San Diego Chargers: The regression of Philip Rivers
By Louis Gorini
There was a time where NFL experts and fans alike would put Philip Rivers in that upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks.
He might not have been in that tier 1 of elite signal callers (Brees, Peyton Manning, Brady, Rodgers); but he was right at the top of that tier 2 list. Throughout his career, Rivers has been consistently ranked in the top 10 in numerous statistical categories and when it’s all said and done, it’s his gaudy numbers that will most likely propel the Chargers quarterback into the Hall of Fame.
Three years ago, Rivers experienced a career resurgence when new coach Mike McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt implemented a system to help “fix” the veteran QB. Rivers earned a Pro Bowl bid in 2013 due to his 4,400 yards passing, 32 touchdowns, and a career high completion percentage (69.5%). The Chargers quarterback was able to carry San Diego deep into the playoffs that year; eventually losing to division rival Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
The San Diego Chargers have not been back to the playoffs since that magical year led by Rivers. It is now starting to look as if Rivers’ resurgence was a short-lived one. This is not saying that Rivers is a bad quarterback. That is far from the truth. Over the last couple of years, Rivers has put up some very impressive numbers. He is still able to make the inferior talent on the offense look better on the field than what they are. It is just that Rivers is no longer able to single handedly carry the franchise who drafted him to victories. Simply put, Rivers’ play has regressed the last couple of years and there is no reason to believe that he will improve.
Diehard fans will be quick to point out other factors that have caused Rivers to struggle. A popular theme has been the lack of support from the Chargers offensive line. For the third year in a row, the Chargers offensive line ranks at the bottom of the league is pass protection. Other Rivers’ supporters will state that he is playing with a bunch of undrafted wide receivers and running backs that just came off the street. Lastly, another common narrative bashes the questionable play calling by a coach that is unable to make second half adjustments in games.
Dec 24, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) throws a pass during the first half against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
These theories due indeed hold some truth as to why Rivers has seen a decline in play. That being said, fans would be blind and ignorant not to notice that Rivers is also part of the problem. Rivers never had the strongest of arms. What has made him successful throughout his career is his ability to anticipate his throws prior to the receivers coming out of their breaks. However,
Nov 27, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) walks the sidelines while the Chargers play the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. San Diego Chargers won 21 to 13. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Rivers’ arm strength has seen a noticeable decline which has resulted into numerous interceptions. Take for example the interception Rivers threw last week against the Cleveland Browns. Rivers was targeting Antonio Gates on an out/corner route. Gates was open along the sideline but Rivers drastically under threw his tight end which led to the interception. The decline in arm strength (along with the spotty pass protection) has forced Rivers and the Chargers into an offense that relies heavily on drag, slant, and quick stick/hitch routes. Rivers is unable to complete the out routes, post patterns, and wide receiver screens that he was able to in the past.
Another troubling observation is Rivers’ poor decision making which has resulted into his costly turnovers. Part of the issue is what made Rivers so great in the past, he is a gunslinger trying to make the big play. The other problem is that Rivers “sees ghosts.” For those who are unaware of that terminology, it means even when Rivers has a clean pocket to throw from, he still feels like he is under pressure and rushes his throws. A perfect example of this can be seen in the Miami game. Late in the fourth quarter, Rivers and the Chargers were approaching mid field for a game winning drive. For once, the San Diego offensive line provided a clean pocket, but Rivers did not trust the pocket. As a result, Rivers made a quick ill advised throw which was undercut by Kiko Alonso who dropped back into coverage for the pick 6. Rivers misread the coverage and thought Alonso was coming in on a blitz, but was horribly wrong. These are the reasons/examples that have caused Rivers a 50 point drop off in QBR from the first quarter to the fourth quarter in games.
Dec 4, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) reacts after throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Lavonte David (kneeling) during the second half at Qualcomm Stadium. Tampa Bay won 28-21. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
There would be plenty of NFL teams that would kill to have Rivers under the center for them and they would be right for wanting him. This is a declaration that Rivers is not the same player as he once was. San Diego needs to come to terms with that reality so they can address it. This does not mean the Chargers should cut/trade their franchise quarterback. Tom Telesco needs to take a page out of John Elway’s book and go all in to support Rivers during the twilight of his career. Elway added playmakers on both sides of the ball ( Ware, Ward, Sanders, and Talib) to help ensure an aging Manning a Super Bowl ring. San Diego should continue building up their defense through the draft and free agency. This will take the pressure off of Rivers and allow the Chargers
Nov 13, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) hands off to running back Melvin Gordon (28) during the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
to play a more conservative type of offense that will be focused on efficiency and ball security. With an improved defense, Rivers will no longer be forced to attempt to keep up with the opposing offenses. This will also provide Rivers and company more scoring opportunities. Lastly, San Diego needs to add more weapons and continue addressing their offensive line so that Rivers’ surrounding cast can finally support him. Perhaps by drafting a Mike Williams (wide receiver out of Clemson) and adding a quality veteran lineman can help implement a ground and pound offense with a deadly play action capability. For years Rivers has carried the city of San Diego and the Chargers on his back during times of need. It’s time for the favor to be returned.