AFC North: Jim Plunkett
February, 2, 2011
By James Walker | ESPN.com
ESPN.com IllustrationBen Roethlisberger can bolster his HOF credentials with a third Super Bowl victory.ARLINGTON, Texas -- When it comes to the Hall of Fame, three or more championships is the magic number for NFL quarterbacks.
It paved the road to Canton for Dallas Cowboys great Troy Aikman, whose three Super Bowl wins in the 1990s marked one of the NFL's most recent dynasties.
Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw became legends with four titles. In today's group, quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is a lock for the Hall of Fame after winning three championships.
Could three rings do the same for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger?
Just seven seasons in, it's officially time to open the Hall of Fame discussion for Pittsburgh's franchise quarterback. At 28, Roethlisberger has a chance to go 3-0 in Super Bowls on Sunday when the Steelers play the Green Bay Packers at Cowboys Stadium.
With the exception of Brady, who is still playing, every starting quarterback who's won at least three Super Bowls has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Although not as conventional a player as Brady, Roethlisberger has a chance to put his name in that elite category Sunday.
ESPN.com's AFC North blog surveyed Hall of Fame voters during Super Bowl week to get a feel for Roethlisberger's candidacy and where it would stand if he leads Pittsburgh to a third championship.
"If you ask me if Roethlisberger deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, I would say without a doubt," said veteran NFL writer John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. "To me, Ben doesn't have to win a third ring. But if Ben wins [Sunday], that's all that matters for a quarterback. I can't imagine there would be any hesitation."
Opinions varied from those who will eventually make the final decision.
"There's too much of a rush to judgment, not only with the Hall of Fame but with the whole world where everything that's the latest becomes the greatest," explained longtime Hall of Fame voter Ira Miller. "But the first question I always ask is, 'Can you write the history of the game without this player?' Then the second thing is, let's put him in perspective among the quarterbacks of his era.
"Is Ben the best quarterback of his era? No. Is he the second best? No. Is he the third? Maybe. He's had a nice career so far. Maybe he will win two more Super Bowls, but we don't know that."
There's no question Roethlisberger will present an interesting case for the Hall of Fame committee when he becomes eligible five years after he retires. He's a quarterback who's put up less-than-gaudy numbers in the high-flying age of fantasy football.
Roethlisberger has never led the NFL in passing yards or touchdowns. He admits he probably will never win an MVP award. But Roethlisberger also has never had a losing season and has been to four AFC title games and three Super Bowls.
Roethlisberger's playoff record is 10-2, which is a higher winning percentage than both Brady (14-5) and Peyton Manning (9-10), who are considered Hall of Fame locks from today's group of quarterbacks.
In fact, the trio's dominance has been astounding. In the past eight Super Bowls, the AFC has been represented by either Brady, Manning or Roethlisberger. No one else has had a chance to even compete in the big game. In contrast, the NFC has been represented by eight teams and eight different quarterbacks over the same span (Brad Johnson, Jake Delhomme, Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, Rex Grossman, Eli Manning, Kurt Warner and Drew Brees).
"It drives [Steelers] Coach [Mike] Tomlin crazy, because he wants me to put myself in that category," Roethlisberger said of joining Brady and Peyton Manning. "But, I don't know, I guess I like being the hunter, not the hunted."
The biggest case against Roethlisberger's Hall of Fame candidacy appears to be longevity. Seven seasons present an unfinished résumé.
"When I'm looking at Hall of Fame guys, I'm looking at whether he's one of the best at his position over an extended period of time and does he have longevity," said former receiver James Lofton, who played 16 seasons and was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2003. "It's obviously a great start, but Ben has a lot of football left to play. I think he could play a minimum of 12 years."
Although there are exceptions -- such as Gale Sayers, Dwight Stephenson and Doak Walker -- most enshrinees have had long careers that spanned at least a decade. But Roethlisberger is winning big right away, which has prompted this early discussion.
"If Roethlisberger gets his third ring, he's on pace, just like in the case of Troy Aikman," Hall of Fame voter and ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton said. "He's obviously a difference-maker. At the same time, he's not there yet. He's still 28 and longevity is very important."
Roethlisberger's recent off-the-field issues bring up another interesting debate. He has been accused of sexual assault twice in the past two years, and although never convicted of a crime, Roethlisberger was suspended four games this season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
Several voters brought up the case of former Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who has repeatedly run into legal issues but was a first-ballot Hall of Famer as one of the greatest linebackers of all time.
"Remember, our bylaws say only what happens on the field counts," McClain said.
But voters on the committee are human, after all, and it may weigh in the back of some people's minds.
"The Roethlisberger situation is a bit tricky," said Hall of Fame voter Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Yes, he could have three rings, but he wasn't great in Super Bowl XL. (Roethlisberger was 9-for-21 for 123 yards and threw two picks.) And even though the off-field stuff is not supposed to enter into the conversation, it definitely is going to be the white elephant in the room."
Roethlisberger chose to wear jersey No. 7 because one of his favorite players growing up was Denver Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. It's fitting because Elway, in many ways, was Roethlisberger before Roethlisberger.
Elway never had the prettiest or most conventional style of quarterbacking. In terms of numbers, his career passer rating was a modest 79.9. But Elway was one of the most clutch players ever and managed to win two Super Bowls and five AFC title games.
Although his book is unfinished, Roethlisberger is building a similar case for the Hall of Fame and can add another storied chapter Sunday against Green Bay.
"I think Ben Roethlisberger is well on his way to having a Hall of Fame career. If he plays a leading role in winning this Super Bowl, he's that much closer," said Hall of Fame voter and ESPN.com NFC West blogger Mike Sando. "But I think the legacy is still pending and there's a reason we wait. There's a reason we don’t vote players in right after they retire, let alone while they're still playing. I think this will be best judged when he's finished playing and we've had five years to figure it out.
"So far, though, so good."