The Pittsburgh Steelers are easily one of the most storied franchises in the history of the NFL. Since their inception in 1933, the Steel City has fielded 6 Super Bowl Champion teams and 22 former members have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Despite this success, the Steelers don’t have the storied quarterback history that other franchises have. The team can only boast of two Hall of Famers at the positions, and one of these, Bobby Layne, played the majority of his career for other teams. Sticking to the philosophy created by Chuck Noll in the 70s, the Steelers franchise is more famous for its legendary defenders than it is for noteworthy signal callers. There are, however, a handful of superb quarterbacks who have spent time in the black and gold. To honor these men, this list will countdown The 8 Best (and 7 Worst) Quarterbacks in Pittsburgh Steelers History.
These men have collectively won 6 Super Bowls, been to another 2, include 2 Pro Football Hall of Famers, and represent 8 decades of leaders of one of the most accomplished franchises in the history of professional sports.
15. Best: Bubby Brister
For whatever reason, Bubby Brister has become the forgotten man on the Mount Rushmore of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks. Playing from 1986-1992, Brister was the most notable signal caller sandwiched between Terry Bradshaw and Neil O’Donnell. Unfortunately for him, he never made it to a Super Bowl, an obvious prerequisite for being named alongside Bradshaw, O’Donnell, and Ben Roethlisberger. Despite this, Brister had a successful career with the Steelers, and is easily one of the better starting quarterbacks in Steelers history. Brister had a respectable 81-78 touchdown interception ratio during his NFL career, and during his six years with the Steelers he finished in the top five of the NFL in passing yards on two separate occasions.
14. Worst: George Izo
Before going into this entry, it’s important to remember that George Izo played in an era where the NFL wasn’t anywhere near the big deal that it is now. With that being said, Izo’s status as the second overall pick of the 1960 draft makes his playing time with the Steelers (and several other teams) hugely disappointing. Izo’s first year with the Steelers (1966) was also the first year of the Super Bowl. The Steelers would get nowhere close to the championship game that year, however, in large part due to inconsistency at the quarterback position. In the two games he started that year (he played in four total), he went 0-2, with 360 passing yards, two touchdowns, and an astonishing eight interceptions.
13. Best: Charlie Batch
I think the career of Charlie Batch with the Steelers can best be described as a longtime backup and sometime starter. The Steelers never went into a season envisioning Batch as a starter, but this didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most beloved Pittsburgh Steelers in recent memory. It inevitably happened that Ben Roethlisberger or another quarterback would get injured, and Batch would be forced to start a couple of games throughout the season. Despite a somewhat limited skillset, Batch (almost) always played admirably in these games, and on his career he holds a 5-2 record as a starter with the Steelers. Part of Batch’s popularity in Pittsburgh is the result of him growing up in nearby Homestead, but there was something calming about knowing Batch was available to start a game if the first string quarterback got injured.
12. Worst: Bruce Gradkowski
Admittedly, Bruce Gradkowski never started a game for the Steelers in the regular season, but that is exactly why he needs to be on this list of worst Steelers starting quarterbacks. Gradkowski was signed by the Steelers in 2013 to serve as the primary backup to franchise QB, Ben Roethlisberger. Ben had struggled with injuries in the past, and it was fair to assume that Gradkowski would eventually get pulled into service. Therefore, his signing was meant to provide the Steelers with some insurance, giving them a chance to win even when Ben was out. This plan never came to fruition, as several obscure injuries prevented Gradkowski from ever entering a regular season game for the Steelers. Instead, the Steelers were forced to go to an unproven Landry Jones, making Gradkowski’s signing one of the worst executed by the Steelers in recent memory.
11. Best: Bobby Layne
My University of Texas bias may influence me on this one, but I think that Bobby Layne was one of the more influential players in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite the fact that he only played for the Steelers from 1958-1962, his signing signaled to the league that the Steelers were willing to be competitive. It’s a little known fact that the Steelers actually drafted Layne out of college, but his unwillingness to play the single wing formation caused them to trade his rights to the Chicago Bears. Layne may have been past his prime by the time he joined the Steelers in 1958, but that didn’t stop him from being a notable improvement from their previous quarterback situation, he was even named to the Pro Bowl in his first season with Pittsburgh.
10. Worst: Ron Smith
If you haven’t noticed yet, quite a few of the bad quarterbacks on this list come from the period before the Steelers dynasty of the mid-to-late ’70s. This was the period of the Steelers’ most consistent failure (though an argument could be made for much of the 80s), so it’s easy to see why it would be accompanied by mostly poor quarterback play. One such QB who wasn’t so great for the Steelers at this time was Ron Smith, a late round pick out of Richmond College. Smith started seven games for the Steelers in 1966, throwing for 1,249 yards, eight touchdowns, and twelve interceptions. These numbers aren’t as bad as some other entries on our list, but Smith’s ability was reflected in how he was treated by the organization. Smith never started another NFL game again, and made his final appearance in the league at just 24 years old.
9. Best: Tommy Maddox
After being selected 25th overall by the Denver Broncos in the 1992 NFL Draft, Tommy Maddox’s overall career can fairly be deemed a failure. His time as starting quarterback for the Steelers, however, puts him at #9 on the better portion of our list. Maddox first started for the Steelers in the 2002 season, going 7-3-1. (The tie was the infamous Steelers-Falcons game where Maddox 50 yard bomb to receiver Plaxico Burress fell one yard short of the end zone in overtime). Maddox would fall off slightly after 2002, but ended his career with the Steelers with 7,139 passing yards, 42 touchdowns, and 40 interceptions. This stat line would probably be enough to find Maddox a place on our list, but it ignores the role Maddox played in Ben Roethlisberger’s terrific 2004 rookie season.
8. Worst: Mike Tomczak
To be fair to Mike Tomczak, the guy didn’t come to the Steelers with a lot of hype surrounding him. Tomczak joined the league as an undrafted free agent in 1985, and played for three other teams before joining the Steelers in 1993. Tomczak’s career statistics boast an 88-106 touchdown to interceptions ratio, pretty standard for a career journeyman. Tomczak’s best days at a starter, however, took place with the Chicago Bears from 1985-1990. The Ohio State product won Super Bowl 20 as the Bears backup quarterback, and he also won the first ten starts of his career, at the time an NFL record. It is an interesting side note that this record was eventually beaten by none other than Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
7. Best: Kordell Stewart
Kordell Stewart may just be one of the most unique players to ever play the game of football. Affectionately called “Slash”, Stewart began his career in Pittsburgh as the backup to Neil O’Donnell. This forced him to play a variety of positions (primarily wide receiver) to get on the field. Once Neil O’Donnell left Pittsburgh for the New York Jets, Stewart was named the starter for the 1997 season. Kordell’s passing statistics aren’t all that flashy (77-84 touchdown to interception ratio), but when you throw in the fact that he rushed for almost 3 thousand yards and 38 touchdowns in his career, you get a better idea of how electric a player he was. Stewart was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Year in 2001.
6. Worst: Mike Kruczek
Some of you may be surprised to see Mike Kruczek’s name on our list of worst Steelers starting quarterbacks. After all, when the Boston College product was forced to start six games of his rookie season in 1976 (due to an injury to Terry Bradshaw), he put up an impressive 6-0 record as a starter. From Kruczek’s play in these games, however, it’s obvious that this record was more of a reflection of the team as a whole than it was of Kruczek’s contributions. Kruczek threw for 758 yards that year (a paltry 126 yards per game average) and threw three interceptions. You’ll notice that I didn’t include Kruczek’s passing touchdown numbers in this analysis. The reason being that he did not throw for a single touchdown in the six games he played in ’76. Enough said.
5. Best: Neil O’Donnell
Neil O’Donnell is a perfect example of how one game can dramatically alter a players legacy. Going into Super Bowl 30, O’Donnell was unquestioningly the second greatest quarterback in Pittsburgh Steelers history, and was considered by many to be the long awaited heir to Hall of Famer, Terry Bradshaw. Despite entering Super Bowl XXX as the NFL’s all-time leader in fewest interceptions per pass attempt, O’Donnell threw three interceptions over the course of the game, two to the games MVP Larry Brown. The Steelers lost the game (in large part due to O’Donnell), and in the offseason he accepted a large free agent offer from the New York Jets. It is widely believed that the Steelers were unwilling to pay O’Donnell as much as the Jets because of his performance in the Super Bowl.
4. Worst: Kent Nix
The Vince Lombardi-led Packer’s of the 1960s rarely made any mistakes. One of their most notable ones, however, was unfortunately gifted to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the form of quarterback Kent Nix. The former TCU product started his career well in Pittsburgh, but after that regressed to the point of being unusable. Nix finished his career with the Steelers with a 3-9 win loss record. He did throw for almost 2,600 yards, but this included a paltry 5.8 yards per attempt. His touchdown-interception ratio is even more pathetic, as he put up only 14 touchdowns to an astounding 33 interceptions in his twelve games. Despite these struggles, Nix would be able to stick onto a couple other teams before officially retiring in 1972.
3. Best: Terry Bradshaw
It is a pretty standard rule that if you win four Super Bowls, then you make your franchises list of all time greatest quarterbacks. When Terry Bradshaw won his fourth Super Bowl at the end of the 1979 season, in fact, he was the first quarterback to have ever won more than two Lombardi Trophies. Though his statistics are pretty pedestrian by today’s standards (he holds a mere 212-210 touchdown-interception ratio), he captained one of the most dominant teams in the history of professional football. Not to say that Bradshaw doesn’t hold any individual accomplishments of his own, he was awarded three Pro Bowl nominations, and in 1978 he was named the league MVP. In 1989, Bradshaw was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2. Worst: Joe Gilliam
As I stated in the introduction, a large component of this list is the expectations that surrounded these quarterbacks during their playing time, and their ability to meet said expectations. Joe Gilliam failed spectacularly in this regard, never measuring up to the hype established for him in 1974. It was in this year that Coach Chuck Noll declared an open competition for the Steelers starting quarterback job between Gilliam, Terry Hanratty, and future NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw. Gilliam would actually win this competition out of camp, and expectations were high that he could provide some offensive firepower to accentuate Pittsburgh stalwart defense. Not only was Gilliam awful in the six games he started that season (one game he completed a mere 8 passes out of 31 attempts) but he violated team rules and at times completely ignored the playbook.
1. Best: Ben Roethlisberger
Terry Bradshaw will always have his supporters, but Ben Roethlisberger is unquestioningly the greatest quarterback in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Roethlisberger owns basically every Steelers record for a quarterback, including both season and career marks for most passing yards and touchdowns. While Bradshaw may have more Super Bowl victories (four to Roethlisberger’s two), Ben was a much more important component of his championship teams than Bradshaw was to the loaded 70’s Steelers. The media also tends to hold Ben to a higher standard than they did Bradshaw, Roethlisberger has already been selected to five Pro Bowls, while Terry was only named to three in his entire career. The huge statistical advantage, combined with the position Ben holds as one of the NFL’s very best passers allows us to confidently name him as the best starting quarterback in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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