Best Quarterbacks in Pittsburgh Steelers History

Updated on April 22, 2020
Ben Roethlisberger is one of the best Steelers quarterbacks of all time.
Ben Roethlisberger is one of the best Steelers quarterbacks of all time. | Source

The Power of the Quarterback

If you were to ask a child about their favorite football star, there is a strong chance they would tell you about an NFL quarterback. It’s not surprising; children also love superheroes, those mighty, larger-than-life beings with the power to do amazing things that other people can’t. While quarterbacks don’t wear capes, it is easy to imagine how, through the eyes of a child, they would otherwise meet the superhero criteria.

As adults, most of us decide we know better. Every position is equally important, and the quarterback is just one cog in the rumbling machine that is a working offense. The quarterback may be the center of attention, but he is nothing special and not necessarily the most valuable guy on the field. Right?

Wrong. It turns out we were on the right track back when we were kids. Maybe NFL quarterbacks aren’t superheroes, but they do wield tremendous power. Few positions in sports match the prestige and importance of quarterback on a football team. The quarterback handles the ball on every offensive play, and the outcome of the game rests in his hands.

He is the leader, the coach on the field, and in many cases the face of the franchise. Winning quarterbacks are granted hero status by fans, and losers carry the blame for the entire team. The rewards for excellence are tremendous, and the elite quarterbacks in NFL history are considered legends.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a few great quarterbacks over the years, but they have also had some very bad ones. Most were somewhere in the middle and gave Steeler Nation good reason to expect a win when they took the field.

This article will take a look at some of the best Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks of all time as well as a few that could have been great. But first we have to consider an important question:

What Makes a Quarterback Great?

I considered the following factors when compiling this list:

  • Championships: Winning matters, and quarterbacks are expected to lead their teams to championships. On the other hand, a few of the greatest quarterbacks of the Super Bowl era never had a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
  • Statistics: Quarterbacks who put up big passing numbers get a lot of praise, and deservedly so. There are a few in the league who can run the ball, as well. But it’s a fine line between a quarterback who is called upon to shoulder the load for the offense and one who tries to do too much at the expense of the game plan.
  • Quarterback Rating: Quarterback rating (or passer rating) is a complex formula intended to consider key statistics and show the quality of a quarterback's performance. It ranges from 0 to a perfect score of 158.3. However, it is not a great tool for comparing quarterbacks of different eras, as the style of play has changed so drastically in the NFL over the decades.
  • Accolades: Pro Bowls, All-Pro teams, and MVP awards provide a nice snapshot of a player’s value throughout his career. A quarterback who is recognized as one of the best, year after year, is surely in an elite category.
  • Leadership Skills: This is possibly the most important quality of a great quarterback, but also the least tangible. Some people just “have it” when it comes to motivating others, whether in the business world or on the football field. Quarterbacks who can motivate their teammates and bring the squad together are huge assets.
  • Intelligence: You have to be smart to play any position in the NFL, but intelligence is especially important for a quarterback. The quarterback must know what every player on the offense is supposed to do, and the great ones often know what the defense is going to do.

Top 5 Quarterbacks in Steelers History

No doubt you’ve been remembering various Steelers quarterbacks while reading that list of attributes. I’ve broken my list down into five of the best that ever played in Pittsburgh, with five honorable mentions and five surprising names of those who could have been Steeler greats if their careers had played out differently.

5. Kordell Stewart

As a rookie in 1995, quarterback Kordell Stewart earned the nickname “Slash” when coach Bill Cowher decided to use him as a wide receiver. Thus, his position became jokingly known as "quarterback-slash-wide receiver," and a nickname was born.

Slash stupefied defenses, who never knew what to expect when he stepped on the field. He caught 14 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown and also made an impact running and throwing the ball. That year, the Steelers won the AFC Championship and went to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1970s. He reprised his Slash role for the 1996 season, but he made it clear that his ultimate goal was to start at quarterback.

Stewart finally got his chance in 1997 and led the Steelers to the AFC Championship, where they lost to John Elway and the Denver Broncos. For five seasons he started for the Steelers as a dual-threat quarterback, ultimately making the Pro Bowl in 2001. But Stewart's rising star wouldn’t burn forever. His play began to decline in 2002, and with the arrival of Tommy Maddox, he eventually lost his starting position.

During his best years at quarterback, Kordell Stewart was a very good player who gave the Steelers a real shot at winning. However, as Slash he was something the NFL hadn’t seen in a long time: a triple-threat offensive weapon who might line up at quarterback, running back, or wide receiver when he came into the game.

Stewart left the Steelers in 2002 and unceremoniously closed out his career with one season in Chicago and two in Baltimore.

Jersey Number


Years With Steelers


Record as Steelers Starter


Accolades With Steelers

1x Pro Bowl

Stats With Steelers

Passing Yards: 13,328
Passing Touchdowns: 70
Interceptions: 72
Passer Rating: 72.3
Rushing Yards: 2,561
Rushing Touchdowns: 35

4. Bobby Layne

Bobby Lane is an NFL legend. Unfortunately for Steelers fans, he performed most of his legendary deeds as a member of the Detroit Lions between 1950 and 1957. During his time with the Lions, he made five Pro Bowls, was voted All-Pro twice, and led Detroit to three NFL Championship wins.

The Steelers traded for Layne just two games into the 1958 season. Detroit agreed to the deal, even though Layne and the Lions had won the NFL Championship in 1957. According to urban legend, Layne cursed the Lions for this indignity. The Lions have struggled ever since, and today they are one of four NFL teams that have never appeared in the Super Bowl.

Bobby Layne was 32 years old when he came to Pittsburgh and was certainly not in the prime of his career. But he had some excellent receivers in Buddy Dial and Jimmy Orr, who complimented his gunslinger passing style very well. The Steelers were known as perennial losers back then but managed to cobble together winning seasons in four of Layne’s five years with the team.

Layne retired after the 1962 season at the age of 36, having spent the final five years of his Hall-of-Fame career as a Pittsburgh Steeler. He currently ranks sixth among all-time Steelers passing leaders for yards and fifth for touchdown passes.

Jersey Number


Years With Steelers


Record as Steelers Starter


Accolades With Steelers

2x Pro Bowl

Stats With Steelers

Passing Yards: 9,030
Passing Touchdowns: 66
Interceptions: 81
Passer Rating: 65.5
Rushing Yards: 382
Rushing Touchdowns: 8

3. Neil O'Donnell

Neil O’Donnell played for the Steelers from 1991 to 1995. This was an important transition period in Steelers' history, since legendary head coach Chuck Noll retired in 1992, making way for Bill Cowher. It was a time of change for the franchise as well as a time of revival.

O’Donnell had been a starter since 1991 when he bumped incumbent Bubby Brister out of the role. Brister and O'Donnell were opposites, and where Brister was bold and daring, O’Donnell was careful and calculating.

Under Cowher, O’Donnell and the Steelers posted an 11-5 season in 1992, made it to the AFC Championship in 1994, and went to the Super Bowl in 1995. While still predominantly a running team, the Steelers threw the ball more than they ever had, often employing four- and five- wide receiver sets.

Neil O’Donnell left Pittsburgh for the New York Jets after the 1995 Super Bowl season. He went on to play for New York, Cincinnati, and Tennessee before retiring in 2003. He departed Pittsburgh as fourth all-time in team history for passing yards and passing touchdowns.

As a Steeler, O’Donnell had a quarterback rating of 81.8, an impressive statistic for the time in which he played, and one only surpassed by Ben Roethlisberger. Most impressively, O’Donnell only threw 39 interceptions in 66 games as a starter, making him one of the most reliable Steelers quarterbacks of all time.

Jersey Number


Years With Steelers


Record as Steelers Starter


Accolades With Steelers

1x Pro Bowl

Stats With Steelers

Passing Yards: 12,867
Passing Touchdowns: 68
Interceptions: 39
Passer Rating: 81.8
Rushing Yards: 323
Rushing Touchdowns: 3

2. Ben Roethlisberger

Except for two, all of the quarterbacks on this list are fairly comparable. Even Bobby Layne, who was a superstar in his prime, wasn’t his old self as a Steeler. But if the separation between Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart is like the distance between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the separation between Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the pack is like the distance between Pittsburgh and Jupiter. And he isn’t even in first place on this list.

Roethlisberger is a great one; there is no doubt about it. Statistically, he has obliterated every other Steeler quarterback by a wide margin. Roethlisberger has more than twice the career passing yards than the next player on the Steelers all-time passing list and over 150 more touchdown passes.

There are good reasons for those statistical differences, the most significant being the way the NFL has changed over the past four decades. Modern quarterbacks throw the ball a lot, and they complete much shorter passes. What would have been a running down a few decades ago is a passing down today. Roethlisberger is currently ranked sixth all-time among NFL passing leaders, though with his injury in 2019 he may lose a couple of spots.

Few quarterbacks in NFL history have achieved what Roethlisberger has done. He has 13 seasons of 3,000 passing yards or more, five seasons of 4,000 yards or more, and one season where he threw for 5,129 yards. He’s led the Steelers to three AFC Championship wins and two Super Bowl victories and posted a career record of 144-71-1 as a starter.

Ben Roethlisberger will certainly find his way into the Hall of Fame when he retires. But, if he is so great, why isn’t he first on this list? Because the quarterback position is about more than statistics, and there is one more Steelers quarterback even bigger than Big Ben.

Jersey Number


Years With Steelers


Record as Steelers Starter


Accolades with Steelers

6x Pro Bowl
2x Super Bowl Champion
2004 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year

Stats with Steelers

Passing Yards: 56,545
Passing Touchdowns: 363
Interceptions: 191
Passer Rating: 94.0
Rushing Yards: 1,357
Rushing Touchdowns: 19

Big Ben is the Steelers' All-time passing leader.
Big Ben is the Steelers' All-time passing leader. | Source

1. Terry Bradshaw

In 1970, coming off a 1-13 season, the Steelers chose a quarterback named Terry Bradshaw with the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Bradshaw started eight games as a rookie and threw a ghastly 24 interceptions for the season. He was too dumb to play in the NFL and the Steelers had wasted a draft pick, said the football pundits. Bradshaw answered by tossing 22 interceptions the next season, an improvement but still abysmal. He made countless mistakes on the field. His critics jeered.

As a kid, this was one of my favorite stories. It was astonishing to think that Bradshaw was nearly booed out of the league as a young player because we all know what happened next. It is a lesson in perseverance and guts, and few players in NFL history have had more of either than Terry Bradshaw.

In the 1970s, with Bradshaw at quarterback, the Steelers' offense turned into a juggernaut. Their mighty offensive linemen plowed over defenses like five black-and-gold bulldozers, clearing swaths of turf for running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Bradshaw’s powerful arm punished any team foolish enough to stack the box in an attempt to slow the Steelers' rushing attack. With one pass, he could change the outcome of a game and, when he got hot, there was rarely a reason for opponents to hold out any hope of victory.

Bradshaw relied on two of the greatest Steelers wide receivers in history: Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. The duo made catch after impossible catch, and the Steelers were always one play away from a touchdown any time they were on the field.

Unlike modern quarterbacks, Bradshaw called his own plays. While head coach Chuck Noll was certainly the architect of the game plan, Bradshaw was responsible for carrying it out. He was a true leader, a field general who shouldered the responsibility of winning or losing in a very literal sense.

Bradshaw doesn’t have the mind-blowing statistics of Roethlisberger. He played in a different era, and for 12 seasons he played with Franco Harris, one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. Bradshaw didn’t need to put up big numbers, though he occasionally would. He only needed to win and get the job done in the biggest games. That he did, better than any other Steelers quarterback.

Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback some said was too dumb to play in the league, won four Super Bowls in his Hall-of-Fame career and is today regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Jersey Number


Years With Steelers


Record as Steelers Starter


Accolades with Steelers

3x Pro Bowl
1x All-Pro
4x Super Bowl Champion
2x Super Bowl MVP
NFL MVP (1978)
Bert Bell Award (1978)
NFL Hall of Fame, class of 1989

Stats with Steelers

Passing Yards: 27,989
Passing Touchdowns: 212
Interceptions: 210
Passer Rating: 70.9
Rushing Yards: 2,257
Rushing Touchdowns: 32

Ben Roethlisberger vs. Terry Bradshaw Stats Comparison

Number of Seasons
Total Games Played
Record as Starter
Super Bowl Wins
Pro Bowls
All-Pro Teams
Bert Bell Award
Passing Attempts
Pass Completions
Completion %
Passing Yards
Passing Touchdowns
Quarterback Rating
* When comparing statistics from different eras it is important to remember that the NFL regular season consisted of only 14 games prior to 1978 and 10-12 games prior to 1961.

Honorable Mentions

I think these next five players deserve mention in any discussion of the best Steelers quarterbacks of all time, but they aren't in the same class as the players listed above. We can consider them honorable mentions.

Mike Tomczak

Of the quarterbacks on this list of honorable mentions, Mike Tomczak is the only one with a winning record as a Steeler. So, let’s start with him. By the time he came to the Steelers in 1993, Tomczak was already in his 9th season of NFL football. He had been a rookie on the Bears’ roster during their Super Bowl season in 1985 and had spent most of his time in Chicago.

As a Steeler, he mostly served as a backup, though he took over as the starter in 1996 and led the team to a 10-6 record. Mike Tomczak never made a Pro Bowl and never started in a Super Bowl. But he was a reliable quarterback the Steelers could routinely count on for a solid performance every time he took the field.

Tommy Maddox

Tommy Maddox was an outstanding college quarterback who chose to forgo his senior season at UCLA and declare for the NFL draft. This turned out to be a bad decision. The Denver Broncos chose him in the first round in 1992 and expected him to replace John Elway one day. But he struggled, and by 1997 he was out of football and working as an insurance agent.

Maddox staged a comeback in 2000. He played a season of arena football and then led the Los Angeles Xtreme to an XFL championship in 2001. The Steelers signed him later that year, and by 2002 he had become Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback. He led the team in passing in 2002 and 2003, but an injury in the second game of the 2004 season sidelined him and opened the door for a young quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger. In five seasons as a Steeler, Maddox passed for 7,139 yards, 42 touchdowns, and 40 interceptions. He retired with a Super Bowl ring in 2005.

Bubby Brister

Brister was a fiery quarterback with a powerful arm. He was a Steeler from 1986 to 1992 and started from 1988 to 1990. He led the team to an unlikely AFC Wild Card game win against the Houston Oilers in 1989 and nearly defeated the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round the following week. He eventually lost his starting job to Neil O’Donnell in 1991 and left the Steelers after the 1992 season. Bubby Brister threw for 10,104 yards, 51 touchdowns, and 57 interceptions as a Steeler.

Jim Finks

Jim Finks played for seven seasons, all with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was the team’s leading passer from 1952 to 1955 and made the Pro Bowl roster in 1952. He is currently ranked seventh on the Steelers’ all-time passing yards list with 8,622 and sixth in touchdown passes with 55. However, he also threw a whopping 88 interceptions in his short career, giving him an awful career quarterback rating of 54.7.

Mark Malone

Mark Malone spent seven seasons in Pittsburgh from 1980 to 1987 and won 21 of his 45 career starts. The Steelers drafted him in 1980, and from 1984 to 1987 he was the teams’ leading passer. He led the Steelers to the AFC Championship game in 1984, but that was as good as it got.

The Steelers failed to make the playoffs over the next three seasons, and by 1988, Malone was a San Diego Charger. In seven seasons with the Steelers, he passed for 8,582 yards, 54 touchdowns, and 68 interceptions.

Who Is the Best Steelers Quarterback of All Time?

The greatest Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback of all time is Terry Bradshaw. He won four Super Bowls and led the Steelers to nine straight winning seasons. Bradshaw made the Pro Bowl three times and the All-Pro team once. In 1978, he was voted NFL Most Valuable Player and received the Bert Bell Award for Player of the Year. That same year he was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XIII for his performance in the defeat of the Dallas Cowboys. He is today regarded as one of the greatest Steelers of all time, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1989.

Top 10 Steelers' All-Time Passing Leaders

Ben Roethlisberger
Terry Bradshaw
Kordell Stewart
Neil O-Donnell
Bubby Brister
Bobby Layne
Jim Finks
Mark Malone
Tommy Maddox
Mike Tomczak
Tommy Maddox played for the Steelers from 2001-2005
Tommy Maddox played for the Steelers from 2001-2005 | Source

The Quarterbacks Who Got Away

Some of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history could have been at the top of this list, had things played out just a bit differently. I have a feeling you’ll be a bit surprised at what could have been, and if you are a Steelers fan, you might even kick a piece of furniture or two.

Dan Marino

The Miami Dolphins selected Dan Marino with the 27th pick of the 1983 NFL draft. Though he was one of the best college quarterbacks in the country, five quarterbacks were chosen before him. Most teams passed him up due to a subpar performance during his senior season. One of those teams was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who instead drafted a nose tackle named Gabriel Rivera.

Marino is a Pittsburgh native who played his college ball at Pitt, and it is easy to imagine he would have loved to play professionally for the Steelers. He would have been the heir to the Terry Bradshaw legacy, and, if things played out in Pittsburgh as they did in Miami, leading the Steelers for the next decade and a half.

Rivera played for one season before his involvement in a car crash ended his career. Marino went on to become one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history and set the all-time passing yards mark before he retired.

Johnny Unitas

Johnny Unitas is one of the most legendary NFL quarterbacks of all time. He played for 18 seasons, 17 of them with the Baltimore Colts. He was elected to 10 Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams, he won three NFL Championships and one Super Bowl, he was voted MVP three times, and he won the Bert Bell Award three times.

And he should have been a Pittsburgh Steeler.

The Steelers selected Unitas in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL draft but cut him before the season began. Instead, they kept quarterbacks Jim Finks, Ted Marchibroda, and Vic Eaton. Finks threw for 10 touchdowns and 26 interceptions as he led the Steelers to a 4-8 record. Baltimore signed Unitas a year later and he became the starter. By 1958, he had quarterbacked the Colts to their first of several NFL Championships.

Earl Morrall

Earl Morrall had a long and storied NFL career, and he played for six different teams before retiring at the age of 42. He is best remembered for his time with the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins. In 1968, he became the NFL MVP when he stepped in for an injured Johnny Unitas and guided the Colts to the Super Bowl. In 1972, he started and won nine games as part of the undefeated Miami Dolphins.

Morrall played for a total of 22 seasons in the NFL. He threw for over 20,000 yards and won 63 out of 102 starts. And, as you probably guessed, he could have done it all as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Morrall played for the Steelers in 1957, when he started 11 games and made the Pro Bowl. The next season he was traded to Detroit for a 32-year-old Bobby Layne.

Len Dawson

Len Dawson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987. He played for 19 seasons, most of them for the Kansas City Chiefs. He made seven Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams; and he won one Super Bowl and three AFL Championships.

Dawson was drafted by the Steelers in 1957, but he saw limited action. Pittsburgh traded him to the Cleveland Browns, one of the Steelers' biggest rivals, at the end of the 1959 season. By that time, Bobby Lane was Pittsburgh's starter.

Jack Kemp

Before he became a politician, Jack Kemp played 13 seasons in the NFL. He made seven Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams, he won two AFL Championships and was the 1965 AFL Player of the Year. He was picked up by the Steelers in 1957 after the Detroit Lions cut him, but only stuck around for one season.

Kemp was out of the league for a time, and in 1960 he emerged with the Los Angeles Chargers of the AFL. He started 12 games, posted a 9-3 record, and led the team to the AFL Championship.

Through the looking glass of history, it is easy to fault the Steelers for some of the decisions made during the ‘50s and ‘60s, but there was no way to know that Unitas, Morrall, Kemp, or Dawson would become NFL legends. Evaluating talent is one of the biggest challenges of coaching in the NFL.

Johnny Unitas could have been a Steeler!
Johnny Unitas could have been a Steeler! | Source

Pittsburgh Steelers Passing Records

Most Passing Yards All Time

56,545 – Ben Roethlisberger, 2004-Present

Most Touchdown Passes All Time

363 – Ben Roethlisberger, 2004-Present

Most Interceptions All Time

210 – Terry Bradshaw, 1970-1983

Most Wins As a Starter All Time

144 – Ben Roethlisberger, 2004-Present

Most Passing Yards in a Season

5,129 – Ben Roethlisberger, 2018

Most Touchdown Passes in a Season

34 – Ben Roethlisberger, 2018

Most Interceptions in a Season

26 – Jim Finks, 1955

Most Wins as a Starter in a Season

14 – Terry Bradshaw, 1978

Most Passing Yards in a Game

522 – Ben Roethlisberger, 10/26/14 vs. Indianapolis Colts

Most Touchdown Passes in a Game

6 – Ben Roethlisberger, 10/26/14 vs. Indianapolis Colts; 11/2/14 vs. Baltimore Ravens

Most Interceptions in a Game

7 – Tommy Wade, 12/12/1965 vs. Philadelphia Eagles

Longest Touchdown Pass

97 – Ben Roethlisberger, 2017 vs. Detroit Lions; 2018 vs. Denver Broncos

The Importance of a Great Quarterback

Do you need a great quarterback to win consistently in the NFL? These days, I think you do. In days gone by, a team with a strong running game and stingy defense could win a Super Bowl with only a decent quarterback. They simply needed a guy who played smart, made few mistakes, and kept his head. This type of quarterback is often referred to as a game manager. They aren’t flashy, but the good ones reliably put their team in a position to win.

Both Bradshaw and Roethlisberger started their careers with this style of play. Backs like Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis helped them move the ball, and smart offensive coordinators did their best to keep their young quarterbacks out of trouble. Both evolved and improved as quarterbacks as the years rolled by, and in the latter parts of their careers, both Bradshaw and Roethlisberger put up big numbers.

But that was another time. Bradshaw played in the ‘70s, and Roethlisberger’s rookie year was over a decade and a half ago. In today’s NFL, trying to control the game with only a decent quarterback is like bringing a slingshot to a gunfight when your opponent has a Howitzer. You may win some games, but eventually, you are going to face a Tom Brady—or a Drew Brees, or a Patrick Mahomes—who is going to chuck 50 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns. It’s tough to manage that kind of game.

There are more of those big-gun passers out there than ever these days. The NFL is a passing league, and today’s offenses put up some crazy numbers. The teams who have great quarterbacks are at an advantage, and the teams who don’t will go to the ends of the earth to find one. Winning depends on it.

Statistical Resource


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