THE SAN DIEGO QB'S NUMBERS PUT HIM AMONG THE GAME'S ELITE, BUT THESE DAYS THE STAT THAT MATTERS MOST IS W'S IN THE POSTSEASON
Philip Rivers could feel his aggravation rising. Trailing by seven with just under three minutes to play in New Orleans on Sunday night, the Chargers had moved from their 15-yard line to the Saints' 45 when suddenly it all went wrong. On first down right tackle Jeromey Clary was beaten badly, and defensive end Cameron Jordan sacked Rivers. On second down a 28-yard completion was negated when tight end Antonio Gates was called for offensive pass interference. On the next play a holding penalty on center Nick Hardwick wiped out a 23-yard gain to wideout Malcom Floyd.
Rivers stepped away from the huddle and found an open patch of turf near his 40-yard line. He needed to gather himself because, despite facing second-and-37, the Chargers, with three timeouts and 1:40 to play, had a chance to force overtime. As the officials sorted through the yellow flags, Rivers lowered his head and stood motionless, saying a Hail Mary in his head. Then he traced a cross on his chest and returned to the huddle. When Saints defensive end Martez Wilson was called for illegal use of the hands on the next play, resulting in an automatic first down, San Diego's sins were miraculously wiped away.
Rivers pounced, with consecutive completions of 11, 7, 6 and 10 yards to advance to the New Orleans 33. But the Chargers would get no closer to the end zone, as back-to-back incompletions and a lost fumble on a sack ended the drive and gave the Saints their first win of the year, a 31—24 victory.
As Rivers walked off the field, a trail of what-ifs behind him, the game could be seen as a metaphor for his career. He had been good but not good enough. The Chargers came close but fell short.
Since the beginning of the 2006 season, when Rivers became a starter in San Diego, he ranks second among NFL passers in yards (25,388) and wins (66), third in touchdowns (170) and yards per attempt (8.0), and sixth in rating, at 95.7. However, the 2004 first-round pick has yet to appear in a Super Bowl—a point that was driven home by the circumstances on Sunday. The game was played in the Superdome, site of this season's Super Bowl. The opposing quarterback was Drew Brees, with whom the Chargers parted ways in favor of Rivers in '06 and who led the Saints to a win in Super Bowl XLIV. Brees threw four TDs on Sunday, his 48th straight game with at least one TD pass, eclipsing Johnny Unitas's 52-year mark.
In January 2006 Brees underwent major shoulder surgery, and the Chargers let him go in free agency. Rivers had been sitting on the bench for two seasons, since San Diego acquired him in a blockbuster draft-day trade. On that April 24 morning in 2004, San Diego drafted Eli Manning with the first pick, then traded his rights to the Giants for Rivers, taken fourth overall by New York. Seven spots after Rivers, the Steelers selected Ben Roethlisberger.
Manning, two Super Bowl wins; Roethlisberger, two in three appearances; Brees, one championship. With each season the shadows of those three quarterbacks grow longer over Rivers. Not only has he not reached a Super Bowl, but he also has yet to put his signature on even a memorable playoff win. He is 3—4 in the postseason, with only one 300-yard performance to show, and has more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (eight).
The phraseelite quarterback is tossed around endlessly, but there's no denying that the standard for greatness at the position is changing. In this age of wide-open offenses that revolve around the quarterback, big numbers are not enough to distinguish a passer. "Philip was as good as there was in the regular season for a period of four or five years," says Warren Moon, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who never played in a Super Bowl, "but you're seeing that the postseason does matter more today. You've got to raise your game in the playoffs."
Rivers doesn't run from the issue (although you could joke that he's too heavy-footed to escape it). Does he need a Super Bowl win not just to ensure his elite status but also to justify the Chargers' preference for him over Manning (who said he would not sign with San Diego), Roethlisberger and Brees?
"I don't want to win more now because those guys have won titles," he says. "That's not my primary motivation. For me it's about the journey with these guys in the locker room and helping all of us achieve that goal together."
In an Alabama twang that's as noticeable as his quirky shot-put throwing motion, Rivers points out that it took both Brees and Peyton Manning nine years to win a ring, and that John Elway didn't get his first until his 15th NFL season. But as much as he preaches patience and perseverance, he makes no secret that losing eats at him.
His parents, Steve and Joan, were both athletes growing up in Alabama, and Rivers inherited their fiery spirit. He treats practice with the same single-mindedness he does games, to the point where he gets upset with himself over incompletions during warmups. "You're throwing against air," he says. "You should complete every ball."
His competitiveness has occasionally taken the form of trash talk—Rivers famously got into it with Jay Cutler, then of the Broncos, in a 2007 game, and with fans in Indianapolis during a Chargers playoff win in January 2008. But those who know him well say his prickly reputation is inaccurate. He's a country kid who married his middle school sweetheart, a father of six who doesn't curse and who preaches the virtues of abstinence until marriage. Rivers himself has characterized his on-field yapping as good-natured and innocent.
But can a player driven by competitiveness really be O.K. with being two-upped by the QBs selected immediately before and after him in his draft class, and one-upped by the signal-caller whom he replaced? Can the journey really be as enriching as the destination?
"Let me tell you right now, he's going to say the politically correct things because that's what you have to do as a player," says retired fullback Lorenzo Neal, who teamed with Rivers for four seasons. "But Philip Rivers is burning inside. Ben Roethlisberger has gone to three Super Bowls and won two. Eli Manning has gone to two Super Bowls and won both. Philip hasn't been there—and the Giants didn't have half the talent the Chargers did [at one point]. So Philip Rivers as just a leader and a quarterback, if that's what he's selling, I'm not buying. He's a competitor. You see him on the field, how animated he is, how frustrated he gets. He wants to win a Super Bowl, trust me. This is his legacy."
"Philip knew when he came out of the draft there were going to be two guys he would be compared to, and that's Eli and Ben," says former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "He can say [their Super Bowl success] doesn't matter and he's not worrying about that. But it does. Obviously his career isn't over, but you can make the argument that it's been a disappointment so far."
When Norv Turner interviewed for the Chargers' head-coaching job in 2007, he stressed the importance of developing Rivers. Football was evolving at warp speed, and Rivers, according to Turner, would have to raise his game for the franchise to have a shot at a championship.
Upon getting the job, Turner began shifting the offense from a ground-based attack led by Tomlinson, the league MVP in 2006, to a vertical passing scheme. Over the next five years Rivers put up passing numbers unlike any the franchise had seen, even in the days of Dan Fouts—who, it's worth noting, did not play in a Super Bowl either—and the Air Coryell offense.
Rivers acknowledges a heightened sense of urgency. Last year he threw a career-high 20 interceptions, third most in the league, prompting questions as to whether he had an undisclosed injury. He didn't; Rivers was simply pressing to make plays, often throwing into double or triple coverage. This season he got off to his worst four-game stretch to open a season since 2007—his 897 yards passing were 127 fewer than his previous low since then. There were reasons for the drop-off: San Diego started an undrafted rookie, Mike Harris, at left tackle for three games because of a back injury to Jared Gaither; double-digit second-half leads against Oakland, Tennessee and Kansas City limited the need to throw; and Turner wanted his offense to become more balanced. But as the loss to the Saints showed, the Chargers need Rivers to be at his very best if they're to keep up with the game's high-powered offenses. He had his most productive outing of the year against the Saints—27 of 42 for 354 yards, two TDs and an interception—but Brees (29 of 45, 370 yards, four TDs, one pick) was just a bit better.
Rivers's signature playoff game to this point is the AFC title matchup with the Patriots in Foxborough in January 2008—the same week he had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his knee. Whether the Chargers would have beaten the Patriots that blustery afternoon had Rivers (and a hobbling Tomlinson) been at 100% is conjecture. What is not is his failure to put his team on his back and lead it to a memorable postseason victory.
"All of a sudden he's now getting up there in age," Moon says of Rivers, who turns 31 in December. "It's not that he's old, but he's going to start losing some of his skills here pretty soon because he was never an athletic guy. He's really got to have a great offensive line in front of him to keep him upright."
Rivers's cause has not been helped by the slow trickling away of key offensive pieces. Running back Michael Turner was allowed to leave as a free agent in 2008, Tomlinson was released in '10, running back--returner Darren Sproles was not re-signed in '11, and wideout Vincent Jackson was allowed to leave as a free agent this year. With Gates, a three-time All-Pro, struggling with injuries the past few seasons, Rivers has not had the caliber of skill-position threats he had during his early years as a starter.
"Philip can play great, and he competes like no other," says San Diego linebacker Shaun Phillips, "but if other guys aren't playing at that level, it can be hard to win."
It will be nine years and counting if he doesn't do it this year. That's a lot of aggravation, and a lot of Hail Marys.
"Philip Rivers as just a leader and a quarterback—if that's what he's selling, I'm not buying," says Neal. "He wants to win a Super Bowl."
Is Philip Rivers too prickly? Too tough to deal with? Jim Trotter looks deeper into the issue of temperament and image to get a better picture of Rivers from the people who know him best. Online at SI.com/mag
Class in Session
The QB draft of 2004—Eli, Rivers, Big Ben—is on pace to match the legendary boys of '83 in NFL playoff appearances
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
CAREER PLAYOFFS STARTS
SEASONS IN LEAGUE
JOHN ELWAY '83
PEYTON MANNING '98
BOOMER ESIASON '84
CHART BY MASSEY-PEABODY ANALYTICS
* INCLUDES PLAYERS DRAFTED IN FIRST SEVEN ROUNDS, 1983—2011, PLUS THOSE WHO BEGAN THEIR CAREERS IN ANOTHER LEAGUE.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
BURNING MAN Rivers's competitiveness extends even to the practice field, but to outsiders his fiery nature can come across as peevishness.
WHO'S NO. 1? Since 2006 Rivers has more passing yards, touchdown passes and regular-season wins than the other first-rounders in his class. But in the end the ring's the thing.
MARC SEROTA/REUTERS (ELWAY)
DAVID BERGMAN (PEYTON)
TOM UHLMAN/AP (ESIASON)
CHART BY MASSEY-PEABODY ANALYTICS