Steel Curtain Network: A Pittsburgh Steelers podcast

Who’s the Greatest Steelers Ever: Quarterback

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time. Time for the granddaddy of all Steelers debates.

Who is the greatest quarterback in Pittsburgh Steelers history. There are two possible candidates: Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger.

Based on numerous large scale discussions that I have been apart of over the years, Steelers Nation is basically split 50/50 right down the middle between the two all time greats. Both quarterbacks have passionate supporters, individuals who are the very definition of true believers. Faithful to a fault.

Both groups of fans are often separated by age and experience. Fans fortunate enough to have witnessed the Steel Curtain era lean heavily in the favor of the Blonde Bomber, Terry Bradshaw. Younger fans usually prefer the truly unique talents of the man who guided the franchise during their introduction into Steelers Nation, Big Ben Roethlisberger.

So who really is the greatest ever, if you take every conceivable metric into consideration, and without personal biases. That last part is honestly extremely difficult for the majority of us to do, but I feel I am extremely qualified to do just that, because I am old enough to have watched both men perform at the best of their abilities, and I love them both.

When I was a little boy, one of the first birthday gifts I remember getting was a department store youth sized leather football with Terry Bradshaw’s name on it. I was probably 6 or 7 years old, and I loved that football. My friends and I played countless hours with that ball, as we pretended we were our gridiron heroes. I still have a picture of me holding that football, while wearing my Lynn Swann jersey. Still one of my best gifts ever. Great memories.

I wanted to be just like Terry Bradshaw. So much so, that I learned to throw the football with my index finger on the tip of the ball, just like Terry. So forgive me if I wax poetically when talking about the man. Old habits die hard.

After two decades of futility, the era I refer to as the Curse of Dan Marino, the Steelers finally found their next franchise QB, Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger was an answer to prayer for Steelers Nation. He was young, extremely talented, confident, and clutch. He took the position to another level during his almost two decades tenure.

Two all time great quarterbacks, one already in the Hall of Fame, the other a first ballot shoe-in. We will need to examine all the evidence to draw an accurate conclusion, and settle this debate once and for all.

Athleticism

Both gentlemen were extremely athletic, and blessed with powerful throwing arms.

Terry Bradshaw has the slight edge in arm strength. He had arguably the strongest arm in league history. How strong you might ask? Bradshaw held the national javelin record with a 245′ throw while in high school in Louisiana. More proof that Bradshaw was blessed with a cannon.

Roethlisberger was no slouch himself, blessed with arm strength almost on par with Bradshaw’s. Roethlisberger was a multi sport star in high school, excelling in football, basketball, and baseball. Bradshaw may have possessed a slightly stronger throwing arm, but Roethlisberger was far more accurate.

Bradshaw had the unrivaled benefit of throwing passes to two HOF wide receivers in Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Bradshaw lacked accuracy, but if he threw the pass anywhere in their vicinity, his terrific tandem would faithfully come down with the football. Especially Swann, who’s leaping ability, both vertically and horizontally, is unmatched in NFL history. Not only that, but both receivers regularly made circus catches during an era when pass catchers weren’t considered defenseless as they attempted to catch the ball. It took a level of courage seldom seen in today’s game.

Roethlisberger was privileged to throw passes to talented receivers like Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, etc.; but not to any players who currently reside in the Hall of Fame. Bradshaw’s performances was often the byproduct of his superstar receivers, while Roethlisberger regularly elevated the performance of his supporting cast. Any way you cut it, Roethlisberger has the edge in arm talent.

Durability

These are two of the toughest quarterbacks to ever play the game.

Bradshaw was uber-talented as a bright eyed rookie, but he was also extremely raw. Like most #1 overall selections, Bradshaw inherited a rebuilding roster still early in the process. He was in no way prepared for the challenge.

Bradshaw took a beating in those early years, both physically and mentally. He struggled mightily, but he persevered, eventually becoming the poster boy for toughness. Bradshaw once survived being spiked headfirst into the ground like a lawn dart by Turkey Jones of the Cleveland Browns. It was the type of hit that would have sent a lesser man straight into retirement, or at least a new profession.

Roethlisberger’s toughness and competitiveness are the stuff of legend. The man played with numerous debilitating injuries, especially to the lower body, but he faithfully played through the pain. For whatever reason, Roethlisberger never seemed to get the same protection as his peers, probably because he never seemed to care.

We watched him play, and win a game against the hated Ravens, after suffering a broken nose early in the contest. He got knocked out of numerous games, only to triumphantly return later in the same game. Speaking of the Ravens, we all got to see Bart Scott destroy Roethlisberger as an unblocked blitzer. It was honestly one of the hardest hits I have ever seen, similar to a Volkswagen hitting an unsuspecting pedestrian at 30 MPH. That was Ben’s Turkey Jones moment. This category is even, with no clear-cut advantage.

Impact

Both quarterbacks are directly responsible for the 6 Lombardi Trophies currently residing in the Steelers trophy case. Bradshaw’s career trajectory was a testimony to patience and persistence, while Roethlisberger burst on the scene as the NFL Rookie of the year.

Bradshaw was a building block for a franchise determined to go from league laughing stock to eventual NFL champions. The Steel Curtain dynasty was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Roethlisberger was the golden child. The final missing piece for a Super Bowl caliber roster that only needed the franchise QB they had been missing for well over two decades.

Bradshaw felt the immense pressure of expectations, knowing full well that his development was the key for the Steelers developing a championship offense. Roethlisberger knew he only had to live up to his own expectations and talent level, which were substantial.

Bradshaw used to tell his teammates “You might lose with me, but you will never win without me.” Although it might sound cocky, it was true. There would be no Steel Curtain dynasty without Terry Bradshaw. Mean Joe Greene was the foundation of the franchise, but Bradshaw was the architect of the offense. Roethlisberger arrived as the missing piece, but he eventually became the face of the franchise. His clutch performances proved he was one of the greatest winners in league history, and his backyard off script magic is legendary.

No obvious advantage in this category either, but let me finish this section by saying this. Both guys numbers, #12 and #7, should be retired.

Legacy

In my opinion, neither QB gets the respect that they are due. The story of the NFL could not be written without Bradshaw and Roethlisberger.

Bradshaw won a then record 4 Super Bowls. He was twice named Super Bowl MVP. He was named NFL MVP in 1978, an accomplishment that Roethlisberger never achieved. Bradshaw led the league in touchdown passes twice, even though the Steelers were a run heavy offense during that era. Bradshaw likes to point out he called his own plays, which he did, but it was a far different era. More on that to come.

Roethlisberger’s statistics dwarf Bradshaw’s, but like I mentioned, it was a different game back then. Like comparing apples to oranges. Bradshaw threw two more touchdowns than interceptions, 212 to 210, in his career. However, turnovers were more common in his era, and he had the benefit of the Steel Curtain defense backing him up. Roethlisberger had no such luxury.

For comparison, Roethlisberger guided the Steelers to 3 Super Bowls, winning 2. He finished his career with 64,088 passing yards, 418 TD passes, and 211 interceptions. He led the league in passing yardage twice. When he was in the zone, he walked amongst the elites. Roethlisberger had four 500+ yard games, which is the record. He had back to back 6 TD/0 interception performances in 2014. He is tied with Peyton Manning for the most perfect passer rating games with 4 total.

Roethlisberger is top 2 or 3 in basically every category that measures winning, whether it be fourth quarter game winning drives, or career winning percentage. For what it’s worth, keep in mind that Ben also called his own plays during his most successful portion of many games, the no huddle two minute drills. Against far more versatile and complex defenses than Bradshaw ever faced. Many defenses in Terry’s era began the contest, and ended the game, still in their base defense. Much has changed in nearly a half century.

For these reasons, I am giving Roethlisberger the edge in legacy.

Conclusion

Truthfully, some of these Greatest Steelers Ever decisions have been much more difficult than others. For example, Mike Webster was my easy choice for the greatest center, while I was unable to choose between Blount and Woodson at CB.

Thankfully the quarterback decision was more obvious in my opinion.

Ben Roethlisberger is the greatest quarterback in Steelers history. He did more with less than Bradshaw. Bradshaw was surrounded by more Hall of Fame teammates than any QB in NFL history, on both sides of the ball. Roethlisberger played a brief time with Alan Faneca, Jerome Bettis, and Troy Polamalu. That’s it, the whole list. Maybe a couple more will get in eventually, hopefully so. But there is no comparison on who played with the more talented supporting cast.

Finally, I truly believe that Roethlisberger was talented enough, and tough enough, to have dominated during Bradshaw’s era. However, I believe that Bradshaw would have struggled mightily in the modern era, against the ever evolving defensive coverages and exotic schemes. Bradshaw simply lacked the accuracy and decision making to excel in this era.

Please understand that this lengthy process was a labor of love, as I respect and admire both men immensely. Hopefully my efforts are informative and eye opening, regardless of your own final conclusion. Both gentlemen deserve the utmost respect for their accomplishments in the Black and Gold.

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