Commentary

Big Ben's undeserved reputation

The Pittsburgh quarterback has never been as clutch as he's been perceived to be

Updated: February 7, 2011, 4:35 PM ET
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders
Ben RoethlisbergerTimothy A. Clary/Getty ImagesBen Roethlisberger had a rocky playoff run to say the least this year.

The case for Ben Roethlisberger as a big-game quarterback before Super Bowl XLV was very clear. The narrative is not that hard to follow, since it eventually boils down to his 10-2 playoff record and a pair of Super Bowl rings. His performance in wins over the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets this postseason merely added to his book of clutch wins. By leading a dramatic comeback over the Ravens and shutting up the Jets with a rushing touchdown in the second quarter and two key completions on Pittsburgh's final drive, Roethlisberger helped the Steelers reach Sunday's big game.

After losing to the Green Bay Packers, though, it's temporarily difficult to say that Roethlisberger finds a way to win when the game's on the line. He was clearly outplayed by his opposite number, throwing two picks and failing to lead his two-minute offense to the Packers' side of the field late in the game. That's not enough to tarnish his reputation, though, is it?

The truth is that it's not totally clear why Roethlisberger deserves such a reputation in the first place. A closer look at his play in big games suggests that Roethlisberger's actual performance isn't all that it's been purported to be.

Truthfully, Roethlisberger hasn't played very well in this year's playoffs. That incredible comeback against the Ravens came on the heels of a 17-point third quarter, in which the Steelers scored on three drives with 25 yards to go or less. (Their magic mysteriously vanished on the two drives that started inside their own territory during that quarter, which produced 26 yards and two punts.) He needed those two critical passes on the final drive against the Jets because his offense had totally shut down after producing 17 points in the first half, with an interception, a drive that produced 13 yards before a punt and a Roethlisberger fumble that resulted in a safety. He finished the day 10-of-19 for 133 yards with two picks. No matter how you slice it, that's not a good performance.

The other numbers don't look good under the light of day, either. One of those rings, of course, came during Roethlisberger's ugly day in Super Bowl XL, in which he was 9-of-21 for 123 yards with two interceptions. That's not leading your team to a ring; it's being dragged by the other 52 guys toward one. Among his wins are another ugly performance against the Jets (17-of-30 for 181 yards with two picks) and an abbreviated showing against the Chargers (17-of-26 for 181 yards with a touchdown and a 25-yard pooch punt).

There are two problems with the conventional wisdom here, and they're not new to readers of this column. One is that using win-loss records as a measure of player performance reduce them to "good" and "bad" games without any context. Would anyone say that Roethlisberger's performance against the Seattle Seahawks was as good as his truly impressive performance against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII? Of course not. By solely saying Roethlisberger produced two rings, though, we place equal value on his performances in those two games.


To read more about why Ben Roethlisberger wasn't a clutch quarterback before Super Bowl XLV even started, plus the best, worst and most surprising performances of Super Bowl XLC you must be an ESPN Insider.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.