BY SAM HITCHCOCK
The team that is New York Giants’ AFC doppleganger is the Pittsburgh Steelers. This analogy extends from their front offices, to their head coaches, all the way down to their starting quarterbacks.
In the 2004 NFL Draft, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger were both selected in the first round by two of the league’s most storied franchises (Manning was No. 1, Roethlisberger No. 11). Eli was the younger brother of the growing legend, Peyton Manning, and he made big headlines on draft day when he forced a trade from San Diego to New York because he wanted to play in the Big Apple.
Roethlisberger was selected by Pittsburgh, at that time being coached by future Hall of Famer Bill Cowher.
Big Ben came into the preseason listed as third-string signal-caller on the depth chart, and the Steelers’ plan was for him to grow and learn from incumbent quarterbacks Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch for a full season.
The Steelers’ philosophy with young players is identical to the Giants’: stash them while developing them until absolutely forced to use them. But fate ran its course, and within weeks of the first regular season starting, rookie Big Ben was forced into the starting quarterback job. Batch and Maddox went down with injuries, and Roethlisberger was thrust into action and an extraordinary career had its genesis. Roethlisberger went 13-0 in the regular season as starting quarterback, never capitulating the job again.
Eli experienced early growing pains in his limited snaps as a rookie, but mostly he rode the bench, slotted behind former Giants’ quarterback Kurt Warner for the 2004 season. However, in 2005, Manning was given the keys to the franchise with the starting quarterback position. Eli’s chance to play and become immortalized in America’s biggest media market had arrived.
From 2005 to present, both Eli and Big Ben have won two Super Bowls each. In the seven seasons that have passed since becoming starters, the pair has combined for five appearances in the big game, but never faced each other.
Management around them has been a big boost. Both franchises are judicious with handing out player contracts, they draft players with the intentions of developing them until they are needed, and they avoid the big splash moves in free agency that sink teams. Tom Coughlin and Mike Tomlin are two of the most well-respected head coaches in the league, and two of the most traditional in their approach towards the game.
Both coaches stress discipline, hard work, and meticulous attention to detail. Both teams have been premier defensive teams, especially elite among their own conferences. A few of the marquee defenders for both franchises will have their own busts in Canton one day.
But for the outside observers who are not involved directly with these teams, both franchises are completely unpredictable.
In 2005 and 2008, Manning led the Giants to their best regular season records with him as their signal-caller, yet they lost their first playoff matchup both times. In 2007, New York went 4-4 in the second half of the season and finished the regular season with a 10-6 record.
The Giants miraculously advanced to the Super Bowl to face the previously undefeated 18-0 New England Patriots (who were hoping to make history by being the first team in NFL history to go 19-0). The Giants went on to upend New England in one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
In 2011, the Giants were 7-7 after Week 15, having lost four straight games (and having gotten swept during the season by their lowly divisional rival, the Washington Redskins). Notwithstanding, the Giants went on to win their next two and squeezed into the playoffs, barely. Logically, the Giants thrived with their backs against the wall, and would go on to win the Super Bowl again over the New England Patriots.
So how comparably erratic is their carbon copy, the Steelers? Consider that in 2004 Pittsburgh went 15-1, but failed to make the Super Bowl. The next season, they finished 11-5, losing three straight during Weeks 11-13. But the Steelers would finish the season strong, winning the next four contests of the regular season and then winning four more games to take home the Super Bowl trophy.
Their next two seasons, the Steelers missed the playoffs (2006), and lost in the Wild Card round (2007). But in 2008, they pulled it together for a 12-4 season and another Super Bowl championship.
Since their last title ring, they have missed the playoffs (2009), lost in the Super Bowl (2010), and lost in the Wild Card round to the current Jets’ backup quarterback (2011).
This year, both teams have mixed brilliant performances with frustratingly inept play. Both are fighting tooth-and-nail in their respective conferences to make the postseason (the Bengals’ win on Thursday Night Football hurt Pittsburgh), but nearly everyone is in agreement that if both teams make it there, they will be the opponents that no one wants to play.
There is unanimous acknowledgement that the quarterback position is of higher importance than any other starter on the football field, and with the evolution of the NFL pass attack (benefited by the league rule changes), having a strong signal-caller is fundamental. But the parallel of both clubs being so fickle from game-to-game, and season-to-season, applies to the play of these two quarterbacks as well.
Eli’s narrative as a quarterback is changing week-to-week like his team’s sporadic play. One week, former Giants’ quarterback Phil Simms will say he is elite; one week he will say he is not. In Ron Jaworski’s most recent QB rankings, he had Roethlisberger ranked fifth and Eli ranked seventh. Sandwiched between Big Ben and Eli was Matt Schaub at No. 6, and Matt Ryan was slightly ahead of both at No. 4. Numbers 3, 2, and 1 were Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Peyton holding the top ranking.
If winning counts, the ranking seems odd. Only Brady has won more Super Bowls than Big Ben and Eli, and Eli beat him twice in the league’s biggest game. Peyton and Rodgers both have one Super Bowl, and Ryan and Schaub have not even reached the conference championship yet.
It appears every year that there is a waltz between both quarterbacks not getting their due, and then the proverbial backlash of questioning why they do not get fair credit. I have some theories with why Big Ben does not his due (checkered past, does not fit proto-type QB model, advances the ball in a methodical way that is not glamorous), and Eli too (his brother has much more gaudy stats, the Giants’ front four sometimes overshadows him, and he looks dreadfully lost at times), but the pairs’ ability should never be questioned.
Eli and Big Ben excel at extending the play under pressure, rising to the moment when it matters most in close contests, and putting poor decisions behind them. This is why both teams will be major competitors in the postseason if they can advance there first.