Let the debate begin: Eli or Big Ben

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
11:00
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Manning/RoethlisbergerAP Photo/US PresswireSunday will be the third meeting between Eli Manning, left, and Ben Roethlisberger; each is 1-1.
When the Steelers play the Giants on Sunday, there will be something swirling at New York's MetLife Stadium that has nothing to do with a superstorm. It's the long-running debate over whether Ben Roethlisberger or Eli Manning is the best quarterback from the 2004 draft.

Roethlisberger and Manning are known for winning Super Bowls (they've combined to win four of the eight played since they entered the league). They're known for making big plays in big moments. They're known for being tough, albeit in different ways. And they have been forever linked since the day they were drafted in the first round eight years ago. Manning was selected first overall, and Roethlisberger was taken at No. 11. The margin between them is much, much closer now.

Choosing between Roethlisberger and Manning is difficult because there really isn't a right answer or a wrong one. It ultimately comes down to preference and perspective. In his preseason quarterback rankings, John Clayton put Roethlisberger at No. 4 and Manning at No. 5. In Ron Jaworski's rankings, Manning is No. 5 and Roethlisberger is No. 6.

"By any measure, in terms of how you would grade them -- wins, production, leading your team from behind, frightening the other team, forcing the other team to adjust to what they do -- they're virtually identical," said Bill Polian, an NFL analyst for ESPN Insider who spent 24 seasons as a general manager in the league.

If I had to choose one, the nod goes to Roethlisberger by the slimmest of margins. It's based on his reputation of being a winner. Every defense in the league would acknowledge that it's as hard to beat Roethlisberger as it is to bring him down for a sack. In his eight seasons, he's led the Steelers to the playoffs six times and guided them to the Super Bowl three times (winning twice).

Media and fans aren't the only ones keeping track of these quarterbacks. Roethlisberger acknowledged that watching Manning win last season's Super Bowl has inspired him to win more.

"Now that Eli has tied me with his second, I have to try to get back up on him," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in February. "So I have a little extra motivation."

Here's the tale of the quarterback tape:

Efficiency. Roethlisberger is more accurate and takes care of the ball better than Manning. Counting this season, Roethlisberger has completed more than 60 percent of his passes in seven seasons and has posted a passer rating over 90 in seven seasons. Manning has connected on more than 60 percent of his throws in five seasons (never higher than 62.9 percent) and has recorded a passer rating over 90 in just two years. Roethlisberger has been the more consistent and effective quarterback. Edge: Roethlisberger.

Production. Manning puts up more passing yards and points than Roethlisberger. In each of the previous three seasons, Manning has passed for more than 4,000 yards and has thrown at least 27 touchdowns. He recently had a streak of 24 consecutive games with 200 or more passing yards broken (it was the second-longest in NFL history). Roethlisberger has two 4,000-yard seasons in his previous three, but he hasn't thrown more than 26 touchdowns during that span. Edge: Manning.

Clutch play. It's hard to be better than Manning in this category when it comes to the Super Bowl. He led two last-minute touchdown drives to win a couple of Lombardi trophies and Super Bowl MVP awards. Manning set the league record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes last season, and he's helped the Giants to 10 fourth-quarter comebacks over the past two seasons. Roethlisberger's resume is equally as impressive and also includes a last-minute winning touchdown throw in the Super Bowl. His 19 comeback victories and 25 game-winning drives were the most through a quarterback's first seven seasons, and he was the only quarterback to produce 20 fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories before he turned 30. Edge: Even.

Victories. This is where Roethlisberger separates himself from Manning. He has an 84-36 record (.700) in the regular season, which dwarfs Manning's 75-52 record (.590). Roethlisberger became the fourth quarterback of the Super Bowl era to reach 80 wins in 113 or fewer starts, and he led the Steelers to four AFC Championship Game appearances in his first seven seasons. Manning, though, is right there with Roethlisberger in the postseason with an 8-3 mark. Roethlisberger is 10-4 in the playoffs. Edge: Roethlisberger.

This quarterback debate is unlike any other, because the 2004 draft is the only one to produce two quarterbacks who've won multiple Super Bowls. Roethlisberger and Manning are among the three active quarterbacks who have won two or more titles (Tom Brady is the other one).

"You can't predict Super Bowls. What you can predict is whether they're going to be winning quarterbacks in the National Football League who can take your team into the playoffs and advance," said Polian, who personally scouted both quarterbacks in the 2004 draft. "In the NFL, you want a quarterback who can win for you those three or four games a year when nothing else goes right and can win games that look they're lost. Are they those types of quarterbacks? Absolutely. You could see that in college."

How close are Roethlisberger and Manning as quarterbacks? They've even split their two meetings against each other. Roethlisberger won at New York in their 2004 rookie year. Manning won at Heinz Field in 2008. The winner Sunday gets bragging rights over his 2004 classmate. But, as Polian pointed out, this debate doesn't carry much weight on the field.

"They're both going into the Hall of Fame. They're both probably going to be first-ballot Hall of Famers," Polian said. "It doesn't matter who is first or second. It only matters if you have one or don't have one. Of their generation and class, these guys are the two best."

Also: Check out ESPN Stats & Information's analysis of Manning and Roethlisberger.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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