With the recent retirement of Indianapolis Colts QB Philip Rivers, the active quarterbacks remaining from the 2004 NFL Draft class has been whittled down to just one—Pittsburgh Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger.
It remains to be seen how much longer Big Ben will play. The end of Rivers’ career provides NFL fans with another relevant opportunity to rekindle a long standing debate—which quarterback between Roethlisberger, Rivers, and former New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was the superior option?
The case for Eli Manning
Poise in the spotlight
From the moment he was selected first overall in the draft by the San Diego Chargers, Eli Manning has had the attention and the target squarely on his back.
One could argue that he’s always lived with sky high expectations, being the son of former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, and brother of the legendary Peyton Manning. But forcing a trade from the team that had the number one overall selection to play for the New York Giants in the largest media market in the world ratcheted up the pressure.
Despite all of that, the younger Manning never batted an eye, had an attitude, or viewed himself as bigger than the team, which is extremely impressive to do for as long as he did.
While his pure throwing ability and style were not Manning’s claims to fame, he did author two of the most brilliant postseason runs in NFL history in the 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 seasons.
Manning made clutch play after clutch play, especially in his two Super Bowl appearances against the New England Patriots. His most iconic throws are replayed time and time again in January and February, starting with his great escape and heave to David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII, and his no margin for error sideline throw to Mario Manningham in Super Bowl XLVI.
The case for Philip Rivers
It may not have been the most traditional or powerful throwing motion in NFL history, but Philip Rivers carved out a tremendous career for himself completing passes with a unique shoulder pushing delivery that may not be seen in the league again for a very long time.
He finished in the top five in passing yards in seven seasons throughout his career, and ranks fifth all time in career passing yards, ahead of Roethlisberger and Manning. He is also fifth in career touchdown passes, with 421 total, eclipsing his two draft classmates there as well.
In professional sports, fans often fall in love with statistics and highlight reel plays, but in the locker room, teammates and coaches value different attributes more substantially.
It’s a cliché, but “the greatest ability is availability” moniker truly is a feather in Rivers’ cap, who rarely missed games during his career. During the last 15 years of his career, the former NC State Wolfpack star started every regular season game, amassing a total of 240 consecutive games played. He’s also notorious for having played the 2007 AFC championship game against the New England Patriots with a torn ACL.
The case for Ben Roethlisberger
Play extension ability
Standing at a gargantuan 6’5” and clocking in at 240 pounds, Ben Roethlisberger is among the biggest players we’ve ever seen play quarterback in the NFL.
It’s always been an unenviable task for oncoming linebackers to bring Big Ben down to the ground, and his knack for escaping sacks and giving his usually very talented receivers an extra few seconds to get open has made a huge difference throughout his career. Former Patriots defensive end Michael Bennett was once quoted as saying that hitting Roethlisberger was like “tackling a truck”.
Even though Roethlisberger’s 2020 season ended in somewhat disappointing fashion after the Steelers started the campaign 11-0, his teams have always at least been in the mix for a playoff spot.
Since he entered the league in 2004, Pittsburgh has not finished below .500 in any season, basically guaranteeing Steelers fans that the team will be playing meaningful contests in December and January. Big Ben was able to go the distance in two of his playoff runs, winning the Super Bowl in the 2005-2006 season and the 2008-2009 season.
Each quarterback has a very compelling case to make the Hall of Fame, and it is likely that we will someday see all three enshrined in Canton. But which one stands above all the rest?
Even though Rivers’ statistics from a passing standpoint are better than the other two players, it’s hard to put him at the top of the list since he was not able to win a Super Bowl. He was somewhat unlucky from the standpoint that his career overlapped with other great quarterbacks like Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Patrick Mahomes in the AFC, but putting a ringless Rivers first doesn’t seem like the right hierarchy for this exercise.
Due to his longevity and remarkable durability, Eli Manning’s name has cracked the top ten in a couple of hallowed statistical categories, but won’t be remembered as one of the best pure passers in NFL history. His value is more tied to his cool and collected demeanor against some of the greatest teams the league has ever seen, which is impressive, but ultimately not quite good enough to put him at the top either.
That leaves Ben Roethlisberger, who basically combines the best attributes of both. Big Ben has the career numbers to compare with Rivers—he’s only 26 touchdown passes away from passing Rivers’ total—and has the same number of Super Bowl victories as Manning (2).
Roethlisberger’s case would have been a slam dunk had the Steelers been able to win the Super Bowl this season, but even without a third Lombardi trophy, Roethlisberger’s blend of pocket awareness, arm strength, physicality, and winning at the highest level gives him the nod here.