Every quarterback in the AFC North is confronted with a challenge. Joe Flacco is looking to establish his value in a contract year. Andy Dalton is answering critics about his arm strength. Brandon Weeden is trying to show he's a franchise quarterback.
What does Ben Roethlisberger have to prove? Just his place in the current landscape of quarterbacks.
Roethlisberger has the rings -- two, to be exact. Still, he rarely gets the ringing endorsement of being in the same class as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. This is not a new slight for Roethlisberger. It hits him in the face as often as a Ravens defender.
The debate of where Roethlisberger stands was once again stirred up two months ago, when ESPN's Ron Jaworski ranked him No. 6, behind Eli Manning. "Roethlisberger's on the cusp of becoming elite," Jaworski wrote.
Roethlisberger's rebuttal to being "on the cusp" can come this year, starting with Sunday's season opener against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Even though Manning faces questions about his neck injury, Roethlisberger gets an opportunity to play against one of the all-time bests in the national spotlight. He thrived in a similar situation against Brady last year when he outplayed the two-time NFL Most Valuable Player.
Roethlisberger acknowledged that he hears about the quarterback rankings but said his agent, family and friends get more upset about them.
"For me, while I'm playing, I'll probably never be considered the best that's played," he said at training camp. "It's probably because of the system we play in. I'm not a pretty football player. I don't put up all the numbers."
There are some important numbers where Roethlisberger tops the elite three of Brady, Rodgers and Brees. Roethlisberger has more than double the playoff wins (five) of Brady (two) over the past four years. He has more regular-season game-winning drives (12) than Rodgers (six) since 2008, when Rodgers became the Packers' starter. His career winning percentage (.708) is better than what Brees has posted with the Saints (.652).
One reason why Roethlisberger doesn't get the same credit as these quarterbacks is because of the current era of football. He didn't make the 40-touchdown or 5,000-yard club last season. He isn't part of ESPN's MVP Watch to begin the season because he doesn't post MVP-type stats (Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Michael Vick and Peyton Manning did make the top-10 list). He isn't going to be chosen in the first round of any fantasy football draft. But see where he gets picked when you ask a coach to select one quarterback to lead a last-minute drive. See where he gets picked when you ask a pass-rusher who is the toughest quarterback to bring down.
Roethlisberger isn't a classic pocket passer, although he unfairly gets overlooked for his ability to make accurate throws without scrambling. His backyard style of extending plays was a hot topic this offseason. Steelers president Art Rooney II suggested that Roethlisberger needed to tweak his game after the quarterback limped down the stretch last season, including a playoff loss at Denver.
But Roethlisberger insists that he isn't changing. He takes pride in being thought of as a football player and not just a quarterback.
"To me, it's just fun," Roethlisberger said. "I just enjoy playing the game. I never intend to do it. It just happens and you extend plays sometimes."
What Roethlisberger wants to change is the results on offense. The Steelers ranked 12th in scoring in 2009 and 2010 before slipping to 21st last season. That led to Pittsburgh switching from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley at offensive coordinator.
While there has been an adjustment to Haley's playbook, Roethlisberger has his sights set high for an offense that returns four Pro Bowl players from a year ago (Roethlisberger, wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, and center Maurkice Pouncey).
"I'm never one to make excuses, but I think injuries really hurt us last year," Roethlisberger said. "We sometimes we got a little too complicated for our own good when we got to the red zone. We've got the potential [this year]. I think our expectations for ourselves and what I put on us, we want to be a top-10-at-worst offense. We'd like to be a top-five offense."
For Roethlisberger to make that climb on the quarterback list, he has to improve more than the Steelers' rankings. The more indisputable number for quarterbacks will always be Super Bowls.
Roethlisberger has guided the Steelers to three Super Bowls over the past seven seasons. No other quarterback has been there more than twice during that span. If Roethlisberger can win his third ring this season, he would become only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to reach that number, joining Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Brady.
"My hope is, when it's all said and done and I retire, people will sit down and say, 'Wow, that guy had a lot of wins, won a lot of championships. We didn't realize it at the time, but he was pretty good,'" Roethlisberger said. "If I'm not going to get the credit now, I will take it sometime down the road. If that doesn't come, I hope the wins and championships speak for themselves."