Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Big Ben

It's been 10 years since the 2004 NFL Draft produced Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger, all within the first 11 picks. A decade into their careers, all have become productive players, but how do they rate relative to one another?

Career Statistics

Let's begin with a look at some numbers. The stats below include sacks and rushing. The "TO" column indicates turnovers: interceptions, lost fumbles, and safeties. "NY/A" shows net yards per attempt: passing yards minus sack yardage, divided by pass attempts and sacks.

Chart

Manning leads in games played, pass attempts, completions, yardage, and lowest sack percentage. Roethlisberger leads in first downs, total touchdowns, yards per completion, fewest fumbles, and all the rushing stats (attempts, yards, average, TDs). Rivers leads in yards per game, yards per attempt, completion percentage, first down percentage, touchdown percentage, lowest INT percentage, passer rating, and touchdown/interception differential.

This is just the beginning of our analysis, but it puts Eli Manning in a pretty substantial hole. Rivers is clearly the most efficient, with Big Ben an easy second and Manning far behind. He commits a lot of turnovers and throws many more incomplete passes than Rivers and Roethlisberger.

Individual Seasons

What do we find with a season-by-season breakdown: which of the three quarterbacks had the best season each year?

2004: Roethlisberger
2005: Roethlisberger
2006: Rivers
2007: Roethlisberger
2008: Rivers
2009: Rivers
2010: Rivers
2011: Manning
2012: Roethlisberger
2013: Rivers

2004: Ben Roethlisberger

Roethlisberger won Offensive Rookie of the Year. He broke the rookie record for passer rating (98.1) and went 13-0 as a starter in the regular season, leading Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.

Manning went 1-6 as starter, with a 55.4 passer rating, and Rivers, backing up Drew Brees, didn't play (8 pass attempts).

Best: Roethlisberger
2nd: Tie. Manning was awful, but Rivers didn't play enough to rank ahead of him.

2005: Ben Roethlisberger

Rivers didn't play (22 att), and Manning was just okay (75.9 rating). The Steelers used a conservative offense that didn't ask Roethlisberger to do too much, but he played very efficiently (17 TD, 9 INT, 98.6 rating) and Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL.

Best: Roethlisberger
2nd: Manning
Last: Rivers

2006: Philip Rivers

This was the year Big Ben had his motorcycle accident. He tossed a league-high 23 interceptions and took twice as many sacks (46) as the previous season. His 75.4 passer rating is still the lowest of his career. Manning's 2006 looked a lot like his '05. For the second straight season, the Giants made the playoffs but lost in the first round.

With Drew Brees in New Orleans, '06 marked Rivers' first year as a starter. He passed for 3,388 yards, with 22 TD and 9 INT, good for a 92.0 rating, and he took only 144 sack yards. The Chargers went 14-2, the best record in the NFL.

Best: Rivers
2nd: Tie. Manning and Roethlisberger both had great teammates around them, and neither one really capitalized. Manning had better TD/INT numbers, but Ben had more yards on fewer attempts. Among the weaker seasons for both players.

2007: Ben Roethlisberger

All three teams made the playoffs. The Giants won Super Bowl XLII, and Eli Manning played very well in the postseason, but he had a blah regular season (3,188 net yds, 24 TD, 27 turnovers, 73.9 rating), while Roethlisberger had a great one (3,011 net yds, 34 TD, 14 turnovers, 104.1 rating). Rivers was solid but unexceptional.

Best: Roethlisberger
2nd: Manning
Last: Rivers

2008: Philip Rivers

Now, Roethlisberger is on the other side of the Super Bowl issue: the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, but Philip Rivers had a much better season than Big Ben. Statistically, this was probably Ben's worst season. He threw almost as many picks (15) as TDs (17), took way too many sacks (46 for 284 yards), and fumbled 14 times (losing 7). And unlike Eli the year before, he didn't have a great postseason. Eleven QBs have won multiple Super Bowls, and of those 11, Bob Griese and Roethlisberger are the only ones never named Super Bowl MVP.

The Giants had an impressive regular season (12-4), and it was probably Eli's best up to that point. He set a career high for passer rating (86.4), and it is still the only season of his career in which he threw twice as many TDs (21) as INTs (10). But Rivers came into his own this year. With LaDainian Tomlinson beginning to fade, Rivers passed for 4,009 yards, with 34 TDs, 11 INTs, and a 105.5 passer rating that led the league and is still his career best. In December, with San Diego on the fringe of the playoff picture, Rivers threw 11 TDs and just 1 interception, recording a 120.3 passer rating and leading the team to four straight wins and a division title, then a fifth consecutive win in the first round of the playoffs. I believe he was the most valuable player in the NFL that season.

Best: Rivers
2nd: Manning
Last: Roethlisberger

2009: Philip Rivers

Rivers had another MVP-caliber season. This was probably the best overall season for the '04 QB class; they all had good years, although only Rivers made the playoffs. All three passed for over 4,000 yards, and 26-28 TDs. The differences were efficiency and negative plays. Big Ben took almost as many sacks (50 for 348 yards) as Eli and Rivers combined (55, 383 yds), while Manning committed nearly as many turnovers (22) as Rivers (12) and Roethlisberger (15) combined.

Best: Rivers
2nd: Roethlisberger
Last: Manning

2010: Philip Rivers

Rivers led the NFL in passing yards, with the second-highest passer rating in the league (101.8). Roethlisberger played great in 2010 (97.0 rating), but he missed the first four games due to suspension. Rivers led the three QBs in every major statistical category, except that Manning threw 31 TDs and Rivers 30. However, Manning also threw the most interceptions in the NFL, 25.

Best: Rivers
2nd: Roethlisberger
Last: Manning

2011: Eli Manning

Clearly the best season of Eli Manning's career. He passed for by far the most yards, and yards per attempt, of his career, and he tied a career high for TD/INT differential. The Giants won the Super Bowl, and Manning was awarded his second Super Bowl MVP.

Rivers and Roethlisberger were okay, but both underperformed their expectations. Rivers set a career high for pass attempts, but played nowhere near his standard of the previous three seasons. Hampered by late-season injuries, Roethlisberger missed a game and played poorly down the stretch, including an awful performance in Pittsburgh's upset playoff loss to the Tim Tebow-led Broncos.

Best: Manning
2nd: Rivers
Last: Roethlisberger

2012: Ben Roethlisberger

Manning and Rivers both threw 26 TDs, and both tossed 15 interceptions. Eli threw for more yards and took fewer sacks, while Rivers made some really horrible throws. Roethlisberger missed a few games, but he passed for as many TDs (26) and fewer picks (8) than Manning and Rivers, with a 97.0 passer rating and the lowest sack rate of his career (6.3%). This is the only season since the '04 draft in which the Giants, Chargers, and Steelers all missed the playoffs.

Best: Roethlisberger
2nd: Manning
Last: Rivers

2013: Philip Rivers

Comeback Player of the Year season for Rivers, who tied his career-high passer rating (105.5) and threw nearly three times as many TDs as INTs (32-11). Big Ben attempted by far the most passes of his career (584), topping a previous high of 513. He played well, especially in the middle of the season. Eli Manning had a disastrous year, the worst full season of his career.

Best: Rivers
2nd: Roethlisberger
Last: Manning

These are subjective evaluations, but most of them are obvious, not close calls at all. Even if there are a couple you disagree with, the tally below gives a pretty fair assessment of their season-by-season contributions:

Best: Rivers 5, Ben 4, Manning 1
2nd: Manning 6, Ben 4, Rivers 2
Last: Manning 3, Rivers 3, Ben 2

There are more Seconds than Lasts because of two ties. If we award 3 points for Best, 2 points for Second, and 1 point for Last, this gives Rivers 22, Roethlisberger 22, and Manning 18. But of course, not all "Best" seasons are created equal, and this is a pretty limited way to evaluate careers.

None of the QBs from the Draft Class of '04 has been selected All-Pro, and only Rivers has received votes (in 2008 and '09). Rivers has made 5 Pro Bowls, compared to 3 for Eli Manning and 2 for Ben Roethlisberger.

Skills and the Eye Test

All three first-round QBs have done some very good things; they've all been useful players. Let's get away from the numbers and just evaluate some of the things they do well (and not so well).

Eli Manning

Very few quarterbacks in history have the same pedigree as Eli Manning. He's 6'4", his father was a Pro Bowl quarterback, and his brother was named MVP the year he was drafted. Eli Manning has some of the same strengths as Peyton Manning. Most obviously, he takes few sacks. He's got a quick release, he's good at reading the blitz, and he's shown the same kind of small-space footwork that helps Tom Brady and Peyton avoid hits in the pocket. He has a lower sack percentage than Ben Roethlisberger for every year of their careers. Eli is a gunslinger — a high-risk, high-reward passer, like Brett Favre — and he completes more long passes than most QBs. He played very well in the 2007-08 and 2011-12 postseasons.

The other side of the gunslinger coin: Eli has always had accuracy problems. His completion percentage is very low for this era, and his interception percentage is very high. Manning has thrown 5,008 passes in the regular season. Since his rookie season of '04, 18 QBs have thrown at least half that many passes. Eli ranks 18th out of 18 in completion percentage and 16th of 18 in interception percentage, ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick and basically tied with Jay Cutler and Favre; they all round to 3.4%. Eli has led or tied for the league lead in INTs three times in his nine full seasons. He also fumbles a lot for someone who takes so few hits.

The younger Manning is very streaky, which can be good or bad.

Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers has some of ugliest mechanics in the game. You would never deliberately teach someone to throw like Rivers. His release takes forever, and it doesn't even look like it should work. But he's big and strong (6-5, 228), and he took over for Drew Brees without a noticeable drop in the team's production. Rivers, like Eli and Big Ben, takes shots downfield. All three go long more often than most of their contemporaries. Rivers' most positive attribute is probably his ability to complete passes to guys who are covered. He's among the best in the league at the back-shoulder throw, he finds that small area where the receiver can catch the ball but his defender can't, and he has a special chemistry with Antonio Gates on the fade in the end zone. Rivers has always found his running backs for productive check-downs.

Because Rivers does throw to covered receivers, when he's a little bit off, it can result in disaster. His decision-making occasionally leaves a lot to be desired, and he doesn't always shake off bad plays. When he has a bad game, it's not one thing, it's everything. The previous two seasons, 2011-12, there wasn't one thing he was terrible at; he just generally didn't play real well.

Ben Roethlisberger

Big Ben, we call him, and not just because of the clock in London or because "Roethlisberger" is hard to spell. At 6-5 and 241 lbs, Roethlisberger is perhaps the hardest QB in the league to tackle. If the NFL tracked broken tackles and sack escapes, Big Ben would probably lap the field. No other quarterback absorbs so much contact without going down. Ben extends plays and completes passes downfield. The defense has had to cover for too long, or abandoned their assignments to go after the quarterback, or simply assumed that he'd been sacked. Even when he does get sacked, Ben seldom fumbles. He's got a strong arm, and other than 2006, he's never been interception-prone. He's a more productive runner than Manning or Rivers, and his pump fakes are terrific.

Roethlisberger's strength is also his greatest weakness. With faith in his ability to break tackles and turn them into big plays, Ben doesn't get rid of the ball quickly and he absorbs a huge amount of damage. He takes the most sacks in the NFL. Over the last decade, only one quarterback has been sacked more than 252 times in the regular season: Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 386 times. Unsurprisingly, he's also injured frequently. Only twice in his 10-year career has Ben played 16 games (compared to eight for Rivers and nine for Manning). Roethlisberger has often played when he was less than 100% and should have rested. We can admire his dedication, but he's really hurt the team by playing when he's not healthy.

Supporting Cast: Teammates and Coaches

Football is a team sport, and no one succeeds without a lot of help. Good linemen and receivers can make a mediocre quarterback look like a star. An innovative coach can help him stand out, while poor coaching can hold him back. A strong running game sets up play action and keeps blitzers honest. A great defense keeps the offense in good field position and lets the quarterback feel comfortable, rather than getting desperate and trying to force big plays. Among the 2004 QB class, who's had the most to work with?

Receivers

None of the '04 QBs have played with a receiving duo like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, or Randy Moss and Wes Welker. But they've all gotten to work with some talented receivers. Eli Manning has played with Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and Jeremy Shockey. Philip Rivers has thrown to Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates. Ben Roethlisberger used to play with Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace, and now he has Antonio Brown and Heath Miller.

There's not a huge gap here, but you'd probably say that Big Ben has gotten the most help from his receiving corps.

Offensive Line

Until the last season or two, the New York Giants' offensive line was among the steadiest, and best, in the league. Anchored inside by center Shaun O'Hara and guard Chris Snee, with largely the same group of starters, the offensive line created opportunities for both Eli and his running backs. More quietly, the Chargers also featured strong offensive line play for most of Rivers' career. With veteran center Nick Hardwick, Pro Bowl tackle Marcus McNeill, and guard Kris Dielman, a standout whose career was ended by head injuries, San Diego set up its stat players for success.

The Steelers had Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca early in Roethlisberger's career, but in recent seasons, offensive line has been a consistent weakness for Pittsburgh. Overall, he's probably at a slight deficit, though not enough to even out his advantage in the receiving corps.

Running Backs

Eli, in his first three seasons, got tremendous help from Tiki Barber. Tiki rushed for over 1,500 yards each season, averaging 1,680 rushing yards and 524 receiving yards. Since then, the Giants have used a shifting cast led by Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. In 2008, Earth, Wind and Fire (Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Bradshaw) helped the 12-4 Giants lead the NFL in rushing.

Rivers began his career with LaDainian Tomlinson, including two of LT's best years. Ryan Mathews has had a couple of nice seasons. The Steeler RBs were the most productive in the NFL during Big Ben's rookie year, and he benefitted enormously from a ground game that took pressure of him and kept opponents focused on the run. Pittsburgh, during the Roethlisberger era, has gone from Jerome Bettis to Willie Parker to Rashard Mendenhall to Le'Veon Bell. All had one or two productive seasons, but there's no Tomlinson or Barber on that list. If you wanted to argue that Roethlisberger has benefitted least from his RBs, I might agree with you.

Defense

A good defense can take pressure off the quarterback, and set up field position that leads to TDs and wins. Over the last 10 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have probably been the most consistently dominating defense in the league. They've led the NFL in scoring defense three times (2004, 2008, 2010), and the '08 Steelers allowed the fewest yards per game in the history of the 16-game schedule. The Giants and Chargers have both had their moments, but this is a clear advantage for Ben Roethlisberger. The Giants' defense would probably rate a little ahead of San Diego's, but not by a lot.

Coaching

The '04 QBs began their careers with Tom Coughlin, Marty Schottenheimer, and Bill Cowher, all borderline Hall of Famers. The Steelers replaced Cowher with Mike Tomlin, and the Chargers moved on with Norv Turner and now Mike McCoy. Kevin Gilbride has a good reputation, Turner is among the most highly-regarded offensive coaches in history, and Big Ben has worked with three successful coordinators, all of whom have head coaching experience. It's not obvious to me that any of the three quarterbacks gained an advantage in this area.

Overall

Most of these categories come out remarkably even, with few clear advantages or disadvantages for any of the three players we're examining. If you had to choose someone who's gotten the most help from his team, though, the answer is Ben Roethlisberger. Backed by a good coach, good line, league-leading run game, likely Hall of Fame receiver, and the best defense in the NFL, Roethlisberger achieved immediate success in the NFL without having to create many big plays. Manning and Rivers have seen some of the same benefits, but not as dramatically as Big Ben, and not for as many years.

Winning and Clutch Play

The Steelers have an exceptional record in games started by Ben Roethlisberger. He's 95-47 (.669) as a starter, about 10.5 wins per 16 games. Pittsburgh has qualified for the playoffs in six of his 10 seasons with the team, posting a 10-4 record and winning two Super Bowls. Big Ben's Steelers have won their first playoff game four out of six times.

Eli Manning is 85-66 (.563) as starter, an average of 9-7 in a 16-game schedule. The Giants have reached the playoffs in five of his 10 seasons, posting an 8-3 record and winning two Super Bowls. They've won their first playoff game two out of five times.

The Chargers are 79-49 (.617) in regular-season games started by Philip Rivers, roughly 10-6 over a full season. They have reached the playoffs in five of his eight seasons as starter, six of 10 if you count the years he backed up Drew Brees (though I don't know why you would). San Diego is 4-5 in the postseason with Rivers, and has won its first playoff game three out of five times.

If you give the quarterback sole credit for his team's wins and losses, this method would show Roethlisberger as the clear leader, with Manning and Rivers roughly even behind him. The Giants have two championships, but the Chargers have a better regular-season record, a higher rate of playoff appearances, and more seasons in which they won a playoff game. It more or less evens out, I think. Despite Manning's clutch reputation, his Giants have lost their first playoff game more often than they've won.

Of course, we know that teams, not players, win games. How have these three QBs personally performed in their teams' postseason wins and losses?

Chart

Eli has by far the best turnover numbers, but he's also been the least efficient at generating yardage. Keep in mind the different number of postseason games for each player: 14 for Roethlisberger, 11 for Manning, and 9 for Rivers. Per game, Rivers averages the most yardage (241 passing, 228 net). Eli is next in passing yards (229/gm), but Big Ben's rushing yardage moves him up to 2nd in net yards per game (223). Overall, I think these stats are pretty close. If you had to pick a winner, it's probably Eli.

In Manning's favor is that his best postseason performances have come in the Super Bowl. His 96.2 passer rating is higher than in any other round, and he's won two Super Bowl MVP Awards. His passer rating was over 100 in Super Bowl XLVI (296 yds, TD, 0 INT), and his sack-escape-and-desperation-pass to David Tyree four years prior is among the most celebrated and dramatic plays in Super Bowl history. I don't believe that Eli Manning has a special clutch "ability" other players lack, but he brought his A-game in the two most important games of his career, and that's not something we should ignore.

Ben Roethlisberger is almost the opposite. He's had some nice playoff performances, especially in the wild card and divisional rounds, but he did not play well in his three Super Bowl appearances. In those games, he threw 3 TDs and 5 INTs, including a pick-six, with an overall passer rating of 69.9. Roethlisberger's efficiency has dropped as he goes deeper into the playoffs. In the wild card round, Ben's passer rating is 93.4. That falls to 87.8 in the second round, 81.8 in AFC Championship Games, and that miserable 69.9 in the Super Bowl.

Ben's had some great playoff games, and he's had good playoff games when the Steelers didn't need him to be great. He got the job done. But Pittsburgh's titles were fueled by defense, not the quarterback. The Steeler mini-dynasty (2004-10) went 77-35 in the regular season, appeared in three Super Bowls, and won two championships. Those were dominant defensive teams, and Ben hasn't led Pittsburgh to any playoff wins without that great defense backing him up.

Philip Rivers, among these three QBs, has the thinnest postseason résumé. He's never played in a Super Bowl, and only once in a conference championship game. But he's had a passer rating over 100 in four of his nine postseason games, compared to 5/11 for Manning and 3/14 for Roethlisberger. The Chargers are 3-0 in wild card games with Rivers, and his stats in the divisional round are the best of any of these three QBs in any round of the playoffs. His two worst playoff games were probably the years in which San Diego had its best shots at the Super Bowl: the 2006 and 2007 seasons, both against New England. In '06, the Chargers went 14-2, and in '07 they advanced to the AFC Championship Game. In those two matchups, Rivers went a combined 33-of-69, for 441 yards, with no TDs, 3 picks and a lost fumble, and a 50.5 passer rating.

It's absurd to credit or blame an individual player for team results in the postseason, and it's even crazier to judge whole careers by a dozen games in January. But playoff results don't show up in the stats cited earlier, and these are the most important games. They shouldn't count for everything, but they certainly count for something. The takeaway here is probably a small bump for Eli Manning. He's overrated as a postseason player — we ignore all those first-round losses — but his Super Bowl performances push him ahead of Rivers and Roethlisberger.

What If...?

If the same teams had drafted different players in '04, how many championships would each team have won? There's no way to know, of course, but it's fun to think about. Most intriguing re-arrangement: Manning to the Steelers, Ben to San Diego, Rivers to the Giants. How many Super Bowls has each team won?

Conclusion

Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger have all had successful careers so far. They've all made multiple Pro Bowls, and all will be nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, though it's unlikely any could get in yet.

Looking at career statistics, Manning's are clearly the weakest. His yards-per-throw efficiency actually is not bad, but he's far behind Rivers and Roethlisberger, whose numbers are excellent. Even more problematic, Eli's turnover rate is much too high. When we examined individual seasons, Eli trailed there, as well. There's only been one year in which he had a good case as the best QB of the '04 draft class.

Getting away from numbers, we looked at each QB's strengths and weaknesses. They all have strengths that stand out, and areas where they need to improve. For Eli, his control of the pocket and avoidance of sacks are positives, but his accuracy is a major negative. Rivers' ability to connect with covered receivers is a rare and valuable talent, but his occasionally poor decision-making sometimes leads to interceptions. Roethlisberger turns sacks into big plays downfield, but he also takes too many hits and insists on playing even when he's too injured to perform well.

Our expectations for pro athletes are very high, so we tend to gloss over the things we expect them to do well. A lot of a player's value comes just in meeting those expectations, factors like arm strength, reading defenses, self-control on and off the field. All three players meet those basic criteria, but another one is accuracy, and that shortcoming helps to explain Eli's statistical disadvantage: it hangs over his whole game. Rivers' decision-making problems are infrequent, and Ben's excessive patience in the pocket is forgivable.

Roethlisberger has probably benefitted the most from his strong supporting cast in Pittsburgh, but Manning and Rivers have been surrounded by good teammates and coaches, as well. Looking at playoff performance, the Steelers have the best results over the last decade, but Manning has probably done the most to directly facilitate his team's success, due to his fine play in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.

So where does all that leave us?

Eli Manning

Eli Manning's greatest success came in the 2007-08 and 2011-12 postseasons, when the Giants won Super Bowls. That's a nice cherry on top for a great career, the sort of thing that puts a Terry Bradshaw over the top and into the Hall of Fame, but Eli doesn't have that great regular season career as a foundation. He's never been an MVP candidate and he's never gotten All-Pro votes. He's this generation's Jim Plunkett.

Eli has a "winner" reputation, but other than their two Super Bowl years, the Giants have never won a playoff game with Eli Manning. They've only made the playoffs in five of his 10 seasons (50%), a lower rate than Roethlisberger (60%) or Rivers (62.5%), and they've won their first playoff game less often (40%) than Big Ben (66.7%) or Rivers (60%). Eli Manning played very well in the two most important games of his career, but you don't judge a 10-year career by two games.

Manning has thrown an appalling number of interceptions, and his 2013 was bad enough that you might worry about his future in the sport. Compared to Rivers and Roethlisberger, he is the least valuable quarterback from the top of the 2004 draft. Insult to injury, to obtain Manning, the Giants traded not only Rivers but also the draft picks used to select All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman and All-Pro kicker Nate Kaeding. Combined, those three players have made 10 Pro Bowls.

The argument for Eli Manning is that he played well in two Super Bowls. The argument against Eli Manning is the other 154 games of his career. He's not accurate, not consistent, and makes too many mistakes, with a turnover rate that is unacceptable in modern football.

Philip Rivers

Alone among the top trio of QBs from the 2004 draft, Rivers did not start early in his career. For Charger fans, it was worth the wait. After two fine seasons from Drew Brees, Rivers led San Diego to four straight division titles. I discovered while writing this article that from 2004-13, the Chargers had a higher percentage of passes for first downs than any other team in the NFL, though Peyton Manning moves ahead when you look at individual players. The top five:

1. Peyton Manning, 40.2%
2. Philip Rivers, 37.0%
3. Tom Brady, 36.8%
4. Drew Brees, 36.3%
5. Ben Roethlisberger, 35.5%

The Giants rank 13th, 31.5%. Still, impressive numbers for Rivers and Big Ben. Rating Eli Manning third in this draft class should not be interpreted as an insult — he's got excellent competition.

Where Rivers stands out from Eli and Roethlisberger is on big plays. He has the highest TD% (5.4) and lowest INT% (2.5) in the trio. Perhaps even more, Rivers is distinguished by his great seasons. He was an MVP candidate in 2008 and '09, and he's had four full seasons with a passer rating over 100, twice as many as Roethlisberger (2) and Manning (0) combined. Rivers has more 4,000-yard passing seasons (5) than the other two (3 each), and more 30-TD seasons (3) than them (1 each). When we assess player careers, we're not looking just at the bottom line, but also at peak performance: who reached the greatest heights? Among the QBs from the '04 draft class, that's clearly Philip Rivers.

I know some people will never get past the Super Bowls. In the last decade, the Giants and Steelers have won two each, and the Chargers none. San Diego is a good team right now, but not so good that it's likely to challenge for a title in the next season or two. By then, all three QBs will be 34, past their primes and approaching retirement. It seems probable that Rivers will never play for a Super Bowl champion.

The question is whether that's mostly his fault, or mostly outside of his control. Rivers played at a very high level in 2013, and San Diego lost in the second round of the playoffs. Would the Chargers have been better off with Colin Kaepernick, whose team reached the NFC Championship Game? Would the 49ers have been worse with Rivers?

The Steelers have had more success than the Chargers, and the Giants have done better in the playoffs, but was Rivers the one holding his team back, or has he often been the reason they got so far in the first place? He has more 300-yard passing games (33) than Manning or Roethlisberger (28 each) — even though they've started more games — and San Diego has a better record in those games (18-15) than the Giants or Steelers (both 13-15). Rivers has the most games with 3 passing TDs (32), and a better record in those games (24-8, vs. a combined 38-18).

For most of his years as starter, Rivers has been the one leading his team to victory, and it's not fair to pin the team's shortcomings on him. He's had several seasons in which he was absolutely good enough to lead his team to a championship, but the other 50 guys on the roster weren't at the same level.

The argument for Philip Rivers is that he's the best passer from this draft class. He's the most accurate, makes the most big plays and the fewest mistakes. The argument against Philip Rivers is team success in the postseason. The Chargers are 4-5 in the playoffs with Rivers as starter.

Ben Roethlisberger

The term game manager is somewhat derogatory, implying a QB with limited skills, who doesn't create a lot of plays on his own. That was Roethlisberger's reputation his first couple seasons, but not really accurate. His workload was limited because Pittsburgh ran all the time, but he was never a play-it-safe passer. He threw downfield, with yardage, TD, INT, and sack averages that were all above league norms. He was the first quarterback in 34 seasons to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Steelers improved from 6-10 to 15-1, then won the Super Bowl in his second season.

Very few quarterbacks have done so well in their first two years. His passer rating was over 98 both seasons, and he delivered what the team needed. Since then, he has thrown for over 3,000 yards every year, with a passer rating over 90 for the last five seasons in a row. I use a complicated statistical formula to analyze QB statistics. Big Ben has ranked 10th four times, as well as 8th, 9th, and 12th in other years. He's never had the best stats, and he's never been close, but he's right around 10th every season. He's solidly in that second tier of QBs. Five or 10 years ago, that level was typified by Matt Hasselbeck. Everyone knew he was a top-10 QB, and everyone knew he wasn't top-five. That's where Ben is.

Roethlisberger is a fun QB to watch, because he escapes so many sacks and makes so many plays downfield. And sometimes he's a frustrating QB to watch, because he holds the ball forever and takes sacks even when his line is blocking heroically. He's always been a good player, but with obvious factors holding him back from the kind of greatness you see in players like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

The argument for Ben Roethlisberger is that the Steelers have been very successful for most of his career. He played at a high level almost immediately, and he's always performed well when healthy. The argument against Big Ben is that his success is really team success, and he hasn't been anything special without a great defense to back him up.

J.P. Losman

Losman was drafted 22nd overall, the same year as Manning, Rivers, and Roethlisberger. Losman had only one season (2006) in which he started more than eight games, passed for 1,500 yards, or threw double-digit TDs. His last start came in 2008. Matt Schaub, taken 90th, is the fourth-best QB of the '04 draft class.

The Verdict

I've presented a lot of angles here, and readers are free to reach their own conclusions. But I don't believe that Philip Rivers has held the Chargers back from winning a championship; rather, he's been their best player and the reason they were even competitive. I also feel that Ben Roethlisberger was never the key player on Pittsburgh's championship teams, and that the Giants have often succeeded in spite of Eli Manning. Unless you give quarterbacks sole credit and blame for team results, it seems obvious that Rivers is the best QB (so far) from the 2004 draft class, followed by Roethlisberger.

That's not to demean any of the three; this is one of the most accomplished quarterback draft classes in history, probably the best since the legendary '83 draft class that produced Dan Marino, John Elway, and Jim Kelly.

Comments and Conversation

April 23, 2014

Jay:

while i would certainly agree rivers throwing motion is ugly. i completely disagree that his release takes forever. absolutely inaccurate. anyone whose watched rivers would say he has a very quick release. it may be very ugly, but many would argue rivers ability to throw from various angles is a strength. he may be considered inferior to manning and ben based on championships. but i agree he may be the best pure passer out of the 3.

April 23, 2014

michael:

Agree on verdict: Rivers is the best. Disagree on slow release. That is absolutely false. SI (King) said that Rivers has the “quickest release” of any QB since Marino. As a season ticket holder I have seen him play a lot, he also wins with his mind. He’s every bit as sharp as P. Manning and Brady.

June 21, 2014

Ty:

I appreciate your detailed article here. I think Manning is the best of the 3, the eye test tells me this. I think what you miss on Manning is that he’s played under Kevin Gilbrides offense which is a high risk high reward offense. Warren Moon had a couple 20 plus int seasons under Gilbride. Elis ints and completion percentage are a direct result of playing in a ultra aggressive offense… also with a highly option, unpredictable offense. A lot of guessing going on every play. WR and QBs have to read the defense and see it exactly the same. Often resulting in WR going to wrong way, leaving Manning out to dry. Its been going on for 10 years. So there’s an enormous amount if ints that Manning gets the blame for but completely not his fault. Watch his int numbers and completion percentage go up in McAdois simplified offense. The receivers are already loving it because it eliminates the guessing that went on in gilbrides O. My other argument for Eli is that he’s more responsible for the Giants winning then the other two QBs are. The Giants have never had the best defense, Manning singlehandedly carried the Giants to the super bowl in 2011. They had the 30 something ranked, defense, O-Line and Running game… if he had any help at all they would have won 12 games minimum that year. I think Rivers has underscored and had some of the best talent assembled and I think Ben has the benefit of dominant defenses only reason he has the two Bowls and he often only looks great after the play breaks down. Not sure he’s a great executor of the offense how it was designed. He’s great when he only has to worry about half the field. I do think Ben and Manning get in the Hall. I just think your two biggest indictments against Manning are circumstance driven more then any flaw in his game and we ll see evidence of that this year.

June 21, 2014

Brad Oremland:

Ty, you’ve clearly given this issue some thought, but I don’t think your premise holds up. Rivers and Roethlisberger have always played in high-risk, downfield schemes, just like Manning. In fact, Eli’s yardage per completion is LOWER (12.1) than Roethlisberger (12.4) and Rivers (12.2). He also has the lowest TD% and highest INT% in the trio, by a lot.

Your Warren Moon comparison misses the way the game has changed in the last 20 years. Moon started for 15 seasons and he NEVER led the NFL in INTs. Eli has thrown the most INTs three times already.

The idea that Manning has worked with lesser talent I don’t think is true. Tiki Barber, Victor Cruz, Shaun O’Hara, Chris Snee, Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi, JPP, etc… the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl run was fundamentally about a superior defense.

You’re making excuses for Eli. It’s not realistic or fair to blame Kevin Gilbride for every problem Eli has ever had. He’s been a good player, but not as good as Rivers and Big Ben.

June 26, 2014

Ty:

I didn’t say he (Moon) lead the league in ints, I said he had high int seasons under Gilbride. Lol I see my counter to your last post was deleted pretty much breaking apart your last post. Nice. I’m blaming Gilbride huh? No the coach Coughlin and owner blamed Gilbride O. Lol. Giants brass still believe in Manning 100 percent and Gilbride was fired and dissed by the owner. Are they making excuses for Eli or maybe they like me can just see what’s going on. No reason for a QB with that type of talent and knowledge of the game, who’s a student of the game should have almost 30 ints in a season. Even with everything working Manning was gonna always throw roughly 15 ints a year just because of the high risk nature of the offense I.e. 3rd and 1 and Gilbride calls a play where every receiver is 15 yards down the field. Listen to Simms when he talks about Gilbrides offense, no screen game, there are no “gimme” completions. He has to read the defense every play and make every throw. Manning would kill in say Andy Reids offense, Bill B’s offense where the offense by design beats the defense, helping out the QB. Again Phillips Rivers isnt even in the convo until he wins at least one Super Bowl. You spent the entire article tellin us how they are similar, all had success etc but sell that the one without any Super Bowl appearances, let alone win is the best one? How many they have to win to be better than Rivers?! C’MON MANN. I’m ok w you saying Eli and Ben but Rivers… I had to comment.

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