TAMPA — The great ones are always, somehow, distinctive. Think of Joe Montana, and you recall the look of cool in a game's final minutes. With Dan Marino, it was the quickness and precision of his aim. And, though Joe Namath's numbers might have been smaller, the persona was larger than any the NFL had seen.
So, how then should we be thinking of Ben Roethlisberger today? He is not the game's most efficient passer. He is not the quickest or the most cerebral, and he does not immediately come to mind as the prettiest. Is he even worthy of the discussion? What, exactly, does Roethlisberger bring to this conversation? Just the one argument that is beyond dispute.
"He doesn't have the big numbers. He's not throwing for 4,800 yards or 40 touchdowns," said Pittsburgh's quarterbacks coach, Ken Anderson. "All he does is win."
And that is the real beauty of Roethlisberger. In a league where parity is law, Roethlisberger has pretty much defied convention from the moment he arrived in Pittsburgh. He set a league record for victories as a rookie quarterback, and the next season became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
His career winning percentage in the regular season (.718) is better than every modern era quarterback in the Hall of Fame except for Roger Staubach (.746). His postseason winning percentage (.778) is also better than any recent Hall of Famers besides Bart Starr (.900).
None of this guarantees him a bust someday in Canton, and it doesn't even mean he is the best quarterback of his generation, but it suggests his legacy will look fine from a distance.
"The guy has a warrior's mentality," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "I don't think people realize how tough he is. Anybody that says otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about."
The very same thing that people criticize him for — he runs too much, he takes too many sacks, he subjects himself to too many hard hits — sets Roethlisberger apart from the rest.
He is not a cookie cutter quarterback. He will not sit in the pocket and calmly run a West Coast offense. The true genius of Roethlisberger comes out when all is going astray.
He gets out of jams that seem impossible. He completes passes on the move like a shortstop going up the middle. He brings a playground flair to a game that has become increasingly choreographed. Is it possible Roethlisberger has the arm of a quarterback, and the heart of a lineman?
"No, not a lineman. Ben Roethlisberger has the heart of a boxer," Steelers tackle Willie Colon said. "He always gets back up. He has the ability to, somehow, some way, pull it off when things look bad. You jab, jab, jab, and eventually he's going to knock you out. That's what a great quarterback, a great leader, does."
At one time, you might have debated whether he was driving the train, or just along for the ride. For as long as he has been in Pittsburgh, the defense has always been better than the offense.
And in Super Bowl XL, Roethlisberger was not the reason the Steelers won. He threw two interceptions, no touchdowns, and his passing rating of 22.6 was the lowest ever for a quarterback on the winning team.
For the past week, people have been asking Roethlisberger about making amends for that performance. That line of questioning, however, misses the point. Yes, Roethlisberger wants to play better. He has said it often enough himself.
But putting up flashy, Manning-like numbers is not what he does. And ego does not often get in the way of his decisions, sort of the way it has for Brett Favre in recent seasons. Roethlisberger does not have to be the lead singer in this band. He's just as comfortable in the rhythm section, making sure the beat is steady.
This is a quarterback who has weekly poker games at his home. He's the one who paid all of the expenses for his offensive linemen to fly to Chicago during an off weekend in November to celebrate center Justin Hartwig's 30th birthday.
In Super Bowl XL, the Steelers belonged to Jerome Bettis. To an offensive line that was older, and set in its ways. This time, Roethlisberger is the leader, even if he doesn't have to be the focal point.
"I don't know of any second-year quarterback who is a leader of a team. That just doesn't happen, so Ben wasn't as assertive," offensive tackle Max Starks said. "Back then, they didn't even give him the full array of the offensive playbook because they wanted to make sure he understood it and was comfortable with it. Now, five years in, he knows the playbook inside and out. He calls the plays on his own. The offensive coordinator has pretty much given him his discretion."
Eight retired quarterbacks have won two Super Bowls or more. Seven of them are in the Hall of Fame. By the end of this evening, Roethlisberger has a shot at winning two before his 27th birthday.
Will that make him a great quarterback?
I don't know, but it sure would make him distinctive.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org