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Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger chasing 5,000-yard season

Joe Rutter

When Dan Marino passed for 5,084 yards in 1984, it was hailed as a landmark achievement in the NFL.

And rightfully so.

Marino’s assault on the single-season record came just five years after Dan Fouts became the first quarterback to exceed 4,000 yards in a season.

Marino’s record stood for 27 years before Drew Brees broke it in 2011, and Peyton Manning reset the standard two years later with 5,477 yards, breaking the record by 1 yard.

Quarterbacks have reached the 5,000-yard plateau nine times in NFL history, with Brees accounting for five such seasons.

No quarterback is on pace to threaten Manning’s record this year, yet hitting the 5,000-yard passing mark doesn’t have the historical significance it once did. Five quarterbacks are on pace to throw for 5,000 yards this season, including the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger.

“It’s still a pretty big deal,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “I know I’ve never gotten there, and a lot of other guys haven’t. It’s still probably a pretty big number, but it seems like there might be a few guys on pace this year.”

Among the quarterbacks who never compiled a 5,000-yard season were Hall of Famers Brett Favre, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Joe Montana and Steve Young, to name a few.

For a quarterback to reach 5,000 yards, he would need to average 312.5 passing yards over a 16-game season. At the middle of the season — with NFL teams either playing eight or nine games — Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is averaging 335.6 yards per game. He’s followed by Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (322.3), Roethlisberger (320), Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (317.8) and the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff (312.9).

Multiple quarterbacks reaching 5,000 yards in a season has happened just twice, both occurring earlier in the decade. Brees, New England’s Tom Brady and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford did in in 2011, and Brees and Manning accomplished the feat in 2013.

Since 2013, the only quarterback to get to a 5,000-yard season was Brees in 2016.

Would Roethlisberger like to join the club?

“As long as we’re winning football games,” he said, “that’s all that matters to me.”

Roethlisberger came close in 2014 when he passed for a career-high 4,952 yards. He also threw a career-high 32 touchdown passes that season.

This year, he is on pace for 5,120 yards and another 32 touchdowns. He’s doing it at age 36 and in his 15th season while working with a first-year offensive coordinator in Randy Fichtner. Roethlisberger has missed just one snap to injury, and that happened Sunday against Baltimore.

“He’s been healthy. With the exception of the other day, he’s taken minimal amount of hits. He’s taking care of his body,” Fichtner said. “For the most part, he’s trying to get the ball out, and I can appreciate that.

“There may be plays not being made like in the past when he’s holding the ball and has to push two defenders off and throw the ball up and all of a sudden we get the big play. But in his own way, he’s making plays. He’s getting a lot first downs, and he’s really competing on third down, too. That’s a positive.”

It was a big deal in 1979, the second year of the 16-game schedule in the NFL, when Fouts passed for 4,082 yards. This season, 18 quarterbacks are on pace for a 4,000-yard season, including Derek Carr, Case Keenum, Andy Dalton and Blake Bortles.

“The game has changed so much,” said Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who competes in a division that includes Atlanta’s Ryan and New Orleans’ Brees. “Part of it was back in the day you didn’t have 80 plays in a game. You didn’t throw the ball 50 times in a game. It’s crazy. The game is completely changing.”

Roethlisberger thinks the increase in passing yardage is partially attributed to the rules changes that provide more protection for quarterbacks.

“I think that’s one of the big ones,” he said. “Everyone has to keep up with everyone else, right? When you’re going out and scoring points … 30 isn’t even a (big) number anymore. It doesn’t seem like it in a lot of these games.”

Four teams are averaging at least 30 points this season, with five others (including the Steelers) averaging at least 28. The Panthers, who will face the Steelers on Thursday night, compete against three of those teams in the NFC South.

“I think some of the rules changes benefit the offenses more than the defenses as well,” Rivera said. “I just think as we liberalize what is holding with the offensive line and what is quote unquote allowable contact downfield and what’s not allowed, it does tend to favor the offensive side.”

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Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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