Cold Hard Football Facts: Big Ben, statistically, among the best ever

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Big Ben is one of the all-time leaders in two of the most important stats in football.

And now it's official.

The NFL requires that quarterbacks attempt a minimum 1,500 passes to qualify for official league records. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger entered Monday night's 23-20 overtime victory against Baltimore with 1,495 attempts.

He tossed 24 passes against the Ravens, along the way topping the 1,500-attempt-mark needed to receive the pigskin-keeping seal of approval. His career stat line now looks like this:

• 961 of 1,519 (63.3 percent), 12,311 yards, 8.10 YPA, 88 TDs, 56 INTs, and a 92.52 passer rating

Roethlisberger has been a Cold, Hard Football Facts favorite since he exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2004, leading Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record and a spot in the AFC title game, and then winning a Super Bowl with the Steelers in his sophomore season.

After all, you don't win consistently in the NFL without strong play at quarterback. So when the Steelers were suddenly winning in historic fashion (the 2004 Steelers are one of the few teams in history to win 15 games), the natural place to turn for answers was the passing game.

And it turned out that Roethlisberger's historic string of victories in his first two years was accompanied by historic passing efficiency numbers -- especially for such a young player.

Now in his fifth year, Roethlisberger officially enters the record books and finds himself among some of the very best passers in the history of the game. If he can repeat his first four-plus years in the league over the next four-plus seasons, he's a bona fide first ballot Hall of Famer.

As of today, Roethlisberger boasts a career passer rating of 92.52.

It's a number that puts him -- officially -- at No. 5 on the list, one spot behind No. 4 Tom Brady (92.91) and one spot ahead of No. 6 Joe Montana (92.26). In our book (yes, our book has lots of pretty pictures) that's damn good company.

Here is the top of the all-time leaderboard in career passer rating:

1. Steve Young -- 96.812.Peyton Manning -- 94.253.Kurt Warner -- 93.524. Brady -- 92.915. Roethlisberger -- 92.52

It's no coincidence, by the way, that every player in the Top 5 has won at least one Super Bowl. Passer rating has a lot of critics, because it's so unwieldy. But it's also a pretty good measure of success and typically has a high correlation to winning football games.

It's no coincidence, for example, that the Steelers had gone a quarter-century without a Super Bowl victory before Big Ben arrived on the scene. Efficient passers win football games.

Roethlisberger's top-five spot in YPA is probably more impressive than his top-five spot on the all-time passer rating list.

After all, YPA seems to have a higher correlation to winning than does the more complex passer rating formula. The difference is not too great. In fact, the two often move in lock-step (just look at the example of Big Ben, No. 5 all-time in both categories). But YPA often seems to be a more telling stat and it tends to cut across different eras more often than passer rating (which clearly favors contemporary passers).

Yards per attempt is also an attractive indicator because it's so cut and dry that even the casual fan can comprehend what it means. Plus, there is probably no individual stat in all of sports with such a high correlation to winning (if you know of one, please share it with us).

Here is the top of the all-time leaderboard in yards per attempt:

1. Otto Graham -- 8.63 YPA2. Sid Luckman -- 8.423. Norm Van Brocklin -- 8.164. Warner -- 8.145. Roethlisberger -- 8.10

All were champions. In fact, the top three were multiple champions, and No. 1 on the list is the greatest champion.

There's another reason Big Ben stands out in the eyes of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.

At the risk of tossing out a cliché (one we'll quickly polish into a shiny Cold, Hard Football Fact with supporting data), Roethlisberger is an Old School quarterback -- a rare modern manifestation of the type of passer you might have seen in an earlier, mud-and-spittle era of pro football.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, quarterbacks generally handed the ball off more often than they passed it -- just like Big Ben does today. But when they did pass, it was typically a high-risk, high-reward downfield throw -- much like those passes Big Ben throws today.

(Of course, the true romantic might envision Big Ben back in the 1940s, slinging the ball down field on offense and then muscling up on defense a la Sammy Baugh. Big Ben certainly seems built like a linebacker, while Baugh, one of the best passers in history, was also a great defensive back.)

To put Big Ben in our comfort zone -- that is, to discuss him through the pigskin prism of raw data -- Roethlisberger is a throwback performer statistically.

In recent years, offenses have focused on short, high-percentage, low-risk passes more than they did in the past. Think the Montana-Brady school of passing theory, which was made possible by the rule changes of 1978 that spawned the Live Ball Era. (Brady and Montana might be as close statistically as any two passers in history.)

Montana entered the NFL in 1979, just in time to take advantage of the new rules, and under the right coach to take take advantage of the new rules, Paul Brown disciple Bill Walsh.

Before Montana, teams tended to throw down the field more aggressively. Montana parlayed new-school offense into four Super Bowl victories and a reputation as the best ever at his position. Brady, before his injury this year, had taken the conservative strategy even further, turning a low YPA average (especially before 2007) and an extraordinarily low INT rate into an historically high passer rating and three Super Bowl victories.

So in recent years, per-attempt averages have generally declined in the NFL, while passer ratings (which reward high completion percentages and low INT rates) have skyrocketed.

Just three active players, for example, are in the top 15 all time in YPA (Warner, Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning). But every player in the Top 20 all time in passer rating began their careers in the Live Ball Era (1978-present). Fifteen of those in the Top 20 are still active.

Roethlisberger is the rare player high on both lists. The old-school style of the Pittsburgh offense has helped him put up a YPA average similar to those seen in the 1950s. But the fact that defenders can no longer prison-shank receivers, offensive linemen and even quarterbacks, has allowed Roethlisberger to translate that high YPA into the high passer rating more typical of contemporary football, too.

Roethlisberger is not a perfect quarterback. Of course, nobody is.

In Big Ben's case, he takes too many sacks and throws an inordinate number of picks relative to the number of times he drops back to pass.

Roethlisberger has attempted 1,519 passes in his career. But he's actually dropped back to pass 1,680 times -- if you include the 161 sacks he's suffered (an average of about 40 per year and nearly three per game). He's also thrown 55 INTs.

So that's a total of 216 negative pass plays (sacks + INTs) in just 1,680 dropbacks -- or a negative pass play on 12.86 percent of every drop back. That's a high number of negative pass plays by modern standards. To put it into perspective, compare Roethlisberger to the two players widely regarded as the best contemporary quarterbacks:

• Big Ben suffers a negative pass play on 12.86 percent of dropbacks (216 in 1,680 dropbacks)

• Brady suffers a negative pass play on 7.49 percent of dropbacks (289 in 3,856 dropbacks)

• Manning suffers a negative pass play on 6.39 percent of dropbacks (353 in 5,721 dropbacks)

The high number of negative pass plays certainly reinforces Roethlisberger's Old School cred. After all, negative pass plays were far more common before the Live Ball Era, when defenses were given greater leeway to play aggressively. Old School-cred or not, they're called negative pass plays for a reason: you don't want 'em.

But the greater concern for Steelers fans should be the declining numbers.

Big Ben's average per attempt has consistently declined, from 8.88 in his rookie year of 2004 and 8.89 in his Super Bowl-winning year of 2005, to 7.81 last year and a career low 7.69 so far this year.

He's on pace for just 16 TD passes this year, which would be a career low. And his 93.3 passer rating so far in 2008 would be the lowest except for his 2006 season that was marred by so many on- and off-the-field issues and injuries. Pittsburgh's once-proud offensive line has struggled this year, too: Roethlisberger has been sacked 15 times in four games, which puts him on pace to be taken down a career-high 60 times.

They're trends that can be overcome. As Big Ben matures (he's still only 26), maybe he'll learn to become the more conservative, high-percentage, low-risk, quick-release passer that defines the modern game. Maybe the Steelers will find a few more weapons to put around him -- much like the Patriots did in 2007 for Brady, with historic results.

But for now, Steelers fans will have to settle for a quarterback who stands today among the most productive ever.

And that's official.