The fact that that the object of his derision was lightning-rod star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- quite possibly a future Hall of Famer -- elevated the story to something close to a constitutional crisis in Football Nation.
"Stop trying to act like Peyton Manning," Harrison said. "You ain't that and you know it, man; you just get paid like he does."
The linebacker was widely criticized for breaking the rules of teammate-ism. But the substance of his statement -- that Roethlisberger doesn't measure up to Manning -- was almost universally accepted as gridiron gospel.
But the Cold, Hard Football Facts do not worship at the altar of conventional wisdom. So we know that Harrison was essentially let off the hook for the more egregious of his errors: he was dead wrong statistically.
Roethlisberger is not only one of the best, if most unorthodox, quarterbacks in the game today, but also one of the most prolific passers in NFL history -- at least if you measure quarterbacks the way we do. And he has been far more prolific than he's given credit for since stepping on the field as a rookie in 2004.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts ignore those volume stats that fantasy football fans and misguided analysts seem to obsess over, such as attempts, completions, yards and even touchdown passes, which alone are not necessarily indicative of team success (especially if accompanied by a lot of INTs).
Instead, we focus on efficiency indicators such as passer rating, yards per attempt and TD-INT ratio. And in each case Roethlisberger measures up quite well against Manning -- and often exceeds him, especially over the last four years.
We measure quarterbacks by these indicators because they have proven through the decades to have a direct correlation to winning football games.
Put most simply, big-volume quarterbacks win fantasy leagues and accolades. Efficient quarterbacks win championships. And it's been this way throughout NFL history. Sid Luckman, Otto Graham, Bart Starr and Joe Montana each put up dominant efficiency numbers, even if most were overshadowed by stat-padding passers. Not coincidentally, each one dominated their respective decades, winning 16 NFL championships or Super Bowls between the four of them.
Meanwhile, you have to go all the way back to Johnny Unitas in 1959 to find a quarterback who won a championship after leading the NFL in passing yards.
In the case of Roethlisberger, he is far more efficient, far more prolific, than anybody gives him credit for.
Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Ian Roderick compiled some of the efficiency numbers for us last week. They show that Harrison was wrong: Roethlisberger is the statistical equal of the great Manning, and in many cases surpasses the Colts quarterback, even if Big Ben's own teammates in Pittsburgh fail to recognize it.
Here's how Roethlisberger stacks up to Manning in three key indicators since 2004 (the Pittsburgh QB's first year in the NFL).
A lot of fans and analysts dismiss passer rating because of the complex formula used to create it and because of the seemingly arbitrary numbers it spits out.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts love passer rating because it has a direct correlation to winning football games. (We've discussed the historic importance of passer rating a number of times here on SI.com over the last few months, including studies of its corollary Quality Stats: Defensive Passer Rating and Passer Rating Differential.)
Let's compare Manning's and Roethlisberger's passer ratings since 2004.
Manning was quite literally off the charts in 2004, with a then-record 49 TD passes and the single-season standard for passer rating (121.1). Roethlisberger was no slouch himself in 2004: his 98.1 passer rating is the second best mark in history by a rookie QB (min. 150 attempts). Manning's passer rating in his rookie year was a humble 72.1.
Since that 2004 season, Manning's superiority to Roethlisberger is anything but an open-and-shut case: each has topped the other in passer rating three times over the last six seasons. And Manning's performances have slipped in recent years -- a fairly steady downward trajectory from that incredible high of 121.1 in 2004 to 91.9 in 2010.
As a result, Big Ben has posted higher ratings than Manning in three of the past four seasons, including each of the past two. James Harrison seems ignorant of these Cold, Hard Football Facts.
The numbers are even more remarkable when you consider that Manning enjoys the benefit of playing his home games in a stat-inflating dome, where the conditions are always conducive to big passing days; Roethlisberger plays in one of the NFL's worst-weather outdoor arenas.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts also love Passing YPA as a way to measure the effectiveness of quarterbacks. YPA is easier to understand than passer rating, it provides for better comparisons across eras (YPA has remained relatively constant over the past 70 years, while passer ratings have soared) and, most importantly, YPA is also a Quality Stat. In other words, like passer rating, passing YPA has a direct correlation to winning football games.
Manning is one of the most effective passers in the game today, with an average of 7.88 YPA over the last seven seasons (and 7.60 for his career). But Roethlisberger is one of the most effective passers in history: his average of 8.04 YPA is the fifth best mark of all time.
Three of the four players ahead of him on the career YPA list are in the Hall of Fame, and each proves the validity of YPA as a Quality Stat.
No. 1 Otto Graham (8.63 YPA) parlayed his record average per attempt into a record six straight NFL championship games, winning three of them. He's the single greatest testament to the power of average per pass attempt.
No. 2 Sid Luckman (8.42 YPA) essentially invented the modern QB position and led the dominant Bears to four NFL titles in the 1940s.
No. 3 Norm Van Brocklin (8.16 YPA) was a consistently prolific passer who won championships with two teams (1951 Rams, 1960 Eagles).
The lone outlier on the list -- every rule has an exception -- is No. 4 Tony Romo of Dallas, who has yet to parlay his statistical proficiency and slight advantage over Roethlisberger in YPA (8.043 vs. 8.036) into championship-caliber playoff performances.
The efficiency indicator of YPA tells us that Roethlisberger gets the ball down field about as well as any quarterback who's ever played the game. It's an empirical fact he gets little credit for, even if we routinely see this ability unfold before our eyes. Roethlisberger's 58-yard, fourth-quarter strike to Antonio Brown in the playoffs against Baltimore in January, for example, was vintage big-strike Big Ben and one of the signature plays of the 2010 season.
By the way, look at Roethlisberger's average per attempt in his first two seasons: 8.9 YPA each year. It's the highest average per attempt by any quarterback in his first two NFL seasons. This underappreciated but historic production is a huge reason the Steelers went 13-0 with rookie Roethlisberger at quarterback in 2004, before falling to the dynastic Patriots in the AFC title game, and why they followed up that performance with a Super Bowl victory in 2005.
There's no question Manning will go down as one of the most statistically prolific passers in history, and his assault on the end zone is no exception. With 399 TD passes, he's already third on the all-time list. Dan Marino's 420 TD tosses is reachable here in 2011 and Brett Favre's record 508 touchdown passes is certainly within reach a few years down the road, especially considering Manning's Favre-like physical constitution.
Roethlisberger has thrown 144 touchdowns and appears little threat to attack the record books. But remember, winning in the NFL is not about volume. It's about smart, efficient football. So we like to look not just at touchdowns, but at TD-INT ratio. It tells us who's good at getting the ball in the end zone while avoiding those deadly interceptions, each of which has a material impact on a team's ability to win games.
The best ever in TD-INT ratio heading into the 2010 season was New England's Tom Brady, who's only a three-time champion and the winningest quarterback in modern NFL history. His TD-INT ratio of 2.5 touchdowns for every interception (261-103) was surpassed in 2010 though -- by Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay (87 TD, 32 INT -- a ratio of 2.7 to 1)
Here's how Roethlisberger stacks up to Manning in this critical efficiency indicator.
Manning was frighteningly good in 2004. But since then, it's certainly no open-and-shut case in his favor. In fact, Roethlisberger's TD-INT ratio has topped Manning's in three of the past four seasons, including each of the last two.
The biggest flaw in Roethlisberger's game is the one we see each Sunday in autumn: he holds the ball too long behind a questionable offensive line (No. 14 last year on our Offensive Hog Index), so he gets sacked more often than Rome.
Prolific Colts blogger Nate Dunlevy ran the numbers at 18to88.com this week: Roethlisberger is pillaged once for every 11.2 drop backs in his career. The quick-triggered Manning is taken down just once for every 32.2 drop backs -- an amazing difference, and one that takes the edge off some of Big Ben's historically prolific yet underappreciated passing abilities.
So Big Ben is not the perfect quarterback. He may not be better than Manning. But you don't win consistently in the NFL without great play at quarterback. And the Steelers consistently compete for championships because their quarterback is more statistically productive than anybody wants to give him credit for -- even, it seems, his own teammates.
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