A fading Ben Roethlisberger is banking on some Brady/Manning magic

Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is looking a lot like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the 2020 season winds down. No, not classic peak-career Brady and Manning: 2018 Brady and 2015 Manning, the creaky, wobbly old quarterbacks who stumbled toward the Super Bowl while being propped up by outstanding defenses and great supporting casts. You cannot tell from a casual glance at the stat sheet, but the 11-0 Steelers have a Roethlisberger problem: He cannot throw downfield with any accuracy or velocity, and he throws mind-boggling interceptions at the worst possible times. Manning and Brady won Super Bowls and MVPs while in steep decline, so maybe Ben Roethlisberger can do so too. Or maybe his limitations are destined to sabotage the Steelers just when they need their QB to step up in the playoffs.

Do Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 season numbers deserve MVP consideration?

Ben Roethlisberger’s raw stats for an undefeated team look so impressive that some are floating him as a darkhorse MVP candidate. He’s completing 67.5% of his passes, averaging 255 yards per game, and has thrown 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions. 

But let’s take a closer look at the numbers. Ben Roethlisberger averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt entering Week 12, by far the lowest figure of his career and the fifth-lowest total among starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Roethlisberger ranks just below Drew Lock and ahead of Daniel Jones, Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, and Sam Darnold in this critical category.

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Roethlisberger spent over a decade as one of the best deep passers in the NFL; now he’s one of the worst. According to Sports Info Solutions, Roethlisberger’s completion rate on passes of 10-plus air yards is just 44.2%, the eighth-lowest figure in the NFL. The quarterbacks below, him in descending order: Nick Foles, Wentz, Darnold, Jake Luton, Lock, Dwayne Haskins, and Joe Flacco. Mitch Trubisky ranks just above him. That’s not the sort of company Ben Roethlisberger wants to keep, and certainly not numbers to make someone worthy of MVP consideration.

If we increase the Air Yards to truly deep throws of 20-plus yards, Ben Roethlisberger’s completion rate drops to 25%, the sixth-worst figure in the league, nestled in the rankings between Lock and Flacco.

Was Roethlisberger able to improve against a depleted Ravens defense? 

After watching Hump Day Brunch with the Steelers on Wednesday, you may be tempted to blame dropped passes for Roethlisberger’s low completion rate. Steelers receivers had dropped 25 passes entering Wednesday’s sloppy 19-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens: the seventh-highest total in the league, but hardly a number that accounts for Roethlisberger’s woeful deep passing figures. What you saw on Wednesday was a team discombobulated by schedule, practice, and travel disruptions, not a team that normally drops four passes per game. 

The folks at Next Gen Stats track the air yards of both completions and incomplete passes to create a metric called Average Air Yards Differential (AYD). AYD is a fine metric for determining whether a quarterback is completing lots of short passes while just air mailing his deep throws. Roethlisberger ranks 28th among qualified starters with -2.5 AYD, meaning his completed passes are 2.5 air yards shorter than his incompletions. Once again, he’s in the same neighborhood as folks like Foles and Luton. Brady is also in that neighborhood, and most of the football world is now wise to the fact that every Brady throw of more than around 15 yards downfield is just a prayer to the pass interference gods.

So why does the Steelers QB look like an MVP candidate when you don’t look too closely? A deep receiving corps led by Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Diontae Johnson has a lot to do with it. T.J. Watt and the Steelers’ defense also naturally cover a lot of sins. And then there’s that fluffy Steelers schedule.

Football Outsiders’  DVOA metric is adjusted for the strength of schedule, but Football Outsiders also publishes the non-adjusted VOA for comparison’s sake. Roethlisberger ranks ninth in the league in VOA but drops to 14th when the numbers are weighted to account for the number of opponents like the New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals, and Jacksonville Jaguars that the Steelers have faced. 

One quick note about Roethlisberger’s six interceptions before we wrap up this deep stat dive: four of them were thrown into the end zone, and four of them (not the same four) were on throws of 15-plus yards. Sports Info Solutions also lists three dropped interceptions against the Steelers entering Week 12. None of these figures are damning, but they paint a picture of a rickety quarterback who gets into trouble whenever he tries to do things that were routine for him as recently as two years ago.

Roethlisberger, Brady, and Manning

Ben Roethlisberger’s statistical decline looks very familiar. Tom Brady’s numbers dropped in a similar manner in 2018. I wrote about it for another outlet at the time, and boy howdy did the New England media (which is a wee bit of a booster club) have a field day with it! 

Brady’s 2018 Patriots, like Roethlisberger’s 2020 Steelers, this year, had an excellent defense and faced a soft schedule. Brady also had familiar weapons like Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski to throw to, and of course, late-career Brady was much more of a dink-and-dunker by design than Roethlisberger. The 2018 Patriots ended up winning a defensive duel against the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl. It was only in 2019 that Brady’s limitations began to really catch up with the team.

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Peyton Manning suffered a much more dramatic late-career swoon in his 17-interception 2015 meltdown. The final stats and fading memories cloud the fact that Manning mixed a handful of miserable games that season with many games where he looked like a reasonable facsimile of his old self (and was playing hurt through his worst performances).

Like Roethlisberger, Manning was propped up by an almost historic defense and a Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders receiving corps good enough to make Brock Osweiler look like a decent quarterback for a few games. And like Brady would do a few years later, Manning picked up a final ring when the Broncos won a Super Bowl defensive duel against the Carolina Panthers.

See a pattern? Aging Hall of Fame quarterbacks can lead loaded teams to the Super Bowl, despite their declining skills. It’s a testament to the fact that teams go all-in to surround such quarterbacks with talent in their final seasons and to the fact that decision making, guile, and leadership really do help aging legends compensate for their lost fastballs.

Can the Steelers do what the 2015 Broncos and 2018 Patriots did? It’s important to note that Brady won a playoff shootout against Patrick Mahomes to reach the Super Bowl two years ago. It’s hard to picture Roethlisberger doing so against the current version of Mahomes. But perhaps Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and the rest of the Steelers defense will have something to say about that.

The 2020 Steelers season in a nutshell

One play from Wednesday’s NFL-flavored sports entertainment product really typified the Roethlisberger dilemma. The Steelers needed a late-game third-and-5 conversion by their QB to seal a win over a Ravens team missing half its starters. Ben Roethlisberger floated a hanging curveball into a sea of Ravens defenders over the middle of the field. And wide receiver James Washington somehow came down with it.

Was this a heady decision and needle-threading throw by a future Hall of Famer who has seen and done it all before? Or was it the sort of mistake that will catch up with the Steelers when their luck runs out?

History suggests that the Steelers’ QB can knuckleball his way to the Super Bowl with a defense this great. But there are no guarantees.

And one thing is certain: Ben Roethlisberger is NOT a worthy MVP candidate.

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