IN MAY, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and his family vacationed in Italy, where the highlight of the trip was a papal audience near the Vatican. A devout Catholic, Rivers says he would have returned home content with simply having been among the crowd that afternoon in Rome. But the experience became transcendent when Pope Francis picked the youngest of Rivers's six children—20-month-old son Peter—from the throng, then blessed and kissed him before returning him to his parents.
"That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Rivers. "Tiffany [his wife] had big tears in her eyes. It was awesome."
As Rivers embarks on his 10th season, there are critics who would say that his game could use a similar blessing. Or better, a resurrection. From 2008 to '10 Rivers was among the league's most efficient and productive quarterbacks, averaging 31 TD passes, 4,324 yards and just under 15 turnovers. Over the last two seasons, however, his efficiency rate has plummeted, as he averaged 23.5 turnovers and 26.5 TDs.
It's ridiculous to proclaim, as some critics have, that this is a make-or-break season for Rivers. Even at his worst he still rates in the upper half of signal-callers. Further, his struggles have stemmed largely from the jettisoning of playmakers by former general manager A.J. Smith (who allowed such proven threats as Darren Sproles and Vincent Jackson to leave as free agents) and from the loss of two Pro Bowl offensive linemen—tackle Marcus McNeill (neck) and guard Kris Dielman (concussions)—to career-ending injuries during the 2011 season. After not being sacked more than 27 times in any of his first four seasons as a full-time starter, Rivers has been dropped at least 30 times in each of the last three years, including 49 in '12, second most in the NFL, behind only Aaron Rodgers (51).
That's not to say that Rivers doesn't merit some blame. He's made bad decisions, throwing into coverage or reacting to nonexistent pressure. Still, a new coaching staff believes the QB's issues are largely the result of his desire to succeed. "He's extremely competitive," says coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who spent the last six years in charge of the Cardinals. "He feels the burden of being the leader and strives to make things work. He was trying to do more than he should have."
The new staff, which includes the respected offensive minds of Whisenhunt, coach Mike McCoy (who last year coordinated the Broncos' explosive attack) and line coach Joe D'Alessandris, will attempt to take pressure off Rivers by committing more to the run and by relying more on shorter drops. The Chargers preferred a drop-back game under former coach Norv Turner, but as Rivers lost his perimeter threats and the line fell apart, his rating dropped on attempts of 21 yards or longer, from 89.4 in 2011 to 67.2 in '12. And with big receiver Denario Alexander out for the season after tearing a ligament in his right knee, San Diego's deep-ball options are limited.
At running back the Chargers will use a committee, although Ryan Mathews, whose 707 rushing yards last year followed a 1,000-yard 2011, will be the featured ballcarrier. McCoy is stressing to backs that he wants them to get downhill in a hurry—no dancing or bouncing to the perimeter. Newcomer Danny Woodhead will see significant time in passing situations, not only because he's good in protection but also because he has surprised coaches with his route-running from the slot and his wideoutlike hands. Veteran Ronnie Brown still has value as a short-yardage back.
Still, it all comes back to Rivers, who is rankled by the notion that the new staff is going to have to "fix" him. "I agree with Whis—when I watch last season, it was like I was trying to will some throws," he says. "As we all know, sometimes that's the worst thing you can do.
"But the new staff has a great deal of respect for what we did in the past. They didn't come in and say, 'Let's fix this. Let's fix you.' It was, 'Hey, shoot, you went six years scoring 28 points a game. Let's see what y'all love and what we need to keep from that [system], and then here's all the stuff we have.' It's turned into a cool system that's not exactly Whis's or anyone else's. It's ours."
And while no one expects the new system to be infallible, for Rivers, it will keep him on his feet.
THE CASE FOR ...
Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney
Freeney's hope was to retire as a Colt, with the organization that drafted him 11 years ago. But his age, 33, and his mere five sacks in 2012, the second lowest of his career, led Indy to not offer the free agent a new contract. The decision cut deeply—but not as much as the lack of excitement he created in free agency: The Chargers signed him only after their projected pass-rush threat, Melvin Ingram, was lost to a torn left ACL in OTAs. All of this has fanned the motivational flame for Freeney, who feels he's been miscast as a one-dimensional player in decline. His struggles last season had less to do with his switch from a 4--3 DE to a 3--4 OLB and more to do with his suffering a severe high ankle sprain early on. He was supposed to miss six to eight weeks, but he sat out only two games, hoping to help the Colts rebound from their miserable 2--14 season in 2011. "If I stay healthy—God willing, please, Lord, please—I'm going to have some serious fun," says Freeney. "I haven't had this much to prove since I was a rookie. The last thing you want to do is give me some extra motivation."
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
QB PHILIP RIVERS
CHRISTOPHER HANEWINCKEL/USA TODAY SPORTS