Pass Atlas: Is Philip Rivers Back?

Is Philip Rivers a good quarterback? About five years ago the answer was obviously “yes.” But more recently the answer was clearly “no.” Through three games this year, the answer seems to be “yes” again.

This is confusing.

The most convenient explanation is that Rivers has had an up-and-down career, or that he is simply “inconsistent.” However, the more inconvenient and more realistic counter to that stance is that Rivers has always possessed about the same amount of talent, and that we just love simplifying football narratives a little too much.

Football analysts love to over-individualize credit and blame. Sure, a quarterback having an unusually bad day can cost a team a game, but NFL offenses are complex affairs. Every single play involves 11 men attempting to execute some kind of tactical function, while 11 other men try their best to stop them. The end result of each play, measured in yards gained or lost, is commonly attributed to one or two individuals on the field. But quarterbacks and their stats are merely indicator species within larger, more complex offensive ecosystems. When the system fails, the QB is a scapegoat; when the system thrives, he hosts Saturday Night Live.

For the last handful of years, no QB has been more emblematic of this awesome-sucks binary than Philip Rivers. The Chargers quarterback has been on both good teams and bad teams. Is his “inconsistency” the cause or the effect of this? In some seasons he’s shared the field with elite running backs and strong receiver corps; in others he’s been teamed with a fleet of average or mediocre players. Still, after a few solid weeks this season it’s not hard to find articles about his “rebirth” or his regained form.

In 2008 Rivers led the league in passing touchdowns and overall passer rating. He led the NFL in yards per attempt from 2008 to 2010. That was a golden stretch for Rivers, during which he went to three straight Pro Bowls. Nobody would have called him a bad quarterback in those days. Then came the 2011 and 2012 seasons, when his numbers plummeted; he threw 35 combined interceptions, averaging more than one per game. Last season, he even led the NFL in fumbles, with 15.

But what does such a drastic increase in quarterback fumbles actually tell us? Did Philip Rivers suddenly forget how to hold a football at age 30? Maybe, but probably not. More realistically, his offensive line wasn’t protecting him. This would be the same line that allowed 49 sacks in 2012. When Rivers led the league in TD passes in 2008, he was sacked only 25 times.

So far this season, Rivers has looked pretty good, and so has his pass protection. Rivers has been able to complete 70 of his first 100 passes, while throwing eight touchdowns and only one interception. After three games he is on pace to get sacked only 27 times.

Also making his life easier is a trio of very reliable pass targets in Eddie Royal, Antonio Gates, and Danny Woodhead. Last year, in 10 games with the Chargers, Royal caught 23 passes and had one touchdown. In three games this season, he already has 12 receptions and five touchdowns, which leads all receivers.

The emergence of Royal as a scoring threat has been nicely supplemented by Gates and Woodhead, who provide Rivers with very reliable short-range targets. He has completed 15 of 22 passes to Gates, averaging more than 10 yards per attempt. When he targets Woodhead, he’s more efficient, but less productive. That combination has been good for 17 to 20 passes for just over five yards per attempt. These are almost glorified running plays. Rivers’s pass chart shows his tendency to target this trio of receivers.

Philip Rivers chart

It’s pretty evident that Philip Rivers is a more than capable NFL quarterback. When he is surrounded by equally capable teammates, he can be elite; when he isn’t, his numbers are bad. I don’t think this is unusual. Just look at Tom Brady’s early-season struggles.

In all team sports we have a tendency to individualize both glory and blame while overlooking the effects of teamwork. It’s just easier that way. In the NFL, the meteoric rise of fantasy football has definitely amplified this phenomenon. Despite what the spreadsheets imply, football isn’t an individual sport. The game is in desperate need of better bookkeeping — just ask Philip Rivers.

Filed Under: Kirk Goldsberry, NFL, San Diego Chargers

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Kirk Goldsberry is a professor and Grantland staff writer.

Archive @ kirkgoldsberry