Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Week 9 NFL Wrap-up: Eli Manning vs. Ben Roethlisberger

Week 9 NFL Wrap-up: Eli Manning vs. Ben Roethlisberger

Photograph via Complex Sports

Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ‘98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Tuesday at Construction.

Sam is off today.

We’ve spent much of this blog doing two things: dissecting the importance of the quarterback, and understanding the game through the prism of the media. The former matters because the QB is like the team general: his strong play instills confidence in his teammates and incentivizes them to perform better. The latter is important because of how our NFL experience is never firsthand: the TV camera frames the shot, the announcer tells us what really happened, the reporter tries to find out from the coaches and players if what the announcer said really happened actually happened, and the writer/commentator contextualizes the whole chain. NFL fans have watched the league innovate technologically and philosophically, and we still enjoy and understand the game in this simple and basic way.

One of the more preposterous intersections of quarterback and media is the “QB vs. QB” narrative. Opposing quarterbacks are never on the field at the same time, and there are dozens of variables that affect the quarterback’s play, almost none of which pertain to the opposing quarterback. But we love our stars, and so we have to measure them against one another.

This weekend, there were a number of games that featured quarterbacks at approximately the same career stage as their counterpart. I want to look the Steelers-Giants game, because, in terms of evaluating NFL history—and after watching Eli Manning seriously struggle for the second straight week—it lets us peek at one of the most important quarterback discussions.

Both Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning were drafted in 2004. Eli was the first-overall pick by the Chargers, but Eli’s dad, the old Saints quarterback Archie, refused to deal with Chargers’ general manager A.J. Smith, so the Giants struck a deal/coup where they would draft Philip Rivers fourth, then trade him and some picks to the Chargers for Eli. That left Roethlisberger, whom the Steelers took with the 11th pick.

All three quarterbacks feel older than they are. Rivers, for instance, had to sit behind Drew Brees for two seasons until he could start in 2006. And because he’s never won a monumental playoff game, and has not seemed to progress the past two seasons, it’s easy to forget how hopeful Rivers’s first four seasons as a starter were: 14-2 record, second-round loss to the eventual AFC runner-up Patriots; 11-5, AFC Championship Game loss to the 16-0 Pats, with Rivers playing with a torn ACL; 105.5 QB rating, second-round loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers; 13-3, another 100-plus QB rating, another second-round loss to the eventual AFC runner-up Jets. Rivers is only 30 years old; with the right team, be it the Chargers or another team, why couldn’t he make a Super Bowl?

Ben and Eli seem old as well, but for a different reason: at least one of them has played in five of the last eight Super Bowls, for a combined 4-1 record. But early in their careers, it seemed as if Roethlisberger—though not considered as strong a draft prospect as Manning, given that he’d played only three years at MAC school Miami (of Ohio) and only one year of quarterback before then, and that he had no mystical aura like the Manning family name—would turn out to be the better pro.

During his first two seasons, Roethlisberger set a record for most fourth quarter/overtime comeback wins and took the Steelers to an AFC Championship loss and a Super Bowl win (it’s easy to remember how atrocious he was in the final game; it’s much harder to remember how brilliantly he played in the three road playoff games to get there, including beating the Colts, who’d started the season 13-0). Over that period, he averaged 17 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 8.89 yards per attempt, a 64 completion percentage, and a 98 rating (in 26 regular season games started). Meanwhile, Eli’s averaged were decidedly lower: 15 TDs, 13 INTs, 6.05 yards per attempt, a 51 completion percentage, a 76 rating (23 games started). It wasn’t until three seasons later, after Eli won his first Super Bowl, that his completion percentage jumped above 60 and his QB rating shot up to the mid-80s, where they’ve more or less remained ever since.

By the end of last season, Eli’s improvements as a passer, capped with a thrilling Super Bowl win and MVP award, entered him into the echelon of elite quarterbacks, a place where Roethlisberger resides, despite having been excluded in the national narrative. He is never mentioned in the same capacity as Brady, Rodgers, Brees, or Peyton Manning, and he is often considered on par with, or now surpassed by, Eli Manning. The sentiment held in some respects before Sunday’s game, when Deadspin captured an ESPN poll where 72 percent of nearly 5,000 people said they would rather their team have Manning over Roethlisberger. Another ESPN poll, ongoing since Halloween, with over 23,000 votes, shows that 44 percent of voters say Roethlisberger has been the better QB, while 41 percent say it’s been Eli Manning. These polls are obviously stupid and unscientific, which makes them meaningless in all facets but one: the one where the gut reaction of regular old NFL fans trolling ESPN determines two quarterbacks equal, in spite of the fact that those two players’ career statistics demarcate the difference between a consistently elite quarterback and one who plays at a consistently above average level.

[pullquote_left]Everything Roethlisberger has accomplished has been secondary to the obstacles he has created.[/pullquote_left]

To wit: Ben’s career completion percentage is a full 5 points higher than Eli’s (63.2 to 58.2), his yards per game average is 33 points higher (232 to 199), his yards per attempt is a little more than a yard higher (8.06 to 6.9), his career rating of 92.9 is about 11 points higher, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 1.7-1 to Eli’s 1.43-1.{{1}} (By the way, Tom Brady’s career TD-INT ratio? 2.6-1.) Passing measurements are clearly in favor of Roethlisberger. Are there any areas where Manning holds an advantage?

One area would seem to be durability. Through last season, Eli has started 121 games (every game since his second season, his first full season as the Giants’ starter) to Ben’s 112. This means that Roethlisberger’s injured an average of 1.75 games each season. What’s the saying? Can’t make the plays if you’re not on the field? Losing your starting quarterback for nearly two games each season is difficult for most teams to overcome. But part of what makes Roethlisberger susceptible to injury is that he extends plays in ways that no other quarterback can. These are the plays that convert third downs where most quarterbacks would take the sack. If we asked Roethlisberger not to do this, so that we could get back those 9 career games, we’d have to give back all the great improvisational plays that won other games. Not a great trade-off.

Another area where the statistics would seem to tilt in Eli’s favor is in attempts. Ben’s only attempted over 500 passes in a season twice in his career; Eli’s done it every season except twice (and one was his rookie year, when he started only 7 games). This could be interpreted as the Giants asking their quarterback to be aggressive because they trust him, in contrast to the Steelers asking Roethlisberger, whom they fear will screw up, to not throw the ball so often. Indeed, the “game manager” tag was applied to Roethlisberger his first two seasons, but that was the effect of a smart strategy: the Steelers, confident in their excellent defense (Casey Hampton, Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu) and running game (Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker), didn’t need their young QB to pass so much. He was allowed more passing freedom in his third season—469 attempts—but posted mediocre numbers (3,513 yards, but a 59.7 completion percentage, 18-23 TD-INT ratio, and 75.4 rating), and so it wasn’t until his fourth season that he fully shed the tag, attempting 404 passes to a 65.3 completion percentage, 32-11 TD-INT ratio, and 104.1 QB rating. The narrative, though, was still intact, as commentators couldn’t mention Ben’s success as a passer without mentioning that he was still in the process of transitioning into a passer, and that he was a “playground”-style quarterback. So when Eli’s stats improved, and his team won the Super Bowl, and he was attempting tons of passes, operating out of the classic drop-back mold, it was easy to picture him as the authentic passer he’d been groomed for and Roethlisberger as the imposter who’d always play the position in not quite the right way. This image belies one of the more interesting statistical comparisons between the two: excluding this season, for their careers, their attempts per game are identical: 28.8. The Steelers have trusted Roethlisberger to throw just as much as Manning.

The reason Roethlisberger has been excluded from the elite quarterback class, while Eli Manning has had an easier time gaining entry into it, is because there has always been a more pressing angle to Roethlisberger’s narrative than his consistently elite play. Before announcers can discuss his accuracy, arm strength, vision, and overall incredibleness at the position, they have been obliged to mention, at different points throughout his career, his game manager status, his motorcycle crash, his rift with Bill Cowher, his unpleasant ego, his transition into a passing offense, his sexual crimes that led to trade rumors, his multiple injuries, his playing through those injuries, his speedy new receiving corps, his rift with Todd Haley, how gosh darn big he is, how doggone hard he is to bring down, and, finally, how he plays the game differently than everyone else. Wading through such topics leaves little time to talk about how his career yards per attempt is higher than Peyton Manning’s, how his career rating is higher than Dan Marino’s, or how he reached 25,000 passing yards on fewer attempts than all quarterbacks except for Kurt Warner. Everything he has accomplished has been secondary to the obstacles he has created and/or overcome to achieve such benchmarks. He’s not handsome, and he’s spent much of his career being reclusive, so we haven’t admired or even paid much attention to his redemptive process. We definitely won’t allow his story to become a triumphant feel-good one.

Conversely, the negativity found in Manning’s narrative has been manufactured primarily by the New York tabloids, which formulate story arcs by matching unflattering photos of the stymied sports hero with the primordial fatalistic instincts of the die-hard fan. In other words, the negativity is an illusion. Mainstream media has never reported any sort of personal scandal or internalized team rupturing because Eli’s never had a legitimate one. The most news he’s made as a deviant was when he said he was in the same elite class as Brady. The claim is absurd, as Brady’s statistics and playoff pedigree cement his legacy as one of the most productive players in NFL history. But why shouldn’t Eli Manning believe this? And why shouldn’t that confidence in his own abilities extend to his coaches, managers, and owners, who’ve never truly considered replacing him? Since this positivity is of his own making, Eli has allowed us to judge him on nothing other than his play. Unlike the situation surrounding Roethlisberger, there is no hurdle in discussing his merits as a passer: he is an above-average prototypical pocket passer, and that’s that.

[pullquote_right]Ben Roethlisberger is a far superior quarterback to Eli Manning.[/pullquote_right]

Except . . . except . . . he’s 2-0 in Super Bowls. And not just that he won them, but how he won them, and how his perceived personality—goofy, aw-shucks, shoulder-shrugging bravado—mirrors his legend as a player. This is everything. Eli Manning never led a team to the Super Bowl as much as he found himself late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, the Giants down a score. His all-world defensive line did the hard work, so why not take some chances? Eli’s first Super Bowl win turned on The Helmet Catch, about as lucky an outcome as one could imagine, when you consider that the play call had broken down and he was essentially throwing a jump-ball. His second one happened because Tony Romo floated a gimme pass over Miles Austin’s head in the final game of the season, and because Tom Brady floated a gimme pass over Wes Welker’s head on the Patriots’ game-sealing drive in the final game. Eli Manning made the plays he had to make, but the process contained an incredible streak of fortune. More so, his playoff career has a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality. In each of his two Super Bowl years, he played four extremely good games. But the other three times his team made the playoffs, it lost its first game each time (2005, 2006, 2008), and in those games he’s put up dismal cumulative stats: 54.6 average completion percentage, 148 yards per game, 2-6 TD-INT ratio.

Eli’s two Super Bowl wins instantly bolster his résumé, but old Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who last played in 1993, has the same Super Bowl record, as well as one of the greatest performances in Super Bowl history, and he’s not in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps one reason is that Phil Simms doesn’t have an older brother who is arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. And not only has Peyton Manning been one of the NFL’s best players—starting every game for his first 13 seasons, setting (or about to break) multiple passing records, rebelling against the constraints of the modern quarterback position—he has been one of the game’s greatest ambassadors, appearing in endless national commercials, hosting Saturday Night Live, and championing the institution of football as a physical and intellectual beacon to die-hard fans and young children alike. He was the son of a great quarterback who was bred to be the best and, thanks to his immense natural gifts, his studious work ethic, and his unfailing intensity, became the best. If he has a fault, it’s that he assumes too much responsibility and runs out of solutions when defenses tighten and pressure mounts in the playoffs. As a result, his one Super Bowl victory is overshadowed by the pick-six he threw at the end of his one Super Bowl loss. And when we see this transcendent quarterback work so hard, only to fail so magnificently, it’s impossible for us not to notice that his hapless, mop-top little brother has snuck in and out-done him in the one area we consider most important.

I think that Ben Roethlisberger is a far superior quarterback to Eli Manning, and has had a far better career, but that what levels them in the eyes of the media and football fans is A) that we refuse to appraise Roethlisberger without first talking about his style or receivers or offensive coordinators or other diversions, and B) that Eli’s won one more Super Bowl than his Mr. Everything Awesome About The NFL older brother Peyton. In a way, this is what links Eli and Ben more than anything: our judgments of their individual careers are predicated on things that have nothing to do with whether or not they’re completing passes.

Last Sunday, watching Andrew Luck “battle” Ryan Tannehill, Robert Griffin III “battle” Cam Newton, I couldn’t help but think of this comparison. The media has already latched on to the preposterous Luck vs. RG3 career trajectory comparison and made polarizing claims based on a single performance—claims that, the following week, are refuted or reversed or shifted to now consider that, actually, the apt comparison is Luck vs. Tannehill and RG3 vs. Newton. This is all so ludicrous, but it is right before our eyes. Of the four QBs, this season I’ve watched only RG3 play a full game. My hope is that, over the next 15 years, we will find a way to appreciate his abilities as a passer without having to first discuss his running and his susceptibility to injury, that media won’t employ all its subtle tricks meant to devalue his almost unfathomable abilities.

[[1]]These numbers exclude this season. Much easier for someone without access to any sort of advanced stats calculator.[[1]]