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If Aaron Rodgers wins the Super Bowl, he will most certainly take his place in the uppermost echelon of quarterbacks. When ESPN and the NFL Network endlessly debate the best quarterback in the game, he will be considered with established greats like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Patriots fans should not feel threatened by this: there is a difference between “best in the game” and “best of the 21st century.”
Quarterbacks du jour show up, are talked about for a few years, then fade back into obscurity until they win again. When was the last time anyone really talked about Donovan McNabb? How about Daunte Culpepper? Or Chad Pennington? Rodgers winning a Super Bowl will extend his celebrity, but not indefinitely. Brady had to win two to earn a permanent sport on the public’s radar, and a third to cement his place near the top. There’s no conflict of interest in rooting for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, because Rodgers poses no real threat to Brady’s legacy.
But what if Rodgers doesn’t win? What if the Pittsburgh Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger win? Two things would then happen:
Roethlisberger would be inducted into the Hall of Fame when he retires. Only four quarterbacks have won three or more Super Bowls: Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Brady. Montana, Bradshaw and Aikman are all in the Hall of Fame. It seems unthinkable that Brady would not get in when his career ends. A third Lombardi trophy for Roethlisberger would probably assure his eventual induction as well.
The conversation for “best quarterback of the 21st century” would get a whole lot more complicated. Up until now, the debate is exclusively a two-man argument, between Brady and Manning. Brady has the hardware, Manning has some of the better stats and regular-season accolades. But if Roethlisberger wins a third Super Bowl, football analysts will have to include him in the conversation.
Neither Manning nor Brady need fear Roethlisberger ever passing them in passing stats, unless Roethlisberger’s career extends significantly longer than Manning’s or Brady’s. Roethlisberger trails in passing yardage, accuracy, touchdowns and quarterback rating. Manning dwarfs Roethlisberger in yardage (54,828 vs. 22,502) and touchdowns (399 vs. 144), and Brady’s 122-touchdown lead (266) will be hard for Roethlisberger to beat, given that Brady’s only been in the NFL three more seasons. Even if we give Roethlisberger a fourth post-Brady year due to Brady losing a year to knee injury, he would still have to average 30 touchdown passes per season to make up the difference, a feat Roethlisberger has only accomplished once.
Brady is also the only quarterback of the three to average less than 10 interceptions a season, which explains why he leads with a quarterback rating of 95.2. He started the 2010 season behind Manning, but a 19-point difference in quarterback rating (111 vs. 91.9) this season gave Brady the lead. For Roethlisberger, whose quarterback rating is weakest at 92.5, to catch Brady would require a similar meltdown. Roethlisberger is unlikely to ever catch either of the other transcendent quarterbacks, so he’ll have to earn his spot in the playoffs.
Roethlisberger’s lack of stats has hurt him in the awards category. After winning Rookie of the Year in 2004, he hasn’t done much. No regular season MVPs. No Super Bowl MVPs, despite winning two titles. Only one Pro Bowl selection, in 2007. And he hasn’t performed noticeably in the playoffs than in the regular season. His two best playoff games came in 2005. He has thrown 14 interceptions and been sacked 30 times. He plays worse in the playoffs, where his quarterback rating drops from 91.9 to 85.0. And in 2005, he set a Super Bowl record for worst passer-rating by a winning quarterback, at 22.6 (9/21, 123 yards, zero touchdowns, two interceptions).
But if he wins, Roethlisberger will be 11-2 in the playoffs. By comparison, Brady is 14-5, and Manning 9-9. Roethlisberger’s winning percentage, .833, is currently second only to Bart Starr (.900) and a couple of one-and-done quarterbacks nobody’s heard of (Frank Reich, anyone?). By the end of Roethlisberger’s career it will likely be lower. But Brady will never have a winning percentage like that again, and Manning never has. Roethlisberger gets it done in the playoffs. If teams are defined exclusively by winning or losing, then we won’t be able to look at Roethlisberger’s accomplishments and deny his place as one of the all-time greats. As good as Brady or Manning? Maybe, maybe not. But no longer a third wheel to their dynamic duo? Absolutely.
On Sunday, a Green Bay victory will catapult Rodgers name to the top level, but his legacy will still be defined within the context of a single season. But a Pittsburgh win (especially if Roethlisberger wins MVP) will put Roethlisberger in the realm of best of the new millenium. Patriots fans don’t want a third choice muddying up this conversation. So on Sunday, red and blue shirts should be swapped for green and gold ones. Break out the Styrofoam cheese wedges, and put down the Sam Adams in favor of a Spotted Cow (you’ll thank me… if you can find one). Sing “Teach Me How to Raji,” or whatever strange new YouTube video comes out of the Frozen Tundra. But most of all, hope and pray that the quarterback with the rape allegations chokes away his chance at history. Otherwise, he may never go away.