Rodgers, Big Ben among elite active QBs

BY Alex Marvez • February 5, 2011

Tom Brady won't be here Sunday to personally collect what should be his second NFL Most Valuable Player award.

Maybe that's a good thing.

Not that Brady would be a poor choice for his 2010 regular-season play. He is the front-runner after throwing for 36 touchdowns with only four interceptions for the 14-2 New England Patriots.

But after the Associated Press announcement is made and Super Bowl XLV begins, Brady won't have to see first hand his unofficial standing as the NFL's top quarterback challenged by Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.

That distinction is what's at stake besides the Lombardi Trophy. The torch that Brady and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning have passed between each other since 2004 finally could be wrestled away by younger stars, quickly closing the gap of greatness.

A Steelers victory would give the 28-year-old Roethlisberger his third Super Bowl ring in seven NFL seasons. That would match a career total achieved by only four other quarterbacks: Terry Bradshaw (four), Troy Aikman (four), Joe Montana (four) and Brady (three). The first three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with Brady destined for enshrinement.

“That’s unbelievable company," Roethlisberger said this week. "I don’t put myself there. I think they are too good."

A Packers victory would give Rodgers the same number of Super Bowl rings (one) as Manning and predecessor Brett Favre. It also would cap a blistering late-season stretch that vaulted the 27-year-old Rodgers into this conversation. In Green Bay's past five games, Rodgers completed 69.6 percent of his passes for 1,423 yards with 13 touchdowns (11 passing, two running) and three interceptions. And he did this against teams with a combined record of 57-29.

Rodgers has the highest regular-season quarterback rating (98.4) in NFL history among those with at least 1,500 passing attempts. He was the first player to throw for more than 4,000 yards in his first two years as a starter. Rodgers fell 78 yards short of that total this season after missing six quarters with a concussion.

Packers wide receiver Donald Driver gave Rodgers the highest praise he could receive: Driver put him in the same class as Favre by saying Rodgers is "sooner or later going to be another future Hall of Famer."

"As far as whether he is an elite quarterback, I know we think he is and his teammates do," Packers quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said.

Categorizing the specific earmarks of an "elite quarterback" is not easy. Roethlisberger's definition is "one that wins football games."

"Obviously, you put up (passing) numbers," Roethlisberger said. "I’m not saying you have to throw for 350 yards a game or whatever, but being consistent however you do it. If you’re throwing the ball 15 times a game, what’s your completion percentage? Are you completing most of them? Are they just 5-yard passes or 10- to 15-yard passes?

"But at the end of the day to me, an elite quarterback is (determined by) winning and losing.”

To that end, Roethlisberger has a career regular-season record of 69-29. That .704 winning percentage is the NFL's second-best mark among all active quarterbacks, behind only Brady, who stands at .776 with a 111-32 starting record.

Roethlisberger is even better in the postseason. He is 10-2 in the playoffs, which trails only Green Bay's Bart Starr (9-1) for the top winning percentage in league history. Brady has a 14-5 mark but lost both his playoff starts in the past three seasons. Manning is 9-10 after a first-round home loss to the New York Jets. Roethlisberger also has a postseason quarterback rating (85.4) that is comparable to those of Brady (85.7) and Manning (88.4).

Roethlisberger acknowledges his style is "not pretty." Roethlisberger's thick 6-foot-5, 241-pound frame makes him difficult to sack. That allows him to scramble in the pocket and extend plays longer than any of his peers.

Roethlisberger also operates in a more run-oriented offense than Manning and Brady. That's why Roethlisberger isn't expected to compete for an NFL passing title, an honor that Manning and Brady both have won twice.

“I have faith that if I played in a system like that, I could put up big numbers, but I don’t know if the Steelers will ever go to that," Roethlisberger said.

The foundation surrounding Roethlisberger should be considered in the overall evaluation as well. Brady thrived in 2010 despite a mass overhaul of skill-position players. Manning did the same even when injuries decimated the talent surrounding him.

While his offensive line was severely banged up this season, Roethlisberger annually benefits from one of the NFL's most suffocating defenses. The Steelers have fielded a top-five unit in six of Roethlisberger's seven seasons, including a No. 2-ranked defense in 2010.

"You have to be blessed with not only ability and opportunity but supporting cast as well," Rodgers said. "No quarterback has ever won a game by himself."

Rodgers was asked whether Super Bowl victories should be the top criteria for judging quarterback greatness.

"I don’t know. I think Dan Marino would have a problem with that," Rodgers said. "He’s one of the greatest of all time. He didn’t win his opportunity."

Whether fair or not, quarterbacks are elevated or diminished based upon Super Bowl performance. Eli Manning and Drew Brees are perceived in a different light after winning rings within the past four seasons. Peyton Manning's detractors point to the interception he had returned for the game-clinching touchdown last season against New Orleans.

Roethlisberger cemented his spot as a clutch quarterback by leading Pittsburgh to the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII against Arizona. Rodgers has faced that kind of pressure only once in the postseason. He threw a touchdown pass with 1:52 remaining to send a first-round game against Arizona into overtime last year. However, Rodgers then had a fumble returned for a touchdown by Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby in overtime.

Rodgers fared better when handling a different kind of daunting task: replacing a legend like Favre, who didn't make matters easier with how he handled his Packers departure in 2008. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said leadership was the "big hurdle" that Rodgers has leaped after three seasons as a starter. Roethlisberger also has improved in this area after serving a four-game suspension this season for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy.

Combined with his flawless mechanics, mobility and decision-making, Rodgers might be the NFL's most complete quarterback in McCarthy's pass-happy scheme.

"He can do it all,” Roethlisberger said.

But will Rodgers win Super Bowl XLV or shall Roethlisberger triumph once again? The debate about who is the NFL's top quarterback will grow even more spirited once the answer is known.

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