Big Ben: The QB you want when the game is on the line

NFL Network recently posed a question of which quarterback you’d rather have when the game is on the line: Joe Montana or Tom Brady?

I took exception to the topic, because in my mind, I never thought of either as the type of quarterback who was known for coming from behind and winning games for their teams. Sure, both have done it, but both are players I associated with dynasties that often had games in hand rather than falling behind and having to pull out a come-from-behind victory.

Of course, staying faithful to my Steelers, I offered Ben Roethlisberger as an alternative. Even thinking about the historical significance of comparing Montana, another famous come-from-behind artist, John Elway came to mind too.

The wheels started turning: how does Big Ben compare with other quarterbacks past and present?

Well, of course I went into a statistical sabbatical to pull all of the numbers and create some sort of fair comparison!

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First, I directly compared Montana, Brady, and Roethlisberger. In doing this analysis, I made some rules as well. Here are the guidelines I used in creating the statistical comparison:

  • Only regular season games are tallied
  • Win %, 4th quarter comeback (4QC), and game-winning drive (GWD) percentages are derived from games started not games played
  • I tried to include as many modern era (and current) players which came to mind. If you see someone missing, it’s simply because they didn’t cross my radar!
  • I included Terry Bradshaw just for fun – let’s face it, that was a different NFL

Here is how the first three passers compare given those terms:

Montana 192 164 117 47 0.713 26 15.85% 28 17.07%
Brady 269 267 207 60 0.775 35 13.11% 44 16.48%
Roethlisberger 216 214 144 69 0.676 31 14.49% 42 19.63%

As you can see, even my snarky response had some merit! Roethlisberger is the least-winning of the trio overall but has more (by percent) fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. Equally impressive is that he only trails Brady (who has started 53 more games) by only four 4QC’s and two GWD’s!

Montana started 50 lesser games than Big Ben, but also has 14 fewer game-winning drives: making you wonder if his numbers would be closer if he had played more/longer.

When comparing with other NFL greats as well as current quarterbacks in the league, the answer gets a little trickier. There are some passers with better results than Big Ben, except where it truly counts: win-loss record:

Stafford 141 141 66 75 0.468 26 18.44% 33 23.40%
Luck 86 86 53 33 0.616 16 18.60% 20 23.26%
Ryan 174 174 102 72 0.586 27 15.52% 36 20.69%
Wilson 112 112 75 36 0.676 17 15.18% 23 20.54%
P.Manning 266 265 186 79 0.702 43 16.23% 54 20.38%
Roethlisberger 216 214 144 69 0.676 31 14.49% 42 19.63%
Marino 242 240 147 93 0.613 33 13.75% 47 19.58%
Brees 264 263 155 108 0.589 34 12.93% 48 18.25%
Kelly 160 160 101 59 0.631 21 13.13% 28 17.50%
Elway 234 231 148 82 0.643 31 13.42% 40 17.32%
Moon 208 203 102 101 0.502 25 12.32% 35 17.24%
Montana 192 164 117 47 0.713 26 15.85% 28 17.07%
Brady 269 267 207 60 0.775 35 13.11% 44 16.48%
E.Manning 232 230 116 114 0.504 27 11.74% 37 16.09%
Bradshaw 168 158 107 51 0.677 15 9.49% 23 14.56%
Favre 302 298 186 112 0.624 28 9.40% 43 14.43%
Rivers 212 208 118 90 0.567 26 12.50% 30 14.42%
Rodgers 165 158 100 57 0.637 14 8.86% 20 12.66%
Aikman 165 165 94 71 0.570 15 9.09% 20 12.12%
Young 169 143 94 49 0.657 13 9.09% 16 11.19%

Longevity has a definite impact on this list in many ways. Players who have fewer starts have a higher percentage of 4QC or GWD overall. I was surprised at the results when I saw Matt Stafford and Matt Ryan, two of the lowest winning passers on the list, rank high as comeback artists.

But would you really want the ball in their hands all of the time? I mean, that’s what made the Montana vs. Brady argument to begin with: they are the heads of dominant dynasties.

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Stafford has the worst win-loss average of all quarterbacks listed. Likewise, he is short of many on the list in games played/starts. I would think that over time, more games would equal a lesser percentage of come-from-behind wins, but for now, he and Andrew Luck (only 86 starts) are the kings of the mountain on the list in terms of leading their teams to victory at the end.

Perhaps when (or if) each has 200 or more games under their belt, this would be a good list to revisit! (This statement also applies to Russell Wilson who has the second-lowest amount of starts on the list besides Luck.)

I’m still impressed with Matt Ryan’s figures, as he’s not someone who ever stood out to me in this way. With 174 starts under his belt, his stats appear to be the fairest to compare as we move further down the list. (Give Stafford two more seasons worth of games and I’ll say the same!)

The numbers, even with the present outliers such as Stafford, Luck, and Wilson factored in, still puts Ben Roethlisberger in good company. The next quarterback, and only with 200-plus starts and over a 20% game-winning drive percentage is the legendary Peyton Manning: his numbers only supersede Big Ben by 3/4 of a percent.

No one else on the list, past or present, has a better game-winning drive percentage going forward and only Joe Montana has a better fourth-quarter comeback percentage.

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That puts Roethlisberger into the future Hall of Famer conversation that you rarely hear outside of Pittsburgh. He has a rare blend of winning games and often doing so by putting his team on his back when it’s crunch time.

The same cannot be said for recent media darlings such as Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers, each drafted when or just after Roethlisberger entered the league. Rivers has over five-percent less GWD’s than Roethlisberger, while Rodgers is nearly the worst on this chart in terms of game-winning drives or late game victories.

Surprisingly too, Troy Aikman and Steve Young guided their teams to Super Bowl wins but didn’t often rely on late game heroics to win the in the regular season. Brett Favre is also revered as a gunslinger, but his 43 game-winning drives is only one more than Roethlisberger despite having 84 starts under his belt.

Which leads to the entire point of the study: when the pressure is on, there are few better than Roethlisberger. My previous statement about being on winning teams seems to dissipate when you compare win percentages among those included in my research. The top five by win-loss record are as follows:

  • Tom Brady
  • Joe Montana
  • Peyton Manning
  • Terry Bradshaw
  • Ben Roethlisberger (tie with Russell Wilson)

That begs the question: who would you rather have on your team when it comes down to it in the end?

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Roethlisberger has a higher-percentage of winning, and doing so from behind, then most of his peers. Yet, he doesn’t always get the same respect.

For my money you can’t go wrong with any of the five I listed, but I’d definitely prefer Big Ben to lesser winning quarterbacks presently playing at this time, and most certainly cannot dismiss his inclusion in NFL Network’s original argument of Montana vs. Brady.

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