ben Roethlisberger's success, the best approach is still to be patient with rookie quarterbacks
For any NFL franchise, a Dan Marino-type quarterback might come around once in a lifetime. That might be the case with rookie phenom Ben Roethlisberger.
Not since Terry Bradshaw has a Steelers quarterback generated this much excitement. He's 5-0 as a starter. His 70.1 completion percentage is almost 12 percentage points better than Marino's rookie record of 58.4, and his nine touchdown passes puts him on pace to top Marino's 1983 rookie record of 1983.
But one thing is certain, while the NFL is a copycat league, Roethlisberger won't make teams change the way they think about starting rookie quarterbacks. Remember, the Steelers had no plans to play Roethlisberger this season. Tommy Maddox was the starter and the franchise drafted Roethlisberger with the idea of giving him a year to work out the transition from being a MAC shotgun quarterback into being an NFL pocket passer.
Ask Brian Billick in Baltimore. He's had to walk a fine line in the development of Kyle Boller.
He believes in Boller and his faith in the second year quarterback isn't wavering despite the team's puny offensive numbers. The Ravens rank 30th averaging just 259.9 yards a game and 12.5 points. Even thought Billick is one of the league's biggest stats fans, he's all about winning. While Boller's stats are below average -- 57.8 percent completions, 5.8 yards per pass, a touchdown to interception ratio of three-to-six and a quarterback rating of 65.3 -- the most important stat to Billick is that the Ravens are 9-7 with Boller as their starter.
If you got Billick to look at things analytically, he'd tell you Boller's stats would be better if his receiving corps had more talent. It's not as though general manager Ozzie Newsome didn't try. The Ravens made the trade with the 49ers to get Terrell Owens. The impact of Owens has improved Donovan McNabb's completion percentage from 57 to 64 percent and he's in his sixth year. Think how much Owens would have helped Boller.
So why rush Boller? Billick took a calculated gamble that the Ravens defense was good enough to keep them in games, and that halfback Jamal Lewis was enough to carry most of the offense. This year, Lewis is averaging 21 carries and almost 100 yards rushing a game. Where the pressure falls on Boller is to convert third downs and make a few big downfield throws.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, they don't have big time receivers. The Ravens have been without tight end Todd Heap -- easily their best receiver -- since Week 2. Their leading receiver is Randy Hymes, a converted quarterback, who has only 17 catches for 229 yards and had only six career receptions heading into this season.
No matter how he juggles them, Billick doesn't have the receivers to get the best out of Boller.
There is one underlying truth and it's that a quarterback's success is a direct byproduct of the talent around him.
Quarterbacks drafted in the first round generally go to losing teams. Since 1970, there have been 73 first-round quarterbacks. Would it be a surprise to tell you that of that group of 73, only six have winning records as rookies with four or more starts? Those six are Phil Simms of the Giants (6-5 in 1979), Marino of the Dolphins (7-2 in 1983), Jim Everett of the Los Angeles Rams (3-2 in 1986), Steve Walsh of the Cowboys (6-5 in 1990), Kerry Collins of the Panthers (7-6 in 1995) and Roethlisberger (5-0).
One of the big reasons for Roethlisberger's success is that he slipped to a Steelers team that was much better than the No. 11 position in the draft. The draft is in reverse order of finish, and injuries and a shaky secondary dropped a Steelers team that was probably closer to a 10-6 team to 6-10 and the No. 11 spot. Injuries plagued their offensive line last season, but line coach Russ Grimm patched everything together this season despite the season-ending loss of guard Kendall Simmons. Runnig back Duce Staley was signed and he's averaging 101 yards a game rushing.
Bill Cowher headed into the season with a plan to run the ball more and not put the pressure on Maddox to win games through the air. Whoever quarterbacked this team was going to have success because the blend was right -- conservative game plan to set up third-and-3s instead of third-and-10s, a good offensive line and dependable receivers.
Go back to the 1983 draft involving Marino. There were crazy notions heading into the draft that Marino might be involved in drugs. Covering the NFL at the time in Pittsburgh and watching Marino develop since high school, I and most everyone in the town knew that wasn't true. Still, there were doubts, and the quarterback class was the richest in NFL history that year.
Marino dropped all the way to No. 27 in the first round to a playoff-caliber team in Miami with Don Shula as its coach. The recipe was perfect for success. The Dolphins had the Marks Brothers at receiver -- Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. They had a great scheme, good offensive line blocking and a smart coach. Marino went 7-2. He completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 2,210 yards, 20 touchdowns and a 96 quarterback rating.
The other quarterbacks taken in the first round that year combined for six wins and four touchdowns.
The key to the idea of using a rookie quarterback is not expecting him to turn the team around. Until Marvin Lewis took over in Cincinnati, they ruined quarterbacks like David Klingler and Akili Smith by hoping they would succeed in a huddle filled with substandard players.
As good as Roethlisberger is this year, he wouldn't be able to compensate for bad offensive line blocking, a lack of a running game or poor play by his receivers. Of the three other quarterbacks drafted in the first round this year, only Eli Manning would have had a good chance to do well as a rookie. The Giants have a great runner in Tiki Barber and two very good receivers Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard. The offensive line blocking is adequate, but not up to Pittsburgh's standards at the moment.
Rivers would have struggled mightily had he started for the Chargers in the first half of the season. Though the offensive line has come together under the coaching of Hudson Houck, the Chargers early season receiving corps would have made things very hard for Rivers. He'd have a better chance now with a healthy LaDainian Tomlinson and two receiving threats -- tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Keenan McCardell.
The NFL is in the beginning of one of its greatest stints for quarterbacks. By next year, 24 of 32 teams will be run by quarterbacks who are younger than 30 and have been drafted between 1998 and now. Completion percentages are at an NFL record 60.8. Long completions are at a record pace.
Roethlisberger may be the next Marino, but any other team rushing a young quarterback into action without the kind of talent the Steelers have could find themselves right back in the top five drafting another signal caller.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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