Super Bowl XLV: Roethlisberger vs. Rodgers

On Sunday, Feburary 6, the Green Bay Packers will face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.  The game has a number of compelling story lines, including historic franchises, outstanding 3-4 defenses (particularly the Pittsburgh ties of Packers defensive coaches Dom Capers, Kevin Greene and Darren Perry), and more.  No angle has garnered as much attention as the matchup at the quarterback position.  Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, 27, is playing as well, statistically, as any passer in the league.  Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, 28, is seeking his third Super Bowl title in 6 years.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

A recurring narrative or theme has emerged in comparing these two players.  Aaron Rodgers, still possessed of a sterling reputation, is also armed with a rifle right arm, quick feet, and quicker wits.  He plays with a style that makes players, coaches and fans gush.  His game is so aesthetically enjoyable, so apparently effortless that game analysts like Deion Sanders and Phil Simms have been reduced to laughter.  And, his numbers don’t lie.

If Aaron Rodgers is the “good,” Ben Roethlisberger is both the “bad” and the “ugly.”  Roethlisberger has been accused of sexual assault twice in the past three years.  The Steelers QB also suffered serious injuries while riding a motorcycle without a helmet, which prompted unstable, irate fanatics to issue death threats to the woman who hit him , and fueled a woeful 8-8 close to Bill Cowher’s coaching career.   This season began with Roethlisberger serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s code of conduct.  Circumstances in Milledgeville, Georgia did not lead to charges or jail time, but that situation did contribute to the departure of former Steelers WR and Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes.  With Holmes slated to become a free agent at the end of the 2010 season, and facing a league-imposed suspension for substance abuse, the Steelers opted to sell low, exchanging Holmes for a 5th round pick from the New York Jets.

Santonio Holmes: Icing Super Bowl XLIII

And, we haven’t even discussed the “ugly.”

If Rodgers is a sort of Romare Bearden on the field, Roethlisberger’s work often resembles the finger painting of exuberant toddlers.  Exhibit A: In this season’s AFC Championship Game, Ben Roethlisberger’s stat line against the Jets read was 10-19, 133 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 11 carries, 21 yards, 1 rushing touchdown.  His passer rating was 35.5.  That’s ugly.

But if you SAW the game, you would have emerged with a different perspective of his performance.

The Gunslinger vs. The Grinder

Let’s take a look at some stats.  Does this paradigm of looking at Rodgers and Roethlisberger really hold up?

Roethlisberger Grinds Out a Win over the Ravens

Net Yards Per Pass Attempt: the most comprehensive stat of passing effectiveness per play.  NYPPA = Passing Yards – Sack Yards)/(Pass Attempts + Times Sacked)

Aaron Rodgers — 7.4 — League Rank (2); Ben Roethlisberger — 7.1 — League Rank (4).

Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt: adds a weight for touchdowns and interceptions, based on the impact those measures have on game outcomes.

Aaron Rodgers — 7.5 — Rank (3); Ben Roethlisberger — 7.4 — Rank (4).

Passing Yards Per Completion:

Aaron Rodgers — 12.6 — Rank (4); Ben Roethlisberger — 13.3 — Rank (1).

Passing Yards Per Attempt:

Aaron Rodgers — 8.3 –Rank (2); Ben Roethlisberger — 8.2 — Rank (3).

Passing Yards Per Game:

Aaron Rodgers — 261.5 — Rank (7); Ben Roethlisberger — 266.7 — Rank (6)

Rushing Yards Per Carry:

Aaron Rodgers — 5.6; Ben Roethlisberger — 5.3

These statistics, aside from passing yards per game, quantify per play performance for both of these quarterbacks.   Within this framework, there is very little difference between Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.  Certainly, the difference is not significant enough to believe that Rodgers can or will have a bigger impact on Sunday’s game by passing the ball or by running the ball.  The differences are simply too small.

More to the point, during last season’s epic 37-36 tilt at Heinz Field, it was Roethlisberger, not Rodgers who threw for 503 yards, 3 touchdowns, without being intercepted.  Rodgers was close, but in the end, it was Roethlisberger’s pinpoint pass to Mike Wallace that sealed the deal.  The glare emanating from Aaron Rodger’s spectacular passing performances against Arizona (2009), Philadelphia and Atlanta (2010) have obscured the reality of these two elite passers.   In the statistics that reveal most clearly what they do each time they have the ball in their hands, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger are cut from the same cloth.

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Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders: Young Money

Captain Clutch vs. The Kid

Rodgers and Roethlisberger are not identical, but they’re approaches yield eerily similar results.  Rodgers’ career, shorter by 3 years than Roethlisberger’s, is marked by excellence and consistency.  In each of 3 full seasons, Rodgers has thrown between 28 (twice) and 30 touchdowns.  He has averaged about 10 interceptions each season, ranging from a low of 7 to a high of 13.

R0ethlisberger’s seven-year sojourn has mirrored his life off the field.  This season, he threw a career-low 5 interceptions.  Back in 2006, his Year of Living Dangerously, he threw 23.  His best statistical seasons were in 2007 (104.1) and 2009 (100.5).  In neither season did the Steelers win the Super Bowl.  He threw 32 and 26 touchdowns, respectively, but the team’s fortunes did not track with his.   Statistically, two of his seasons have been decidedly mediocre.

However, Roethlisberger has excelled in an area that has been, to date, a challenge for Rodgers: late game heroics.

Sunday will be Ben Roethlisberger’s 112th career game.  He has engineered 19 fourth-quarter comebacks and 25 game-winning drives.  Back in 2004, when most media commentators were incorrectly labeling him a “game manager,” he was busy leading a 15-1 team on 5 game-winning drives (including 3 on the road – at Dallas, at Jacksonville, and at the Giants).  In 2008, he led 5 more game-winning drives (including 2 against the Baltimore Ravens, and the Super Bowl winning drive vs. the Arizona Cardinals).  He has led 6 game-winning drives against the vaunted Ravens in his career.   Of Roethlisberger’s 25 game-winning drives, 17 of them were in November, December or January.

Aaron Rodgers, by contrast, will play his 60th game on Sunday.  He has led the Packers on 5 game-winning drives, 3 of which featured 4th quarter comebacks.  All of these games have been vs. the Chicago Bears (3) or the Detroit Lions (2).   This season, the Green Bay Packers are 4-6 in games decided by 7 points or less (2-0 in the post-season).  Aaron Rodgers threw only 11 interceptions this season, but each one was thrown when the game was in the balance — when it was a single possession game (scoring margin of 0-7 points).

Landry Scoops Up Rodgers' Errant Pass in OT. Washington 16, Green Bay 13.

Statistics and Excuses

“Yeah, but Rodgers played without Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley.  What about James Jones and Jennings dropping all those perfect passes?”

“Oh, yea?!?  Roethlisberger played without both of his starting tackles and Santonio Holmes.  How about 2 rookie wide receivers?”

Arguments can be made of behalf of or against either of these players by delving into the details of their games and the performances of their teammates.  What would Roethlisberger’s numbers look like from 2008 if Limas Sweed could catch?  What would they look like from this year’s AFC Championship Game if Rashard Mendenhall doesn’t slip in the flat?  What would Rodgers’ numbers look like if James Jones could catch?

Statistics provide useful tools for understanding our world, but they have limitations.  Statistics are not a predictor of future performance.  Ben Roethlisberger’s statistical profile, as stated previously, is not a flat line.  It moves up and down.  Moreover, who could have predicted that his 503 yard, 3 touchdown day would put him with Y.A. Tittle and Warren Moon as the only passers to throw for as many yards and touchdowns without being picked off in the entire history of the league?  Statistics illuminate averages and allow us to see things more clearly (or less clearly, as the case may be).

Another Look at Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger has played two statistically abysmal seasons: 2006 and 2008.  He began play as a 22-year old rookie against the Baltimore Ravens back in 2004.  While Alan Faneca was pissed about being forced to play with “a little kid,” Roethlisberger was learning under fire.  The paradox, of course, is that his worst seasons were not at the very beginning of his career, but rather when off-field issues came to the fore.  For the sake of this conversation, I thought it might be useful to look at Roethlisberger’s numbers — minus the 2006 season in which he should have been benched by Bill Cowher in favor of Charlie Batch; and the 2008 season (a Super Bowl season).

The purpose of the exercise isn’t to build a case for Roethlisberger (the comparison to Rodgers is informational here), but rather to assess the extent to which off-field chaos has leaked into his on-field performance.  Rather than take an exhaustive look at each of these stats, I looked at touchdown rate, interception rate, and passer rating.  (These stats are interrelated — see below.)

Touchdown rate.  Roethlisberger, at 5.1% for his career, currently ranks 6th among active quarterbacks.  He trails Tony Romo (5.7%), Brady, Rivers, Manning, and Aaron Rodgers (5.4%).   If the 2006 and 2008 seasons are excluded from his career numbers, his touchdown rate jumps to 5.9%.  The rate would be good enough for first on the active list.  Aaron Rodgers has a career rate of 5.4%.  This season, his rate was 5.9%.

Interception rate.  The Steelers QB currently has a rate of 3.1%.  That’s good enough for 21st among active QB’s and 42nd all-time.  Excluding the 2006 and 2008 seasons, the interception rate dips to 2.7%.  That change would only move Roethlisberger up to 16th, but it would put him in a 4-way tie with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Michael Vick.  Aaron Rodgers is the all-time leader in this area with a microscopic rate of 2.0%. (Rodgers’ 2010 rate: 2.3%.  Roethlisberger’s 2010 rate: 1.3%)

Passer Rating. Roethlisberger’s career passer rating is 92.5.  In 2006, his passer rating was 75.4.  In 2008, it was 80.1.  Excluding those seasons, his career rate is 99.9.  Aaron Rodgers career passer rating is 98.4.  This season, he had a rating of 101.2.

Taken as a whole, it is difficult for me to look at the body of work these two players have put together and discern much difference.  It really amounts to the splitting of hairs.  Even their respective completion percentages (excluding Roethlisberger’s ’06 and ’08 campaigns) are nearly identical: 64.7% vs. 64.4% – Roethlisberger.

Of course, we cannot exclude those two seasons.  The Steelers won a Super Bowl in 2008 — with several sub-par performances from Roethlisberger.  Those games all count…and they have influenced our perceptions of Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback.  However, those games may well point to a past that we can no longer expect to see on the field.  In point of fact, his career averages which exclude those seasons may be the truest indicator of what his future holds.

Another Look at Rodgers

There is little reason to believe that Aaron Rodgers’ future performances will not track closely to what he has done so far.  The greatest area of conjecture, however, is on what he might have done had he played at age 22, as did Roethlisberger.  Just as we cannot effectively eliminate two poor years from Roethlisberger’s career, we cannot add two great or mediocre years to the career of Aaron Rodgers.

Phil Simms did provide some insight, however, into the maturation of Aaron Rodgers.  Simms reported recently that he saw Rodgers in Green Bay as a rookie, as a 2nd-year player and as a third-year player.  Simms noted that the transformation in Rodgers beginning in his 3rd season was tremendous (one of Phil’s favorite words).  He inquired about the cause of the change.  Rodgers informed Simms that he simply went back to being himself.  There is no doubt that it was hard for a 22-year old superstar in waiting to “be himself” in the long shadow of Brett Favre in Green Bay.

It stands to reason that Rodgers would have suffered from growing pains, but I suspect he would have performed admirably.   Aaron Rodgers, frankly, has not played in many high stakes games.  He has played a lot of close games. He has played in 4 post-season games and performed far above the line in 3 of those games.  Down the stretch, Rodgers lit up under-achieving squads from Dallas, Minnesota, San Francisco and New York (Giants).  He fumbled in the end zone in a road loss to the Falcons.  He was knocked out of a game by the Lions, and had modest success in a close 10-3 win over the Chicago Bears in Week 17.

Over the course of his brief career, Aaron Rodgers is 15-20 in games decided by 7 points or less.  That trend did not change during the 2010 regular season.

Down the Stretch

What I have attempted to do here is two-fold:

  1. Look at the 2010 per-play performance of Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger
  2. Provide a means for understanding the career performance of Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger

I have used this approach because I believe it is the most revealing with respect to both players.  The 2010 season has been uniquely challenging for the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Packers have 15 players on injured reserve.  The Steelers have used a make-shift offensive line all season.

Down the stretch (final 8 games), the Pittsburgh Steelers averaged 28.5 points per game and 390 yards per game.  The Green Bay Packers, facing a more difficult schedule) averaged 26.5 points per game and 380 yards per game.  These teams played 6 games against common opponents (Pittsburgh played the Jets twice; Green Bay played Atlanta twice).  The Steelers were 4-2 (with 2 overtime wins); the Packers 3-3.   The Packers almost beat the Patriots with a back up quarterback.  The Steelers almost lost to the Bills.  The Packers lost to the Dolphins.  The Steelers stole one from the Dolphins in a game officiated by someone from Pittsburgh. Against common opponents, the Steelers were outscored by 3 points.  The Packers, meanwhile, won those games by an average score of 26-17.

What’s Missing?

Any approach to statistical investigation puts a premium on certain values over others.  I have explicitly attempt to place value on the things that I believe are most useful, namely, the average performance per play by Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.  What do we know, so far?  We know that this season, whenever Aaron Rodgers took a snap from center and chose to pass the ball, the Packers gained 8.3 yards.  When Ben Roethlisberger did the same, the Steelers gained 8.2 yards.  When Rodgers ran the ball, the Packers gained 5.6 yards.  When Roethlisberger ran, the Steelers gained 5.3 yards.  The Packers finished second in the NFC North, earned a Wild Card spot in the playoffs and currently have a 13-6 record.  The Steelers won the AFC North, earned a bye during the first week of the playoffs, and currently have a 14-4 record.

This analysis does not paint Aaron Rodgers as a statistically dominant machine.  It attaches little significance to his advantage in passer rating (101.2 to 97.0).  Rodgers ranked third; Roethlisberger ranked fifth.  There simply isn’t much difference here.  Nonetheless, this number indicates that Rodgers had the superior season as a passer.  (Note: Consider that Tom Brady achieved a rating of 110, while second-ranked Philip Rivers compiled a rating of 101.8.)

Rodgers held an advantage this season in completion percentage as well.  Rodgers rang the bell at a career high 65.7%.  Roethlisberger completed 61.7% of his passes.   This statistic is wholly captured by passer rating.

There is also the matter of touchdown rate.  Rodgers threw 28 (rate: 5.9%).  Roethlisberger threw 17 (rate 4.4%).  This is a significant statistic, but it is also subject to a wide array of contingent variables.  Consider that this season, Jacksonville’s David Garrard was second in touchdown rate (6.3%).  Matt Cassel was third, just a tick above Aaron Rodgers.  Tom Brady led the league at 7.3%.  You could win a lot of bets asking about who finished 2nd and 3rd in this category.  Garrard and Cassel are not considered as touchdown passers.  Drew Brees finished with a rate of 5.0%.  In each case, a compelling story can be told to explain these varying rates.  In the case of Rodgers, his lofty ranking was attributable to many of his qualities, but also to those of what is now widely regarded as the league’s best receiving corps.  Perhaps he throws more with Jermichael Finley in the mix.  Perhaps he throws less with Ryan Grant in the mix.  It’s hard to tell.  Either way, passing for 28 touchdowns, and at such a high rate is commendable.  It is a higher rate than any active passer has over the course of their career.  However, since that number was topped by 2 ball control passers this season, it may mean less than some other numbers.

Interception rate, also captured by passer rating, was an area of significant statistical divergence.  Rodgers’ mark of 2.3% was nearly double Roethlisberger’s rate of 1.3%.  Tom Brady led the league with a 0.8% rate.  His team finished 14-2.  Roethlisberger tied with Josh Freeman for 2nd.  Of course, the Buccaneers won 10 games this season and challenged for a playoff spot.  Last year, they also beat the Green Bay Packers.  Kyle Orton and Matt Schaub are the only QBs in the league with lower interception rates than Aaron Rodgers whose teams won fewer games than Green Bay — and Rodgers ranked 10th on the list.

Note: Touchdown rate and interception rate do not include plays in which the quarterback is sacked while attempting to pass the ball.  Nor is an “adjusted touchdown rate” or “adjusted interception rate” stat available.  Time did not permit independent calculations of these rates.  However, given the sack rates of both quarterbacks, an advantage would accrue to Rodgers across the board.

What do we make of these stats?

Career high touchdowns?  Roethlisberger 32; Rodgers 30

Career high yards per game? Roethlisberger 288.5; Rodgers 277.1

Career high touchdown rate? Roethlisberger 7.9; Rodgers 5.9

These “sound-byte” stats are quick and easy, but they don’t tell the true story.  I find it more useful to deal with rates and per play averages.  And, it bears repeating, for Roethlisberger to have career numbers like this, but to have become known as a grinder, as an “ugly” quarterback, as all these things that Aaron Rodgers is not says a great deal about just how well he has played.  These numbers illuminate just why the Steelers are seeking their third Super Bowl title in six years.

The Pick

Steelers fans such as myself are not going to prefer Rodgers to Roethlisberger in part because Rodgers is unproven.  (The other part of it is pure, unmitigated bias!)  As great as he is, the jury is still out.  Will he endure a number of years of post-season frustration (like John Elway and Steve Young) or will he crash through the barrier on Sunday?

I believe there are two things that distinguish Roethlisberger favorably over Aaron Rodgers: size and ball security.  Rodgers has been intercepted 11 times and has a pick rate that nearly doubled his amazing rate of 1.3% last year.  Moreover, it is the timing of those interceptions that is concerning.  Each one has come with the game within a single possession.  Conversely, Roethlisberger has thrown 5 interceptions all season long.  His rate is historically low (1.3% — the same as Rodgers in 2009).  The other dimension of ball security is fumbling.  Roethlisberger fumbles at a more frequent rate than Rodgers, but Rodgers’ fumbles have come at critical times.  He fumbled in the end zone vs. the Falcons this season and he fumbled to end the 2009 post-season for the Packers.

If the Super Bowl is as physical and fast as it is expected to be, I believe that Roethlisberger’s size will convey and advantage.  There is not much difference between Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.  Pocket presence, mobility, accuracy, deep passing, and other such indicators are not areas of significant divergence.  Both are hard to sack.  Both are accurate.  Both extend plays and threaten all areas of the field.

In the end, the only differences which matter may be the ones we can see.  Big Ben over Little Aaron — by a hair.

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