A Blast From the Past: What If?

via NBC Sports

Hombre began the November 23rd, 2011 edition of Five Burning Questions this way:

This week’s Five Burning Questions are inspired by the old Marvel Comics “What IF” series…While there is no limit to the “What If” questions one may pose, it occurs to me you can categorize them into three distinct varieties.

The first category of ‘What If’ questions are inspired by events of fate, like ‘What If Phil Luckett doesn’t screw up the overtime coin toss on Thanksgiving day 1998?

Second, you have the ‘What If’ questions that get asked so often that they’re robbed of their potency – such as ‘What If’ the Steelers had selected Dan Marino with the 21st pick in the 1983 NFL Draft?

Third come the ‘What If’s’ that are driven by decisions – conscious decisions made by the individuals that impact the franchise’s fortunes for generations such as, “What IF the Steelers decide not to trade for Jerome Bettis because they know they can get Mike Alslott in 1996.”

After declaring he was going to attempt to ignore the second variety of hypotheticals, he posed five questions, most of which were from the Steelers’ relatively distant past, such as “What If after the Steelers 1989 season, Chuck Noll had retained Tom Moore instead of hiring Joe Walton as offensive coordinator?”

Presumably because of my modern-era bias I chose question No. 5:

What If Philip Rivers had fallen to the Steelers instead of Ben Roethlisberger in 2004?

That’s a good question. What with the whole hot dog thing, there would be a certain logic to Rivers ending up at Heinz Field. Oh wait, that was Carson Palmer. Never mind.

To return to Rivers, I’m going to start with a pair of the comments, because I think they give us a lot to chew on:

Ironically, since I have hot dogs on my mind now, the first comment was from 57_Varieties:

Ben’s great, he’s a blast to watch. But if we’d gotten Rivers, we’d be fine, he’s a good player and he’d be with a better organization.

Kevin78 responded:


Rivers has tremendous physical tools, despite his odd throwing motion, but he has also had superior talent on offense. Yet despite having the best tight end in football for 4 years, good wide receivers, one of the most talented running backs of this generation, a good offensive line and a defense that was usually in the top half of the league, the Chargers as a whole have underachieved. Some of that has to be laid at the feet of Rivers.

The Steelers would be in good shape with Rivers, but I doubt that the Steelers would have two Super Bowls, particularly since Rivers would not have lasted behind those 2008-2010 lines.

This, in a nutshell, is the perennial debate. Several months ago I compared the “Class of 2004” in my Chargers opponent preview:

Drafted from the same rich quarterback lode as Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Rivers, while sometimes being touted as the “class” of the class, is the only one without any hardware. In fact, despite Rivers’ obvious capabilities as a quarterback, he has definitely underachieved in the “legacy” category, at least. Let’s take a quick look at the careers of the three men drafted early in 2004. For a while it looked as if Matt Schaub deserved to be in this competition, but he’s fallen out of the running.

  • Eli Manning (No. 1 overall, to the San Diego Chargers)
  • Philip Rivers (No. 4 overall, to the New York Giants, traded with Chargers)
  • Ben Roethlisberger (No. 11 overall, to the Pittsburgh Steelers)QB Comparison, 2004-2015

Rivers spent two years on the bench after he was drafted watching Drew Brees, so he missed a couple of potential years to accumulate wins, go to the playoffs, and so on. I find it interesting that Pro Football Reference considers his value to be higher (and that is with two less years to accumulate it) than either Manning or Roethlisberger, despite no Super Bowl appearances. But they have their methods, I suppose. Ultimately any rating system is going to be flawed to some extent.

I was curious to see how Rivers and Roethlisberger compared for 2015. Here are the figures—I added ESPN’s QBR and removed the Super Bowl stuff, since it is not applicable:

  • Total Games: Rivers: 16      Roethlisberger: 12
  • Completion %:  Rivers: 66.1      Roethlisberger: 68.0
  • Interception %:  Rivers:  44.8    Roethlisberger: 76.0
  • NFL Passer Rating:  Rivers:  93.8    Roethlisberger:  94.5
  • ESPN QBR:  Rivers:  59.4     Roethlisberger: 76.9
  • Playoff Games:  Rivers: 0  Roethlisberger: 2
  • Pro Football Reference AV for 2015:  Rivers: 12     Roethlisberger: 12

In most categories, it doesn’t seem like there is much to choose between them. Rivers was definitely more durable (and has been through both of their careers.) He threw a lot less picks than Ben. But in the all-encompassing category of wins, Rivers had 4 this season, for a win/loss percentage of .250. In games that Ben played all or most of, the Steelers had 8 wins and 4 losses (.066)  in the regular season and split the post-season at 1-1.

Finally, just to throw one more thing into the mix, according to Pro Football Focus’s rating system Ben Roethlisberger was the best quarterback in the league during the 2015 regular season. (They don’t, as far as I can tell, grade out the post-season, at least not for the consumer part of the site.) Ben graded out at 92.7. The closest rival was Carson Palmer, at 90.9, and Tom Brady at 90.1. No one else in the league graded above 90. Philip Rivers graded out at 77.0, just below Teddy Bridgewater and tied with Jay Cutler (for No. 14).

The Pro Football Focus system attempts to assign praise or blame for every play in every game. So theoretically they are not penalizing Rivers for having lesser receivers, a worse offensive line, or whatever. It seems to me that it would actually be almost impossible to completely separate out the performance of the quarterback, independent of his offensive line and receivers, but it presumably also provides a somewhat more accurate metric than the NFL Passer Rating, which doesn’t take any of those things into consideration.

At any rate, I think we’ve answered the question. Rivers may last a few more years (although he’s behind a couple anyhow,) but it’s pretty difficult to say, from this vantage point, that the Steelers didn’t get the far better deal.

Now to return to what folks were saying in 2011:

Fifty-Eight had an interesting take:

Rivers is not a leader on the field.

I’d love to know why he said that. Lack of leadership was a knock on Ben for a long time, but in recent years there’s no question who runs the offense. He’s become a leader in less tangible but possibly even more important ways, as well. In other words, he’s grown into the leadership role, especially once he got over his douchebag phase. It would be interesting to see if Rivers would now be perceived as more of a leader. I do happen to know the writer of the comment lived in California, and so was presumably somewhat more in touch with what went on in the California teams than most Steelers fans.

PixburghArn said:

If we had Rivers, Rivers would be dead by now. Ben does what he does no matter how good the line is. Rivers needs time. Both Rivers and Ben made bad decisions at times, but Ben has “IT”. The ability to win a game he isn’t supposed to. Ben is able to make plays in a game that he has made no plays up until said point of the game.

Some variation of the “Rivers would have not lasted behind our lines” kept recurring, but as I’ve noted there is little reason to think Rivers isn’t as tough in his own way as Ben. He’s actually missed a lot less games due to injury, and it’s hard to imagine those San Diego lines were always great. Some of them were made of spit and baling wire, at least in the past few years.

Don’t believe me? During the years he’s been with the Steelers, Ben has only had three seasons in which he has started every game (whether he finished it or not): 2008, 2013, and 2014. In 2010 he missed four games for non-injury reasons, as we all still recall, so I suppose that counts as starting the whole season, since the post-season was pretty long. In the other seasons he has missed an accumulated 16 games—a whole season’s worth. Philip Rivers has never missed a game since becoming the starter in 2006.

So I find this constant obsession with Rivers’ supposed inability to survive the perils of a Steelers offensive line (at least up until the past year or two) to be odd. Some players just get the ball out of their hands or throw it away when the pocket breaks down. Just sayin’, Ben. Of course, the flip side of that coin is, sometimes Ben makes magic happen when the play breaks down. Which could account for some of the win-loss disparity.

BoiseSteeler had an insightful observation, although whether it’s entirely correct or not is debatable:

Good teams build around their quarterback, or find a quarterback that fits in on their build, then build around them to help the team win. Which is what we did. Selecting Jerry Rice, Rivers, etc… is irrelevant. The entire team would be different. Just thankful that we have the team we have, the memories we have, and the 6 Lombardi’s we are proud to display.

Anthony Defeo noted:

They were talking about Rivers for weeks as a possible pick for the Steelers. They would have picked him, no doubt. And we wouldn’t have six rings to brag about.

The rest of the comments were some variation of the ones above. So, assuming you can remember with any accuracy how you felt in 2011, would you say your opinion as to whether the Steelers have been better off with Ben than with Philip Rivers is the same or different, and if so, how?


  • The Steelers may have passed on Rivers also.
    Cowher wanted Sawn Andrews, if the rumors are true, and maybe they had him rated higher than Rivers.
    I’m just glad we will never know.


  • Honestly, I feel that if Big Ben was in San Diego and Rivers was in Pittsburgh, the Chargers would have a couple of rings and Pittsburgh fans would be lamenting being tied with the Patriots.

    Big Ben with LT, Gates, and co.? And feasting on what was usually an average AFC West…


  • If Eli stayed in SD, and if the Giants took Ben, the Browns would have drafted Rivers (they liked him better than Ben because he went to a bigger school). Then, maybe the Steelers get A-Rod in 2005.


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