Ernests Goes to the Open

Mind Games

The Best Quarterback of the 2004 Draft Class …

… is not who you might think it is. Philip Rivers doesn’t have a ring like Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger — but that may be all he’s missing. Could that change this season?

In his lolling north Alabama accent, the word “ours” makes Philip Rivers sound like a pirate. Fresh from an August practice and leaning against a wall outside Chargers Park, he’s using it a lot. “I feel like it’s ars,” he says. “I feel like it’s ar offense.”

Rivers is talking about the system that head coach Mike McCoy brought with him upon arriving in San Diego last season. When McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt, then San Diego’s offensive coordinator and now the Tennessee Titans’ head coach, arrived, it meant the only significant schematic change of Rivers’s career. What the quarterback thought might devolve into a rookie head coach making his mark — and a point — turned collaborative. “I have to imagine in other places, coaches come in, and it’s wholesale change — Here’s how we run this offense; learn it our way,” Rivers says. “This has been a lot more about making it the easiest transition we can.” The language of the offense has shifted, as McCoy says, from a system reliant on numbers to one based on words — but certain ideas, code names, and route designs survived.

The holdovers were a bridge, designed to return Rivers to the quarterback he’d been for much of his career, and beyond the muck of the past couple seasons. At the end of 2012, his status as a great quarterback had been left for dead. He’d thrown 35 interceptions in 2011 and 2012 — the fourth-worst mark in football. Add to that a tie with Mark Sanchez for the league lead in fumbles with 24 over the same stretch. The Chargers had gone from a high-powered offense to living under the auspices of inevitable disaster. Head coach Norv Turner was fired, and Rivers was dropped to the middle class of the quarterback hierarchy.

Soon after McCoy arrived, he told Peter King he thought Rivers could complete 70 percent of his passes — the sort of endorsement new coaches offer a quarterback in need of revival. In nine years, Rivers had never bested 66. When the season ended, McCoy’s vision had failed to come true. Rivers ended the year at 69.5 percent.

After a two-year banishment, Rivers was again one of the best quarterbacks in football. But reentry to the club doesn’t go far enough — not after the season he had a year ago and the seven he put together before that. Last season placed Rivers alongside Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, players who have long been his peers, even if he is rarely considered in the same breath. By some measures, Rivers is one of the five best quarterbacks of the past decade. But many would list him third in his own draft class — the famous 2004 group that includes Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning.

Those two have one claim that Rivers doesn’t — each has won a championship. Same as Peyton, Brees, and every other quarterback comparable to Rivers during his 10 years in the league. He’s done enough to earn his generation’s title as the best quarterback without a Super Bowl. But he’s been so much more.

Rivers is also bigger than you might think. His name is never mentioned along with Roethlisberger’s or Andrew Luck’s when people talk about “big” quarterbacks, but even standing here in a pair of brown Crocs, Rivers is an honest 6-foot-5.

At 228 pounds, he’s sturdy enough to withstand a beating. And he has. In eight seasons as San Diego’s starting quarterback, Rivers has never missed a start, including the 2007 AFC Championship Game, which he played on a torn ACL. He’s 32 now and says he still feels great. “And those two years at the beginning gave me an extra two on the back end,” he says.

Those two years were spent in relief of Drew Brees, the Chargers’ starting quarterback when Rivers arrived back in 2004. Owners of the first pick in the 2004 draft, the Chargers opted for the North Carolina State quarterback after Eli Manning made no secret of not wanting to play in San Diego. Rivers didn’t have Manning’s last name, but his early years were similarly steeped in football. Rivers, whose dad was his coach, was a quarterback from the time he could hold a football. The ball barely fit in his tiny hands. To compensate, his passes were part push, and they stayed that way. Rivers’s unconventional delivery dominated talk about him before the draft. But two things were certain about those sidewinding throws: They got where they were going, and they got there more quickly than anyone else’s.

San Diego may not have landed Manning, but it had a worthy franchise quarterback — one who threw for nearly 4,500 yards as a senior. Taking Rivers was a hint that Brees was not long for the Chargers. And when Brees severely injured his right shoulder in his last game before free agency, it made his moving on an even more logical step. With all Brees has done since, it’s a testament to Rivers that a torch-bearing mob has yet to descend on Qualcomm Stadium.

Rivers took over as the starter in 2006 — San Diego went 14-2, but lost coach Marty Schottenheimer after fizzling in the playoffs. Schottenheimer’s replacement was Norv Turner, who kept the team’s Air Coryell offensive system in place. Don Coryell’s offense wasn’t born in San Diego, but it made a home there. When Coryell brought his vertical passing game to the West Coast in 1978, the Chargers — ultimately led by Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, and Charlie Joiner — began torching NFL records in the late 1970s by pushing the ball down the field. More than two decades later, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron brought Air Coryell back to San Diego, and Rivers became a master of it.

Rivers threw 34 touchdown passes in 2008, while also totaling 4,009 yards and finishing first in passing DVOA. It was the first of three straight seasons in which Rivers would lead the league in yards per attempt. The Chargers’ offense was designed to attack teams down the field, and they’d built the perfect group to do it. With Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, Rivers had a 6-foot-5 receiver to either side, while Antonio Gates patrolled the middle of the field. For his part, Rivers has always thrown one of the more beautiful deep balls in football.

The fit of system, quarterback, and cast turned the Chargers into one of the league’s top passing offenses in those years — first in DVOA in 2008, first again in 2009, and second in 2010 — and Rivers into maybe its best quarterback. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value metric, no quarterback did more for his team from 2008 to 2010 than Rivers, just ahead of Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees.

Tom Brady’s left knee pushes him down that list, but for the most part, those four quarterbacks are Rivers’s only company since 2006. He ranks behind only Brees in Approximate Value.1 He’s fourth in touchdown passes. Only Rodgers has averaged more yards per attempt.

In every statistical category, Rivers has produced at a higher level than both his 2004 draft mates. What separates him from Eli Manning and Roethlisberger is also what separates him from the rung of Peyton, Rodgers, Brees, and Brady: Rivers doesn’t have his Super Bowl.

And by the end of the 2012 season, it felt like his window had closed.

Since he got to San Diego, Danny Woodhead’s friends have all asked him a version of the same question: What’s Philip like?

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It’s the barking, flailing lunacy that defines Rivers’s on-field persona. Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler each have their own demonstrative flair, but where Manning’s is practical and Cutler’s is condescending, Rivers’s is just cranky. When Rivers was stomping around in Denver last year, Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers couldn’t help but perform a mock waddle in response. Not engaging with Rivers’s antics is next to impossible, and it drives the fascination that those like Woodhead’s friends have always had.

There’s more to it than being really competitive, though Rivers is really competitive. “I think you’re hinting at more of a turnaround than it really was,” he says of last year. “The previous seasons, a lot of guys would love to have those seasons.”

He’s probably right about 2011. That’s the year Rivers threw 20 interceptions, five more than any other season of his career — but he also threw for 4,624 yards and 27 touchdowns. He finished ninth in yards per attempt and eighth in DVOA. A lot of quarterbacks would love to have that season.

The next year, not so much.

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Rivers fumbled 15 times, more than anyone in football. He averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt, his worst figure as a starter. He plummeted to 22nd in DVOA.

Part of the decline was the crumbling of San Diego’s offensive line. For most of his time as a starter, Rivers had the reliable Marcus McNeill protecting him at left tackle. But in 2012, a host of injuries pushed undrafted rookie Mike Harris into that role. Harris was overmatched all year, and with right tackle Jeromey Clary not faring much better, the Chargers finished dead last in adjusted sack rate.

Evading rushers was part of the problem, but Rivers wasn’t blameless. On film, there were sequences when he “would watch and go, ‘Shoot, that’s about as good as I can play,’” but that backbreaking turnover was always lurking. “Sometimes, when it’s starting to get away from you a little bit, as it was those previous years, you’re fighting and clawing and trying to find a way to get it going, and you try to do too much,” he says. “There were times when I was trying to make something out of nothing. My intentions were good. My intentions were right. But it doesn’t work that way.”

The task for McCoy, Whisenhunt, and quarterbacks coach2 Frank Reich was to sway their quarterback away from taking so many risks. “The big thing was just trusting the system, taking what the defense gives you,” McCoy says. “That’s what we preached from day one here, in the meetings, everything. If he didn’t take a certain pass, Frank [Reich] would say, ‘Hey, listen, this is what we want you to do.’”

Completions became the goal — a mantra, almost. “It wasn’t a completely new idea to me,” Rivers says, “but it really was, ‘Just throw completions. Just keeping throwing completions. Just keep getting first downs.’”

And they got plenty. Only the Broncos and Patriots had more, and no team converted on third down more times and more often than the Chargers. They finished second in offensive DVOA, with Rivers finishing third among quarterbacks.

It was a return to the results from five years earlier, but by way of a considerably different process. Gone was the downfield passing game dependent on chunks of yardage. In his first seven seasons, Rivers averaged 8.58 air yards per attempt, the eighth-highest total over that span. Last season, it was 7.68 — 30th in the league. His completion percentage jumped from his career average as a starter of 63.7 to his career-high 69.5. Throw it to who’s open seems too simple an explanation for such a turnaround, but San Diego’s bevy of short and intermediate passes was a considerable departure from what Rivers had done in the six years prior. The offense wanted something different. So he did something different.

At times, it led to competing voices whispering in his ear. “It was just like, Don’t get bored with that little completion. ‘Ah, but I want to try to hit this deep in.’ Well, no, here, there’s a completion. Throw it.

The voices eventually met in the middle. Rivers took San Diego’s old “chunk plays” when they were there, but he was also the type of high-efficiency quarterback he hadn’t been in a long time. “This offense is funny because it has a mix of what I’ve done in the NFL before, and then a mix of what I did at NC State,” Rivers says. “There was a lot of this intermediate, get the ball out of your hands [passing]. I think it was senior year, I was like 72 percent.” It was exactly 72 percent.

Dallas Cowboys v San Diego Chargers

“I don’t like doing this to Danny, because it’s not fair to him,” Rivers says of the running back who isn’t exactly known for his running, before doing it anyway. “But we haven’t had that type of back since [Darren] Sproles left.”

Danny Woodhead came to San Diego last offseason, in the initial wave of moves by the Chargers’ new coaching staff and front office. A legendary Division II running back, Woodhead had made most of his contributions with the Patriots as a receiver — which was just what San Diego needed. He caught 76 passes last year, nearly doubling his career high.

Some of what Woodhead offers is a product of the offense’s structure. Many of San Diego’s plays used Woodhead as a release in the middle of the field, an outlet for when the efficiency whispers were just a little louder. There were ample plays, though, that asked Woodhead to simply beat whoever was tasked with covering him. And he did, often.

System and scheme deserve a lot of credit for what Rivers and his offense accomplished in their first year, but there’s also an ineffable quality that shows up again and again when they play. “You have to have feel,” Rivers says. “Danny has that feel. Gates has always had it. Keenan’s got it.”

Keenan Allen was the Chargers’ third-round pick in last year’s draft. Based on his 98 catches for more than 1,300 yards as a sophomore, many thought he’d be a first-round pick, but when the combine came around, Allen clocked in at 4.71 in the 40-yard dash — a number that’s difficult to overcome for any receiver. A bum knee played a role, but even those campaigning for Allen did it with lines like, “On tape, to me, he’s a 4.55 guy all day long.”

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A 4.55 won’t turn heads either, but what Allen lacks in pure burner speed, he makes up for in feel. For Allen — and Woodhead, and Gates — “feel” is knowing how to get where he wants to be on the field when he wants to get there. Put simply, he just knows how to get open. “You have to be within the framework, but in certain cases, whatever it takes, you’ve just got to get open,” Woodhead says. Allen usually is — wide open.

Rivers says there’s “an element of the backyard involved in how we’re playing,” which sounds ridiculous but also like something every quarterback would want to say about his offense. There’s something else about Rivers — something that at first mention might sound silly, but Woodhead is willing to back it up: His passes are strangely easy to catch. “He throws a very catchable ball,” Woodhead says, “whether it be a diagonal in the flat, or going over the middle. It’s very catchable.” That line is attached to a lot of quarterbacks, but for Rivers, it seems to be true. The Chargers have finished in the top four in drop rate for four straight seasons,3 a stretch that’s seen almost complete receiver turnover outside of Gates. Whether it’s his unorthodox release, the way the ball spins off his hand, or some other explanation, Rivers’s passes get caught.

Whatever intangible connection Rivers shares with his receivers becomes even more crucial this season. San Diego is moving to a no-huddle approach on offense, giving Rivers more authority at the line of scrimmage. “I hate the term ‘freedom,’” Rivers says about the characterization of the no-huddle. “It’s not freedom. Within the confines of what we’re doing, we all have to see it. [The receivers] have to see it how I see it.” With this group, they usually do.

The open lines of communication from his initial meetings with McCoy and Reich have continued into this year. “They give us that sense of ownership,” Rivers says. “Because we have the leeway on the field to get to certain plays, and because they’re so open to listen to wrinkles for certain guys. We have guys in charge, but it very much has that feel of, ‘This is ars.’ And to has to be that way for it to work in the no-huddle.” There’s still no “o” to be found in ars.

For all the success he and the offense had last year, what Rivers wants to carry over most is the notion of “getting in,” as he calls it. The Chargers snuck into the playoffs at 9-7, but that’s a start. Roethlisberger’s first Super Bowl came as a 6-seed, Manning’s as a 5. Rivers has been around. He knows how it works. It takes only one year when it all breaks the right way. “That’s why we, as a team, not for me, have to keep getting in,” Rivers says. “I know that’s a long way from now, and we have to focus on the division, one game at a time, all that, but you have to give yourself a chance. And that’s what those teams did. They got in.

“That’s where you’re sick the most,” Rivers says. “I know I was. For three years, we didn’t give ourselves a chance.”

Rivers will be 33 in December. He’s watched players like LaDainian Tomlinson and Kris Dielman — men he played with for years — retire. The end is closer than the beginning. A Super Bowl would do more for him than any quarterback in the NFL, but he says it’s no more important now that it has been for the last decade. “I don’t want us to win a championship more than I did [in earlier seasons],” he says.

With his back and one foot up against the wall, he’s searching for the right words to describe the feeling. “It’s hard to really explain this,” he says. “Will I be disappointed if we don’t one day win a championship? Yes. But I know I’m going to be able to be at peace either way.” He even sounds like he believes it. 

Filed Under: 2014 NFL Preview, NFL, San Diego Chargers, Philip Rivers, AFC West, Antonio Gates, Danny Woodhead, Keenan Allen, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger

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Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays

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