Who's Better: Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger

Who really is the best QB from the 2004 draft class?

After a fantastic career at Ole Miss, Elisha Nelson Manning went #1 overall in the 2004 NFL draft. After some rather significant drama behind the scenes, Elisha, more commonly known as Eli, ended up a New York Giant, complete with all of the media attention and expectation attendant to that post. He's done admirably.

After a great career in the somewhat hidden lights of Miami (OH), Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger went #11 in that same draft; a steal for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Leading up to the draft, there was significant interest and demand in the selection among faithful Steelers fans, having suffered through several ignomious years under the guidance of Tommy Maddox and Kordell Stewart. There was significant hope that Ben would be the the first franchise QB since Terry Bradshaw. Like Eli, he has done admirably.

One was the star of the draft, beset with controversy before the selection was even announced. The other was perhaps the strongest value selection of the first round. But who is better? We'll go deep into the numbers and come up with a verdict.

A Quick Math Lesson

Before we get too deep into the numbers, let me first explain our methodology a little bit. numberFire does not use "traditional" statistics like passing yards; they are misleading statistics that do not accurately measure the value of a player. For example, a player could throw for 300 yards in a game, but that number does not factor in the strength of the opponent, nor does it factor in the situations in the game; that player's team could have been behind the entire game, thereby forcing him to throw more than usual.

Instead, we use our own proprietary efficiency scores, based on an expected points model. Think of it as a much better, much more accurate QB rating. We factor in the strength of the defense, the situation of the game, and many other variables to get a much more accurate sense of the additional value that player generates for his team.

The specific statistic we'll be using is PNEP/P, or passing net expected points per play. Unlike yards or TDs, it is not tied to the number of passes a player may throw in the game. Instead, it is a function of how those plays improve the position of his team and their chance of scoring points. A score above 0.25 is considered elite; it means that player added 0.25 points per passing play to his offense in comparison to a perfectly average QB. In a given year, roughly 4-5 QBs score above this threshold.

The Numbers

Just for the sake of conventionality, we know that Big Ben and Eli essentially split in terms of conventional statistics. Over seven full seasons in which they were both starters, Eli leads Ben 4-3 in total passing yards and 6-1 in passing TDs. However, Eli has thrown a lot more interceptions than Ben, not to mention the fact that in terms of QB rating - the most incomprehensible of all statistics - Ben has a sizable advantage, leading Eli 5-2.

What do our advanced numbers think? Is it a split, like passing yards, or a whitewash for Ben like QB rating? Let's see.

Passing Net Expected Points Per Play
Season Eli Ben
2004 -0.16 0.28
2005 0.10 0.33
2006 0.02 0.05
2007 -0.06 0.25
2008 0.14 -0.06
2009 0.21 0.21
2010 0.15 0.25
2011 0.20 0.20
2012 0.24 0.31

As you can see from the above table, Ben has a pretty clear advantage in net efficiency over Eli. He's got the top five seasons between them and seven of the top ten. Seeing as neither is particularly known for their running ability - although Ben has the top four out of five seasons in that category as well - this is a pretty clear advantage for Ben.

What is most notable about the table is the remarkable efficiency that Ben produced very early in his career. Whether it was a function of the system he ran in college - or simply a matter of being placed on a solidly built team - Ben didn't suffer the slow learning curve that many other players, including Eli, suffered. The delta between the two started to level out in 2008 - Eli's fifth full season in the league - and their on-field play since has been roughly comparable, albeit with a slight advantage to Ben.

Of course, it's true that it's very difficult to isolate a single player and his contributions on a field where there are twenty-two moving parts. With that said, you cannot ascribe all of Ben's higher efficiency to simply having a better team; to do would be unfair to his better play.

Additionally, one thing are advanced statistics do not take into account - unlike ESPN's QBR, for example - is the concept of clutch performance. Eli is commonly known to be one of the best QBs in the fourth quarter but our analytics simply do not differentiate performance based on the time of the game in which it occured. Breaking it down into those segments - or even to discuss the statistical merits of a concept like "being clutch" - is reserved for another column.

The Verdict

Regardless of how you personally feel about him as a person - or even the Steelers as an organization, notorious for having aggressive and annoying fans - it's hard to conclude anything other than Ben Roethlisberger as having the edge. They both have two rings, but Ben has a demonstrative advantage across all levels of statistical comparison.

Don't agree? Think we missed something? Fight it out in the comments below.