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FNQB: Why Ben Roethlisberger May Not Play Football in 2010

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Due to offseason lapses of behavior to which I feel that I should not go into detail at an analysis hub such as Liveball, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is currently suspended through Week 7 of the 2010 NFL season for various violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy.  My thoughts on that matter was that the suspension was justified, if not earned.  A lot of people with sources close to the situation believe that there’s no chance that Roethlisberger will be suspended six games…he’s either going to be eligible after four games, or he’s going to screw up again and be done for the year.

I’m not predicting that Roethlisberger is dumb enough to get himself to an even bigger mess after everything he has put the Steelers through and very nearly ending up as quarterback of the Raiders (though I’m not putting it past him).  My point in this column is more direct: this suspension is terrible for the perception of Ben Roethlisberger’s career, in a specific, on the field, winning games sense.

Roethlisberger has all the sparkling numbers and achievements that one would look for from a professional quarterback, so it might be tempting to assume Ben’s play on the field is far less erratic than his antics off of it.  It also wouldn’t be accurate.  Perhaps the most impressive statistic in Roethlisberger’s career is that, in three of his six seasons, he has averaged better than 8.5 yards per attempt, which is an astounding figure that supports him as being one of the league’s elite young passers.

However, Roethlisberger has always stalled drives with high sack rates.  We can compare the more conventional yards per attempt rankings to Roethlisberger’s net yards per attempt rankings to see just how much the sacks hurt Roethlisberger’s value as a quarterback:

Ben Roethlisberger YPA ranks vs. NYPA ranks

Year Age Y/A Rank NY/A Rank
2004 22 8.9 2nd 7.4 5th
2005 23 8.9 1st 7.8 2nd
2006 24 7.5 7th 6.3 8th
2007* 25 7.8 6th 6.2 16th
2008 26 7.0 17th 5.9 20th
2009 27 8.6 2nd 7.2 7th
Source: profootballreference.com

Even this is a bit inadequate to show just how much the sacks hurt the Steelers offense.  Per DVOA, the Steelers passing offense has ranked 7th, 6th, 6th, 7th, 19th, and 7th in that timeframe.  If anything, yards per attempt has overrated the value of Ben Roethlisberger to the Steelers early on in his career when he was a role player in the offense.  It’s not an issue of throwing the football: the Steelers have been a very good passing offense every year but 2008, and that year, the offense threw the football much better in the playoffs than they did in the regular season.  The Steelers have been a consistently strong offense through the air with Ben at the helm.  So what’s the deal?  4 games and he’s back…right?

It can’t be that simple, and it isn’t.  There’s plenty of reason to believe that Roethlisberger, even though most of the Steelers offense runs through him in some way, is at best not a positive influence on the Steelers offense, and at worst, limits offense.  By points scored, the Steelers have ranked 11th, 9th, t-12th, 9th, 20th, and 12th in points scored, pretty consistently in the second quartile as a point producing team, even with considerable contribution from the defense.  Backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have done just fine in relief of Roethlisberger over the years, and in Dennis Dixon’s one start last year, he was at very least, competent as trigger-man for the Steelers.  The team is consistently excellent year after year at the receiver and tight end positions, and recently has begun to add some quality NFL runners to put the power running game back in Pittsburgh.

Furthermore, beyond Roethlisberger, this team is primed for another super bowl run.  The defense, which certainly was down last year, is still one of the best, deepest units in the entire league.  Special teams could use a boost, and the Steelers might be able to add up to a win by adding a kickoff specialist who can improve on Jeff Reed’s short boots.  However, if the Steelers have one weakness from the perspective of the fans, it’s the offensive line.

How much of a weakness is the OL?  Perhaps: not much.  With regards to running the ball, the Steelers OL ranks above the average in Adjusted Line Yards (explained at above link), and in the top five in “power” situations, which I believe is a pure ranking of an OL’s skill independent of playcalling mix: if the defense knows what’s coming, and you can still create a successful play better than 70% of the time, that doesn’t fit with my definition of a weakness.  There were, however, weak links on the Steelers offensive line, at C with Justin Hartwig, and at RG with Trai Essex.  Then again, first round pick Maurkice Pouncey of Florida will go a long way to fixing both of those issues.  He’ll break in at RG this year, and figures to eventually become the team’s Center.  Unless he’s a huge weakness as a rookie, the entire unit will be just another strength for the Steelers.

Which leads me to the conclusion I’ve been building to: with an eligible Ben Roethlisberger, my methodology projects the Steelers to be the best team in the NFL this year.  They still have four players who rate in the top three at their positions in their own conference on offense: Hines Ward (top six at WR in AFC), Willie Colon, Chris Kemoeatu, and Heath Miller, to go along with great depth at receiver.  On defense though, the Steelers are in an entirely different class: Woodley, Harrison, Polamalu, Hampton, Lawrence Timmons, Aaron Smith, and Ryan Clark, not to mention that they return Bryant McFadden from a year long vacation in Arizona.  The 11 players who rank in the top 3 (or 6, when applicable) at their respective positions in the AFC make the Steelers a juggernaut.

Having Byron Leftwich under center for the first few games isn’t going to change that.  Perception of Leftwich’s meaningless games in Tampa at the beginning of the season are skewed by the fact that Leftwich faced three excellent pass defenses last year, and still performed well, though an 0-3 start doomed him.  In the last two years, Leftwich (5 appearences with 10+ attempts) has accrued 290 passing DYAR.  Among players that he outranks in DYAR in that timeframe, without any consistency in his roll, mind you: Matt Cassel, Kevin Kolb, Bruce Gradkowski, Alex Smith, Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, Trent Edwards, Seneca Wallace (when you add…rushing?), Matt Hasselbeck, Mark Bulger, Chris Redman, Shaun Hill, Tyler Thigpen, Daunte Culpepper and puts him within ten DYAR of Matt Moore, who has similar playing time.

That list includes SIX starting NFL quarterbacks, and the Steelers certainly have to feel like they are in better hands with Leftwich under center than a bunch of other teams who are in flux at the QB position.  And when you take a passer like Lefwich — who, for all the criticism he gets about not being mobile, has all of one season where is sack rate floated above Roethlisberger’s career best — we could be seeing the beginning of a unstoppable juggernaut offense in Pittsburgh, and the start of something special between Leftwich, and young receivers Mike Wallace, and draft picks Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown.

With three quality opponents on the slate in the first four games, and an organization that fancies itself well above the level of Ben Roethlisberger, theres not a lot of reason to think that they would move away from Leftwich if he can guide the team to a 4-0, or perhaps even a 3-1 start.  If they do, I think it would signal that they really, really believe in Ben Roethlisberger as a player AND as a person.  I’m just not sure that’s accurate.  I think they believe in him fully as a player, but that’s because they’ve never had a strong alternative to his job.  They wouldn’t this year — Leftwich wouldn’t even be a Steeler — if not for Ben’s own actions.  Age isn’t really a concern here either: Leftwich is 30, but Ben’s already 28.  This decision will have only two elements: football playing ability, and character.  Leftwich’s character is unquestioned, while Roethlisberger’s is um, highly questionable.  On the field, there’s a standard that Leftwich will have to meet: a passing offense that consistently rates in the top ten, scores between 8th and 12th in points yearly, and usually grabs 7-8 yards per dropback.

He’ll have every advantage to meet that standard, and provide the Steelers with the alternative to Ben that they’ve been lacking in order to pull the trigger on a trade that they really want to make.  Three weeks in, some team is going to find itself without any stability at the QB position, in desperate need of a move, and the Steelers could be sitting pretty at 3-0.  If attendance-starved Buffalo, Kansas City, or Jacksonville comes forward at that point with the offer of a first round pick for the troubled Steelers signal-caller, that’s going to be a lot of loot from Pittsburgh’s perspective to get rid of a problem that they hate living with (but currently, can’t live without).

I’m not saying that it will happen, or that it’s bound to happen, but it’s a possibility that Ben has brought upon himself with his actions and suspension.  In my mind, the Steelers are going to be the favorites for Super Bowl 45 with, or without the suspended Roethlisberger on the roster.

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