Best Quarterbacks in Pittsburgh Steelers History
The Power of the Quarterback
If you were to ask a child about their favorite football star, there is a strong chance they would tell you about an NFL quarterback. It’s not surprising; children also love superheroes, those mighty, larger-than-life beings with the power to do amazing things that other people can’t. While quarterbacks don’t wear capes, it is easy to imagine how, through the eyes of a child, they would otherwise meet the superhero criteria.
As adults, most of us decide we know better. Every position is equally important, and the quarterback is just one cog in the machine that is a working offense. The quarterback may be the center of attention, but he is nothing special and not necessarily the most valuable guy on the field. Right?
Wrong. It turns out we were on the right track back when we were kids. Maybe NFL quarterbacks aren’t superheroes, but they do wield tremendous power. Few positions in sports match the prestige and importance of the football quarterback. The quarterback handles the ball on every offensive play, and the outcome of the game rests in his hands.
He is the leader, the coach on the field and in many cases the face of the franchise. Winning quarterbacks are granted hero status by fans, and losers carry the blame for the entire team. The rewards for excellence are tremendous, and the elite quarterbacks in NFL history are considered legends.
The Steelers have had a few great quarterbacks over the years, but they have also had some very bad ones. Most were somewhere in the middle and gave Steeler Nation good reason to expect a win when they took the field.
This article will take a look at some of the best Steelers quarterbacks of all time as well as a few that could have been great. You may also be surprised to learn about a few legendary NFL quarterbacks the franchise passed on. But first we have to consider an important question:
What Makes a Quarterback Great?
I considered the following factors when compiling this list:
- Championships: Winning matters, and quarterbacks are expected to lead their teams to championships. On the other hand, a few of the greatest quarterbacks of the Super Bowl era never had a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
- Statistics: Quarterbacks who put up big passing numbers get a lot of praise, and deservedly so. There are a few in the league who can run the ball, as well. But it’s a fine line between a quarterback who is called upon to shoulder the load for the offense and one who tries to do too much at the expense of the game plan.
- Quarterback Rating: Quarterback rating (or passer rating) is a complex formula intended to consider key statistics and show the quality of a quarterback's performance. It ranges from 0 to a perfect score of 158.3. However, it is not a great tool for comparing quarterbacks of different eras, as the style of play has changed dramatically over the decades.
- Accolades: Pro Bowls, All-Pro teams and MVP awards provide a nice snapshot of a player’s value throughout his career. A quarterback who is recognized as one of the best, year after year, is surely in an elite category.
- Leadership Skills: This is possibly the most important quality of a great quarterback—but also the least tangible. Some people just “have it” when it comes to motivating others, whether in the business world or on the football field. Quarterbacks who can motivate their teammates and bring the squad together are huge assets.
- Intelligence: You have to be smart to play any position in the NFL, but intelligence is especially important for a quarterback. The quarterback must know what every player on the offense is supposed to do, and the great ones often know what the defense is going to do, as well.
Top 5 Steelers Quarterbacks of All Time
No doubt you’ve been remembering various Steelers quarterbacks while reading this list of attributes. I’ve broken my list down into the five best to ever play in Pittsburgh, along with five honorable mentions and five (perhaps) surprising names of those who could have been Steelers greats if their careers had played out differently.
5. Kordell Stewart
As a rookie in 1995, quarterback Kordell Stewart earned the nickname “Slash” when coach Bill Cowher decided to use him as a wide receiver. Jokingly, his position became known as "quarterback-slash-wide receiver," and thus a nickname was born.
Slash stupefied defenses, who never knew what to expect when he stepped on the field. In his rookie season, he caught 14 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown, and he also made an impact running and throwing the ball. That year, the Steelers won the AFC championship and went to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1970s. He reprised his Slash role for the 1996 season, but he made it clear that his ultimate goal was to start at quarterback.
Stewart finally got his chance in 1997 and led the Steelers to the AFC championship, where they lost to John Elway and the Broncos. For five seasons he started for Pittsburgh as a dual-threat quarterback, ultimately making the Pro Bowl in 2001. But Stewart's rising star wouldn’t burn forever. His play began to decline in 2002, and Tommy Maddox was primed to snag the starting position.
During his best years at quarterback, Stewart was a very good player who gave the Steelers a real shot at winning. However, as Slash he was something the NFL hadn’t seen in a long time: a triple-threat offensive weapon who might line up at quarterback, running back or wide receiver when he came into the game.
Stewart left the Steelers after the 2002 season and unceremoniously closed out his career with one season in Chicago and two in Baltimore.
Kordell Stewart: Steelers Stats and Accolades
- Jersey Number: 10
- Years With the Team: 1995–2002
- Record as Starter: 46–29
- Passing Yards: 13,328
- Passing Touchdowns: 70
- Interceptions: 72
- Passer Rating: 72.3
- Rushing Yards: 2,561
- Rushing Touchdowns: 35
- Accolades: 1x Pro Bowl
4. Bobby Layne
Bobby Lane is an NFL legend. Unfortunately for Steelers fans, he performed most of his legendary deeds as a member of the Lions. During his eight-and-a-bit seasons with the Lions, he made five Pro Bowls, was voted All-Pro twice and led Detroit to three NFL championship wins.
The Steelers traded for Layne just two games into the 1958 season. Detroit agreed to the deal, even though Layne and the Lions had won the NFL championship in 1957. According to urban legend, Layne cursed the Lions for this indignity. The Lions have struggled ever since (well beyond Layne’s 50-year curse), and today they are one of four NFL teams that have never appeared in the Super Bowl.
Layne was 32 years old when he came to Pittsburgh and was certainly not in the prime of his career. But he had some excellent receivers in Buddy Dial and Jimmy Orr, who complemented his gunslinger passing style very well. The Steelers were known as perennial losers back then but managed to cobble together winning seasons in three of Layne’s five years with the team.
Layne retired after the 1962 season at the age of 36, having spent the final five years of his Hall of Fame career as a Steeler. He currently ranks sixth among all-time Steelers passing leaders for yards and fifth for touchdown passes.
Bobby Layne: Steelers Stats and Accolades
- Jersey Number: 22
- Years With the Team: 1958–62
- Record as Starter: 27-19-2
- Passing Yards: 9,030
- Passing Touchdowns: 66
- Interceptions: 81
- Passer Rating: 65.5
- Rushing Yards: 382
- Rushing Touchdowns: 8
- Accolades: 2x Pro Bowl
3. Neil O'Donnell
Neil O’Donnell played for the Steelers from 1991 to '95. This was an important transition period in franchise history, since legendary coach Chuck Noll retired in 1992, making way for Bill Cowher. It was a time of change for Pittsburgh—as well as a time of revival.
O’Donnell had been a starter since 1991 when he bumped incumbent Bubby Brister out of the role. Brister and O'Donnell were opposites, and where Brister was bold and daring, O’Donnell was careful and calculating.
Under Cowher, O’Donnell and the Steelers posted an 11–5 season in 1992, made it to the AFC championship in '94 and went to the Super Bowl in '95. While still predominantly a running team, the Steelers threw the ball more than they ever had, often employing four- and five-wide receiver sets.
O’Donnell left the Steelers for the Jets after the 1995 Super Bowl season. He went on to play for the Bengals and the Titans before retiring after the 2003 season. He remains fourth all-time in Steelers history for passing yards and passing touchdowns.
As a Steeler, O’Donnell had a quarterback rating of 81.8, an impressive statistic for the time in which he played, and one only surpassed by Ben Roethlisberger. Most impressively, O’Donnell only threw 39 interceptions in 66 games, making him one of the most reliable Steelers quarterbacks of all time.
Neil O'Donnell: Steelers Stats and Accolades
- Jersey Number: 14
- Years With the Team: 1991–95
- Record as Starter: 39–22
- Passing Yards: 12,867
- Passing Touchdowns: 68
- Interceptions: 39
- Passer Rating: 81.8
- Rushing Yards: 323
- Rushing Touchdowns: 3
- Accolades: 1x Pro Bowl
2. Ben Roethlisberger
Except for two, all of the quarterbacks on this list are fairly comparable. Even Bobby Layne, who was a superstar in his prime, wasn’t his old self as a Steeler. But if the separation between Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart is like the distance between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the separation between Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the pack is like the distance between Pittsburgh and Jupiter. And he isn’t even in first place on this list.
Roethlisberger is a great one; there is no doubt about it. Statistically, he has obliterated every other Steelers quarterback by a wide margin. He has more than twice the career passing yards than the next player on Pittsburgh's all-time passing list and over 150 more touchdown passes.
There are good reasons for those statistical differences, the most significant being the way the NFL has changed over the past four decades. Modern quarterbacks throw the ball a lot, and they complete much shorter passes. What would have been a running down a few decades ago is a passing down today. Roethlisberger is currently ranked eighth all-time among NFL passing leaders.
Few quarterbacks in NFL history have achieved what Roethlisberger has done. Going into the 2020 season, he has had 13 seasons of 3,000 passing yards or more, six seasons of 4,000 yards or more and one season where he threw for 5,129 yards. He’s also led the Steelers to three AFC championship wins and two Super Bowl victories. As a starter, he has posted a career record of 144-71-1.
Roethlisberger will certainly find his way into the Hall of Fame when he retires. But, if he is so great, why isn’t he first on this list? Because the quarterback position is about more than statistics—and there is one more Steelers quarterback even bigger than Big Ben.
Ben Roethlisberger: Steelers Stats and Accolades
- Jersey Number: 7
- Years With the Team: 2004–Present
- Record as Starter: 144-71-1
- Passing Yards: 56,545
- Passing Touchdowns: 363
- Interceptions: 191
- Passer Rating: 94.0
- Rushing Yards: 1,357
- Rushing Touchdowns: 19
- Accolades: 6x Pro Bowl, 2x Super Bowl champion, 2004 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Terry Bradshaw
In 1970, coming off a 1–13 season, the Steelers chose a quarterback named Terry Bradshaw with the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Bradshaw started eight games as a rookie and threw a ghastly 24 interceptions for the season. All of the pundits agreed: he was too dumb to play in the NFL, and the Steelers had wasted a draft pick. Bradshaw answered by tossing 22 interceptions the next season—an improvement, but still abysmal. He made countless mistakes on the field. His critics jeered.
As a kid, this was one of my favorite stories. It was astonishing to think that Bradshaw was nearly booed out of the league as a young player because we all know what happened next. It is a lesson in perseverance and guts, and few players in NFL history have had more of either than Terry Bradshaw.
In the 1970s, with Bradshaw at quarterback, the Steelers' offense turned into a juggernaut. Their mighty offensive linemen plowed over defenses like five black-and-gold bulldozers, clearing swaths of turf for running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Bradshaw’s powerful arm punished any team foolish enough to stack the box in an attempt to slow the Steelers' rushing attack. With one pass, he could change the outcome of a game and, when he got hot, there was rarely a reason for opponents to hold out any hope of victory.
Bradshaw relied on two of the greatest Steelers wide receivers in history: Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. The duo made catch after impossible catch, and the Steelers were always one play away from a touchdown any time they were on the field.
Unlike modern quarterbacks, Bradshaw called his own plays. While coach Chuck Noll was certainly the architect of the game plan, Bradshaw was responsible for carrying it out. He was a true leader, a field general who shouldered the responsibility of winning or losing in a very literal sense.
Bradshaw doesn’t have the mind-blowing statistics of Roethlisberger. He played in a different era, and for 12 seasons he played with Franco Harris, one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. When comparing statistics from different eras, it is also important to remember that the NFL regular season consisted of only 14 games prior to 1978 and 10 to 12 games prior to '61. At the end of the day, Bradshaw didn’t need to put up big numbers, though he occasionally would. He only needed to win and get the job done in the biggest games. That he did, better than any other Steelers quarterback.
Bradshaw, the quarterback some said was too dumb to play in the league, won four Super Bowls in his Hall of Fame career. Today he is regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Terry Bradshaw: Steelers Stats and Accolades
- Jersey Number: 12
- Years With the Team: 1970–83
- Record as Starter: 107–51
- Passing Yards: 27,989
- Passing Touchdowns: 212
- Interceptions: 210
- Passer Rating: 70.9
- Rushing Yards: 2,257
- Rushing Touchdowns: 32
- Accolades: 3x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 4x Super Bowl champion, 2x Super Bowl MVP, NFL MVP (1978), Bert Bell Award (1978), Hall of Fame (class of 1989)
Bradshaw vs. Roethlisberger Stats Comparison
Number of Seasons
Total Games Played
Record as Starter
Super Bowl Wins
Bert Bell Award
I think these next five players deserve mention in any discussion of the best Steelers quarterbacks of all time, but they aren't in the same class as the players listed above.
Among these honorable mentions, Mike Tomczak is the only one with a winning record as a Steeler. So, let’s start with him. By the time he came to Pittsburgh in 1993, he was already in his ninth season in the NFL. He had been a rookie on the Bears’ roster during their Super Bowl season in 1985 and had spent most of his time in Chicago.
As a Steeler, he mostly served as a backup, though he took over as the starter in 1996 and led the team to a 10–6 record. Tomczak never made a Pro Bowl and never started in a Super Bowl. But he was a reliable quarterback the Steelers could routinely count on for a solid performance every time he took the field.
Tommy Maddox was an outstanding college quarterback who chose to forgo two more seasons at UCLA and declare for the NFL draft. This turned out to be a bad decision. The Broncos chose him in the first round in 1992 and expected him to replace John Elway one day. But he struggled, and the Broncos traded him to the Rams in 1994, where he spent a single season before being released and signing with the Giants in '95. By the start of the 1996 season, he was out of football and working as an insurance agent.
Maddox staged a comeback in 2000. He played a season of arena football and then led the Los Angeles Xtreme to an XFL championship in 2001. The Steelers signed him later that year, and by 2002 he had become Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback. He led the team in passing in 2002 and '03, but an injury in the second game of the '04 season sidelined him and opened the door for a young quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger. In five seasons as a Steeler, Maddox passed for 7,139 yards, 42 touchdowns and 40 interceptions. He retired with a Super Bowl ring in 2005.
Bubby Brister was a fiery quarterback with a powerful arm. He was a Steeler from 1986 to '92 and started from '88 to '90. He led the team to an unlikely AFC wild-card game win against the Oilers in 1989 and nearly defeated the Broncos in the divisional round the following week. He eventually lost his starting job to Neil O’Donnell in 1991 and left the team after the '92 season. Brister threw for 10,104 yards, 51 touchdowns and 57 interceptions as a Steeler.
Jim Finks played for seven seasons, all with the Steelers. He was the team’s leading passer from 1952 to '55 and made the Pro Bowl roster in '52. He is currently ranked seventh on the Steelers’ all-time passing yards list with 8,622 and sixth in touchdown passes with 55. However, he also threw a whopping 88 interceptions in his short career, giving him an awful career quarterback rating of 54.7.
Mark Malone spent seven seasons in Pittsburgh from 1980 to '87 and won 21 of his 45 career starts. The Steelers drafted him in 1980, and from '84 to '87 he was the team's leading passer. He led the Steelers to the AFC championship game in 1984, but that was as good as it got.
The Steelers failed to make the playoffs over the next three seasons, and by 1988 Malone was traded to the Chargers. In seven seasons with the Steelers, he passed for 8,582 yards, 54 touchdowns and 68 interceptions.
Who Is the Best Steelers Quarterback of All Time?
The greatest Steelers quarterback of all time is Terry Bradshaw. He won four Super Bowls and led Pittsburgh to nine straight winning seasons. He made the Pro Bowl three times and the All-Pro team once. In 1978, he was voted NFL MVP and received the Bert Bell Award for Player of the Year. That same year he was named MVP of Super Bowl XIII for his performance in the defeat of the Cowboys. (He took the same award home again a year later for Super Bowl XIV.) He is today regarded as one of the greatest Steelers of all time, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame with the class of 1989.
Top 10 Steelers All-Time Passing Leaders
The Quarterbacks Who Got Away
Had things played out just a bit differently, some of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history could have been at the top of this list. I have a feeling you’ll be a bit surprised at what could have been—and if you are a Steelers fan, you might even kick a piece of furniture or two.
The Dolphins selected Dan Marino with the 27th pick of the 1983 NFL Draft. Though he was one of the best college quarterbacks in the country, five quarterbacks were chosen before him. Most teams passed him up due to a subpar performance during his senior season. One of those teams was the Steelers, who instead drafted a nose tackle named Gabe Rivera.
Marino is a Pittsburgh native who played his college ball at Pitt, and it is easy to imagine he would have loved to play professionally for the Steelers. He would have been the heir to the Terry Bradshaw legacy—and, if things played out in Pittsburgh as they did in Miami, he could have led the Steelers for the next decade and a half.
Rivera played for one season before a car crash ended his career. Marino went on to become one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history and led the league in career passing yards when he retired.
Johnny Unitas is one of the most legendary NFL quarterbacks of all time. He played for 18 seasons, 17 of them with the Colts. He was elected to 10 Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams, he won three NFL championships and one Super Bowl, he was voted MVP three times and he won the Bert Bell Award three times.
And he should have been a Steeler.
The Steelers selected Unitas in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL Draft but cut him before the season began. Instead, they kept quarterbacks Jim Finks, Ted Marchibroda and Vic Eaton. Finks threw for 10 touchdowns and 26 interceptions as he led the Steelers to a 4–8 record that season. Baltimore signed Unitas a year later and he quickly became the starter. By 1958, he had quarterbacked the Colts to their first of several NFL championships.
Earl Morrall had a long and storied NFL career, and he played for six different teams before retiring at the age of 42. He is best remembered for his time with the Colts and the Dolphins. In 1968, he became the NFL MVP when he stepped in for an injured Johnny Unitas and guided the Colts to the Super Bowl. In 1972, he started and won nine games as part of the undefeated Dolphins.
Morrall played for a total of 21 seasons in the NFL. He threw for over 20,000 yards and won 63 out of 102 starts. And, as you probably guessed, he could have done it all as a Steeler. Morrall played for the Steelers in 1957, when he started 11 games and made the Pro Bowl. The next season he was traded to Detroit for a 32-year-old Bobby Layne.
Len Dawson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. He played for 19 seasons, most of them for the Chiefs. He made seven Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams, and he won one Super Bowl and three AFL championships.
Dawson was drafted by the Steelers in 1957, but he saw limited action. At the end of the 1959 season, Pittsburgh traded him to Cleveland, one of their biggest rivals. By that time, Bobby Lane was Pittsburgh's starter.
Before he became a politician, Jack Kemp played 10 seasons in the NFL. He made seven Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams, won two AFL championships and was the 1965 AFL Player of the Year. He was picked up by the Steelers in 1957 after the Lions cut him, but he stuck around for only one season.
Kemp was out of the league for a time, but in 1960 he reemerged with the Chargers of the AFL. He started 12 games, posted a 9–3 record and led the team to the AFL championship.
What Could Have Been
Through the looking glass of history, it is easy to fault the Steelers for some of the decisions made during the 1950s and ‘60s, but there was no way to know that Unitas, Morrall, Kemp or Dawson would become NFL legends. Evaluating talent is one of the biggest challenges of coaching in the NFL.
Steelers Passing Records
- Most Passing Yards All Time: 56,545, Ben Roethlisberger (2004–Present)
- Most Touchdown Passes All Time: 363, Ben Roethlisberger (2004–Present)
- Most Interceptions All Time: 210, Terry Bradshaw (1970–83)
- Most Wins as a Starter All Time: 144, Ben Roethlisberger (2004–Present)
- Most Passing Yards in a Season: 5,129, Ben Roethlisberger (2018)
- Most Touchdown Passes in a Season: 34, Ben Roethlisberger (2018)
- Most Interceptions in a Season: 26, Jim Finks (1955)
- Most Wins as a Starter in a Season: 14, Terry Bradshaw (1978)
- Most Passing Yards in a Game: 522, Ben Roethlisberger (Oct. 26, 2014, vs. Colts)
- Most Touchdown Passes in a Game: 6, Ben Roethlisberger (Oct. 26, 2014, vs. Colts; Nov. 2, 2014, vs. Ravens)
- Most Interceptions in a Game: 7, Tommy Wade (Dec. 12, 1965, vs. Eagles)
- Longest Touchdown Pass: 97, Ben Roethlisberger (2017 vs. Lions; 2018 vs. Broncos)
The Importance of a Great Quarterback
Do you need a great quarterback to win consistently in the NFL? These days, I think you do. In days gone by, a team with a strong running game and stingy defense could win a Super Bowl with only a decent quarterback. They simply needed a guy who played smart, made few mistakes and kept his head. This type of quarterback is often referred to as a game manager. They aren’t flashy, but the good ones reliably put their team in a position to win.
Both Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger started their careers with this style of play. Backs like Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis helped them move the ball, and smart offensive coordinators did their best to keep their young quarterbacks out of trouble. Both evolved and improved as quarterbacks as the years rolled by, and in the latter parts of their careers, both Bradshaw and Roethlisberger put up big numbers.
But that was another time. Bradshaw played in the 1970s, and Roethlisberger’s rookie year was over a decade and a half ago. In today’s NFL, trying to control the game with only a decent quarterback is like bringing a slingshot to a gunfight when your opponent has a Howitzer. You may win some games, but eventually, you are going to face a Tom Brady—or a Drew Brees or a Patrick Mahomes—who is going to chuck 50 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns. It’s tough to manage that kind of game.
There are more of those big-gun passers out there than ever these days. The NFL is a passing league, and today’s offenses put up some crazy numbers. The teams who have great quarterbacks are at an advantage, and the teams who don’t will go to the ends of the earth to find one. Winning depends on it.