Sports Columnist

John Steigerwald has been a fixture of TV, radio, and newspaper sports in Pittsburgh, and has a Sunday column in the Observer-Reporter.

It’s never been easier to play quarterback in the NFL.

Imagine what the old timers, sitting on their couches watching games today, still feeling the pains from some of the hits they took, think when they see three or four roughing-the-passer calls resulting from somebody falling a little too hard on the quarterback.

If you go to the Steelers-Ravens game tonight, don’t say anything mean to Joe Flacco or you could be called for roughing the passer. Pass rushers are just beginning to get the message, and the penalties will decrease as the season goes along but the fear of getting flagged has to slow them down, and that’s the idea.

And it’s one more thing that makes it easier to succeed as a quarterback.

Ben Roethlisberger drew a roughing call Monday night in Tampa when he took a dive after one of the Bucs’ pass rushers tapped the back of his helmet, which, of course, means it’s only a matter of time before the NFL is going to start giving two minutes for diving.

Every week somebody sets a passing or receiving record.

In 1978, Terry Bradshaw led the NFL in touchdown passes with 28. Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, in his first year as a starter, has 13 three weeks into the season. That’s the most ever after three weeks.

In 1978, it was the first year after the rules were changed to make it easier for quarterbacks. Receivers couldn’t be touched more than five yards downfield before a pass was thrown and offensive linemen were allowed to use their hands while blocking. Bradshaw was the best quarterback in the league that year – something that has been forgotten by most of the people who forget or refuse to rank him with some of the all-time greats.

Roger Staubach of the Cowboys, at 84.9 had the highest passer rating. Bradshaw’s was 84.7. Twelve of the top 20 quarterbacks had passer ratings lower than 72 that season.

Three weeks into this season, there are nine quarterbacks with ratings over 100. Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams is the leader at 127.3.

In 1978, five quarterbacks averaged more than 200 passing yards per game. Bradshaw averaged 182.

There are four quarterbacks averaging over 400 yards per game right now.

Two quarterbacks, Archie Manning (60 percent) and Fran Tarkenton (60.3) completed 60 percent of their passes 40 years ago.

Archie’s son, Eli, is at 73 percent so far this season and he’s only third best. Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders is second at 76.6. Drew Brees, who’s 39 years old, is sitting at 80.6.

There are 12 quarterbacks this season who are completing 65 percent or more of their passes. Ben Roethlisberger is at 66 percent. The league average is 65.5 percent – the highest since the merger in 1970.

Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once said that he didn’t like to pass unless he had to because three things could happen and two of them were bad. Hayes was referring to incompletions and interceptions. For some reason, Woody didn’t consider getting sacked a bad thing.

When an NFL quarterback drops back to pass now, he and his coach can assume that the chances for a completion are better than two out of three. And that’s not counting an interference or roughing-the-passer call.

There was a time when a quarterback got sacked on third down he was booed and the punter came in. Now there’s a good chance that the sack will turn into a 15-yard gain because of a roughing-the-passer call. And those calls keep drives alive and help quarterbacks fatten their statistics.

And if he doesn’t get a pass interference call, there’s a good chance that somebody in the secondary was holding.

Tom Brady still playing at a high level at age 41 and Drew Brees playing better at 39 might seem like a big deal now, but, in 10 years, there’s no reason for the NFL not to have several quarterbacks putting up big numbers and winning lots of games in their mid-40s.

Maybe some of those old-timers should think about coming back.

  • The Pirates overachieved and ended up with a winning season – their fourth in the last 26 years. If congratulations are in order, that’s pretty pathetic. If they don’t win one next season, it’ll be 40 years without winning a postseason series. How do you like their chances of breaking the streak?

Didn’t think so.

  • It sure has been a drama-free training camp for the Penguins. No holdouts. No social media stupidity. Have you noticed that Sidney Crosby doesn’t tweet? Think he feels deprived?

  • After trashing the NFL’s TV ratings in this space before, it would only be fair to point out that the last two Thursday night games had big numbers.

  • It might make Steelers fans feel a little better about their defense if they lower their expectations based on the numbers at the top of this column. If it’s so much easier to play quarterback these days, then it would follow that it’s a lot harder to play cornerback. The Steel Curtain defense wouldn’t have any resemblance to the Steel Curtain defense if it had to play under 2018 conditions.

John Steigerwald writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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