I spent a few minutes the other day examining two key statistics that are a good barometer of a quarterback's rise from ordinary to extraordinary.
The development of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, a franchise quarterback on a talented team, prompted the inquiry. Looking back over Roethlisberger's career, I examined two statistical trends -- his record in close games (those decided by eight or fewer points) and his record when asked to throw at least 30 passes.
During his amazing 15-win rookie season in 2004, Roethlisberger was 4-0 in close games, but he wasn't asked to throw 30 passes in any of those games. The next season, he was 1-1 in games in which he had to throw at least 30 passes. In 2006, he was 1-7 in those games, but don't forget that he had the motorcycle accident and the appendectomy that year.
The defining upward trend started in 2007. He was 3-4 in 30-pass games in 2007. Last year, going against an impossibly hard schedule, Roethlisberger went 6-2 in 30-pass games and 6-2 in close ones. Proving he can carry a team when asked to do more, Big Ben officially arrived as an elite quarterback and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
Others results of the study are equally fascinating. In some ways, it helped confirm a lot of observations that are normally taken for granted. Quarterbacks need time to mature and grow. Asking a young quarterback to carry a team by throwing at least 30 passes in a game in his first year or two as a starter is problematic. It's a major challenge for a young quarterback to carry a team when his running game is shut down or when the offense needs a game-winning, two- or four-minute drive.
Let's examine two Hall of Fame locks, Peyton Manning of the Colts and Tom Brady of the Patriots. Manning was 1-11 in 1998 in 30-pass games during his rookie season, 2-8 in close games. In 1999, he went 9-2 in 30-pass games, 8-2 in close ones. That started the Colts' rise to annual Super Bowl contender. Brady took over the Patriots in 2001 and established himself early. He was 3-1 in 30-pass games, 4-1 in close ones. The Patriots were the surprise Super Bowl winners that season and a mini-dynasty followed because of Brady. He won seven 30-pass games in 2002, 11 the next year and eight in 2004.
It's pretty clear, however, that you can't ask young quarterbacks to do too much too early. Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Joe Flacco of the Ravens shocked the NFL by having 11-win seasons as rookies. How many 30-pass wins did they have? One ... combined. Ryan was 1-5 in 30-pass games; Flacco was 0-3.
The trends show that Ryan and Flacco can expect to win two or three 30-pass games this season. By Years 3 and 4, they should graduate into the group that can win maybe three or four games a season when a 30-pass game is needed.
Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers, who sat behind Brett Favre for three seasons until he became a starter in 2008, is also an interesting study. He was a respectable 4-8 in games in which he was asked to throw at least 30 passes last season but just 1-7 in the games decided by eight or fewer points. First-year starters still must learn how to win the close ones.
As you might expect, Kurt Warner of the Cardinals, Donovan McNabb of the Eagles and Drew Brees of the Saints rank with the best of the quarterbacks in all categories. Warner was 8-6 in 30-pass games during the Cardinals' Super Bowl run last season. Brees is 7-8 in 30-pass games in each of the past two years, a stat that indicates New Orleans must improve on defense because a quarterback can only do so much. McNabb was 8-4-1 last season in 30-pass games.
These two key quarterback stats also reveal why the Bears were wise to deal three high draft choices, including two No. 1 picks, to Denver for Jay Cutler. Cutler was 1-2 as a 30-pass starter in his rookie season in 2006. He was 3-6 the next year with a 4-2 record in close games. That's pretty good. Last year, burdened by a defense that surrendered 28 points a game, Cutler was 6-7 in close games. Chicago gave up 21 points a game last season, so Cutler -- already good enough to win when asked to throw a lot -- should put the Bears in contention for the NFC North title.
Two quarterbacks to watch this season are Matt Schaub of the Texans and Trent Edwards of the Bills. Clearly, both are far from being Pro Bowlers, but both are starting to show they can carry a team when asked. After winning only two 30-pass games during his first two seasons, Schaub was 5-4 last year and 5-2 in close games. Edwards was 4-2 in 30-pass games, which is pretty good considering defenses neutralized the Bills' offense in the final nine games by double-teaming Lee Evans and stuffing running back Marshawn Lynch. The Bills' addition of Terrell Owens will add a much-needed threat to open up the offense.
These numbers also reveal that Minnesota QB Tarvaris Jackson has a long way to go. In his three seasons, Jackson is 0-1, 0-3 and 0-2 in 30-pass games. This is not to say that Jackson's a bust yet. Roethlisberger won only two games in his first three seasons when asked to throw 30 or more passes, but Jackson clearly needs to do better when the burden is placed on his shoulders.
This study shows that young quarterbacks can't be rushed too quickly without consequences. It also shows it takes time for a quarterback to establish himself. Once that happens, though, the team with that proven quarterback can handle any type of game.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.