DALLAS — After he arrived at training camp last summer, with his reputation in tatters and his future in doubt, Ben Roethlisberger incongruously spoke of winning a championship.
He has never been the most popular quarterback in the N.F.L., or its most decorated. His offense lacks the artistry of Peyton Manning’s and does not produce the dazzling numbers of Tom Brady’s. But the Pittsburgh Steelers, who briefly considered trading Roethlisberger after he was accused of sexual assault last spring, gambled that he was sincere when he told them that he wanted to start a new chapter in his life. It was impossible to ignore his ability, even as a segment of a devoted fan base expressed its anger.
The moment the Steelers bargained for arrived with two minutes left in the A.F.C. championship game against the Jets. Roethlisberger had completed only nine passes to that point and was scrambling from trouble on third down. His 14-yard completion to a rookie on a play designed to go to Hines Ward put the Jets away and sent the Steelers to the Super Bowl against Green Bay, with a chance to win their seventh championship, on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.
That did not make Roethlisberger a better man, but it did raise a question that seemed unlikely on the hot day last July when he stood nervously wringing his hands as he faced a season-opening suspension. Is he among the game’s elite quarterbacks? That designation has long eluded Roethlisberger because he does not possess the stratospheric statistics of some more renowned contemporaries.
Except in one category.
Roethlisberger, who is 10-2 in the postseason, has the second-best winning percentage in N.F.L. history (.833) behind Bart Starr’s .900 (9-1). He haswon two Super Bowls and could win a third at 28. That would equal Brady’s total, triple Manning’s and Drew Brees’s titles, make him one of five N.F.L. quarterbacks with three titles, and put him one behind Terry Bradshaw, another Steelers quarterback who many had said was never quite as appreciated as he should have been.
Bradshaw and Roethlisberger are victims of the Steelers’ lore, the Steel Curtain defense, past and present, overshadowing everything else. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers receives more credit for his quick release and the precision of his passes, and he is playing in his first Super Bowl.
But in the biggest games of his career, Roethlisberger has made the biggest throws. A pass to Santonio Holmes in the back corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII. A 58-yard bomb on third-and-19 to Antonio Brown that Roethlisberger called in the huddle to set up the winning score against Baltimore in the playoffs last month. The broken-play bullet to Brown against the Jets — a pass play in an obvious running situation ordered by Coach Mike Tomlin that showed a startling amount of faith in Roethlisberger, who had thrown only 18 passes.
“My definition of an elite quarterback is one that wins football games,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously, you put up numbers, and I’m not saying you have to put up, throw for 350 yards a game or whatever, but putting up numbers, being consistent however you do it. If you’re throwing the ball 15 times a game, what’s your completion percentage? Are you completing most of them? Are they just 5-yard passes or 10- to 15-yard passes? But at the end of the day to me, to be an elite quarterback is winning and losing.”
Last month, Roethlisberger conceded that he would probably never win a passing title and, because they are often directly related, would probably never be voted the N.F.L.’s most valuable player, an award Brady is expected to win Sunday. He does not seem particularly worried about it. In the pass-intensive era of today’s N.F.L., the Steelers play a less-pass-intensive style than many other teams with franchise quarterbacks.
When Roethlisberger completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 4,328 yards and 26 touchdowns last season — but the team missed the playoffs — the Steelers viewed it not as a sign of progress but as a step backward. So they balanced their offense again, a task made all the more urgent by Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension.
When he returned for the final 12 games, though, Roethlisberger produced one of his best seasons. His pace would have resulted in 23 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions, and 4,272 yards, over 16 games. That would have been far more impressive than the figures he generated in 2005 and 2008, the seasons that ended with Super Bowl victories, especially because the running game was revived this season.
Coaches seemed especially thrilled that Roethlisberger’s throwaways — a forgotten statistic — were up, indicating less derring-do and better decision-making. Even at the 16-game projection, he would have had the fewest interceptions of his career.
But the Steelers focus on what their quarterbacks coach, Randy Fichtner, calls splash plays — the big downfield passes that Roethlisberger, surprisingly, throws more than Brady, Manning or Brees. In 2010, 39 percent of Roethlisberger’s passes were beyond 10 yards, according to figures compiled by Football Outsiders. Manning threw 31 percent of his passes that distance, with Brees at 28 percent and Brady at 25 percent.
The longer the pass, the more Roethlisberger separated himself. Twenty-five percent of his passes were for 20 yards or more, with Manning at 19 percent, Brees at 15 percent and Brady at 13 percent. Roethlisberger and receiver Mike Wallace have combined for eight touchdowns of at least 40 yards in two seasons, a team record that offers the promise of more big plays to come.
“When people look at the Steelers, they don’t necessarily dismiss what Ben’s done,” said the Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys and will be the Fox analyst for Sunday’s game. “But they feel he has a lot of key components around him — a great defense, an emphasis on running the football. While those things are true, they’re true for all winning quarterbacks. He’s as big a reason why this team is where they are as anyone on that team.”
Still, Roethlisberger is not compared to quarterbacks who are considered the best passers. Bradshaw likened Roethlisberger’s size and strength to that of Roman Gabriel, the former Rams and Eagles quarterback best known for his hulking frame and strong arm. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said last week that Roethlisberger was so hard to tackle, they would have to treat him like Michael Vick.
Those were compliments, but they also underline Roethlisberger’s image problem. He may relish the opportunities to call his own plays as Manning does, or to run a no-huddle offense as Brady does. But his defining characteristic is his physical presence more than his pinpoint passes.
“He’s not as pretty a passer as other guys, maybe,” Bradshaw said. “Maybe because of his off-field problems, people hold him accountable for that, therefore they’re not going to elevate him, because it’s like rewarding a wrong. I was called stupid my whole career. I know what a reputation is. You never get over it.”
Perhaps not. Ernie Accorsi, a former Giants general manager, archly noted that Bradshaw, too, had great players around him — Lynn Swann and John Stallworth — but that somebody, namely Bradshaw, had to get the ball to them. Still, Bradshaw is an afterthought in the biggest catches of the earlier Steelers dynasty: Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception and Swann’s falling-down, tip-to-himself catch against Dallas in Super Bowl X.
But what might happen if Roethlisberger were dropped into the Colts’ offense? Could a player far more mobile than Manning also operate as crisply as Manning does?
“I have faith if I played in a system like that that, I could put up big numbers,” Roethlisberger said. “You’re asking a quarterback if he wants to throw the ball more. Of course we do. We always want to throw the ball more.”
Bradshaw watched Super Bowl XLIII with his mother, who remains a huge Steelers fan. When the Arizona Cardinals took a 3-point lead with 2 minutes 37 seconds remaining, she went crazy, he said. The others in the room were placing bets against a comeback.
“I said, ‘You guys are making a huge mistake,’ ” Bradshaw recalled. “ ‘Ben is huge in these games. He’ll bring them back.’ ”
He did, capped by the pass to Holmes. That, too, is credited more to Holmes’s ability to keep his toes inbounds than to Roethlisberger’s capacity to place his pass among three defenders. But it gave the Steelers their sixth championship. If Roethlisberger does it again Sunday, he will have 3 titles in 10 seasons, a modern dynasty to rival Bradshaw’s. And, perhaps more significant, Brady’s.
“We love him,” Ward said. “He’s our great quarterback. Do you put Ben in the top echelon? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. One thing I know is he’s a winner. I don’t know what else you want out of your quarterback.”