With Philip Rivers now officially a member of the Indianapolis Colts, fans in both Los Angeles and San Diego can only look back and wonder: what if?
If Rivers had a better supporting cast, could he have won a Super Bowl with the Chargers? Did the franchise make the right move giving up Eli Manning for him?
Rivers’ legacy with the Chargers will be one long debated, likely years past his retirement. Questions of his legacy against those like Dan Fouts and other Chargers greats will be hotly contested.
We have decided for two of our LAFB Network writers to discuss where Philip Rivers lands on the pantheon of Chargers greats, what his ultimate legacy will be and if it was really all up to him to bring the Lombardi to the franchise.
What Legacy Will Philip Rivers Leave Behind With The Chargers?
Is Philip Rivers a Hall of Famer? That’s a more complicated question than it might appear. If he retired today, he wouldn’t be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and would likely get in during a year in which there weren’t any higher profile players.
He is like Dan Fouts in that he was a really good quarterback who, for a variety of reasons, never broke through. It’s possible that during retirement Rivers will get a TV gig that keeps him relevant in the way Fouts has.
Unlike Fouts (who will be remembered first and foremost for calling Bourdon Bowl 98) Rivers has the advantage of writers that can argue his analytics case for getting in. He ranks 6th in passing yards and passing touchdowns and by next year should pass Dan Marino for 5th all-time in both categories. The problem is he was never as great as Marino and unlike his contemporaries (Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco), he could never win a title in a non-Brady year and unlike Eli Manning, he never slew the Tom Brady dragon.
Rivers has had a solid career but its one that can be summed up in two words; “what if?” How would his career be different if Eli doesn’t demand the Chargers trade him on draft day? What if he didn’t get a murderer’s row of bad coaches? Success seemed to have a restraining order against Marty Schottenheimer; Norv Turner was the personification of “better lieutenant than a general”; Mike McCoy was the cautionary tale for why you never hire a guy just because he was Peyton Manning’s OC; and finally Anthony Lynn who is still figuring out how to be a head coach.
What if Rivers didn’t have a torn ACL in his lone AFC Championship game? They hung with that 18-1 Pats team and maybe if he and LaDainian Tomlinson were healthier they’d have pulled off an upset.
What if he didn’t play for a notoriously cheap and incompetent owner? What if A.J. Smith were a better GM?
Rivers was part of some very talented teams that found new ways to lose. They consistently had rotten injury luck and yet prime Rivers could go off at any minute to will his team to a victory.
From a personality standpoint, he carried himself like the Pop Warner quarterback whose dad was the head coach. He talked trash, wore bolo ties, and threw temper tantrums but never swore. The Chargers fan base, especially while in San Diego, loved him and he embraced San Diego like no one since Frank Thomas had.
From a pure talent standpoint, he was the best QB in his draft class which is saying something because it also included Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. Sadly, it’s not all about talent. He took his unusual rough circumstances with a defiant grimace until the Chargers decided his post-prime was over and it was time for him and his gigantic family to uproot and settle elsewhere.
If he can make one last postseason run he can raise his Hall of Fame case. Frank Reich could unlock whatever is left in Rivers’ tank and he’ll have the best offensive line he’s had in years.
Right now, however, Rivers is a borderline Hall of Fame QB that everyone can agree deserved a better career but as William Munny said, “Deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it”.
Philip Rivers will finish his Chargers career not with a bang but with a whimper. Unlike the Giants, who let their two-time Super Bowl champion and franchise passing leader, Eli Manning, ride off into the sun with all sorts of ceremonies, honors, and even a jersey retirement, Rivers and the Chargers have simply decided to “mutually part ways” after weeks of rumors that the Chargers were ready to move on.
It’s a bit anticlimactic for a player who’s been a premiere quarterback on the same team since 2004. Yet it’s also fitting for a player that, for years, despite his skill and standing, seemed to fall by the wayside to his contemporaries.
Rivers’ career started unusually, as he was drafted from the Giants but traded to the Chargers, as Eli Manning publicly stated his refusal to play for the then, San Diego Chargers. Most people are convinced that Eli took this stance due to influence from his father Archie and it’s not hard to see why. The Giants were a franchise with proven success. Eli would go onto win two rings with New York—while the other first-round QB of that class, Ben Roethlisberger, would also be a two-time champ. But what about Rivers?
Much of his early career saw him run an explosive passing attack on a team stacked with all sorts of talent. Yet, these teams never were able to make meaningful postseason runs. Rivers’ Charger career started as hot as it possibly could, as the team went 14-2 in his first year as a starter. They would go on to choke away a late home lead to the defending champs. No play emphasized the Patriots’ postseason luck under Brady better than Brady being picked off late, only to see the Chargers fumble away the ball to New England, and kick a game-winning field goal.
Despite the 14-2 record, San Diego decided they had had enough “Marty Ball” after that game, but the Chargers were never able to play as well as they did in ’06.
Norv Turner and Dean Spanos systematically bled the Chargers of their talent and ran the team into the ground. The franchise has not won 14 games since. In ‘07, they lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship while Rivers was injured. In ‘08, they lost to the Steelers in the Divisional Round, getting man-handled in time of possession. And in ‘09, their final postseason run under Turner, they lost by three points to the Wild Card Jets, as their Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding missed three field goals.
As for Rivers, he has been, by all accounts, a very good quarterback. He’s started all 16 games every season since 2006. He’s never had a full season below a 60% completion rate. He has 10 seasons where he threw for more than 4,200 yards, 11 seasons with more than 25 touchdown passes, 12 seasons with more than 7 yards per attempt and 11 seasons where his QBR was greater than 55 (0-100 scale, with 50 being about average). These are elite numbers and Rivers was consistently a reliable and professional quarterback.
At his best, Rivers was a field general in the same mold as Peyton Manning. Though his mobility was routinely the worst in the league, Rivers played the position from the neck up with superior timing, anticipation, and understanding of the defense. He threw with excellent ball placement, and for most of his career, had very solid arm strength, especially considering his always strange release.
Watching Rivers control the game, manipulate the defense and throw into tight windows revealed the type of mastery of the game that young quarterbacks should aspire towards. Even as Rivers’ physical talents diminished and the teams around him suffered, he was able to play late into his career because of his understanding of the subtleties of the game. For years, he masked roster weaknesses and kept flawed San Diego/LA teams in contention.
Yet for all that, postseason success, and even at times, regular-season success has eluded him. 10 of his 14 seasons saw the Chargers win nine games or less. Since 2010, Rivers has only been to the playoffs twice, and only had double-digit wins once, and never advanced past the divisional round.
He was never really able to make it past the Patriots, coming up short in the ‘06, ‘07, and ‘18 playoffs, and losing consistently to them in the regular season as well. Some of his best Charger moments were the trouble he gave the Peyton Manning-led Colts, reeling off back-to-back playoff victories in ‘07 and ‘08, as well as multiple regular-season losses. Even those are hard to give Rivers credit for entirely.
The ‘07 regular season Colts loss saw Peyton throw six interceptions, but the Colts were still a Vinatieri missed field goal away from a win. The ‘10 loss saw Manning throw four interceptions. Rivers played a phenomenal playoff game against the Colts in ‘07, but he left the game with an injury and backup Billy Volek led the game-winning drive. The ‘08 game saw Rivers outplayed by Manning, but picking up the win due to clutch performances from Scifres, Sproles, and an OT coin toss that never gave Manning the ball.
These were team wins more than anything, and they didn’t last once Manning went to Denver. Perhaps Manning’s Denver moment was his comeback against a 24-0 deficit to Rivers on Monday night. On the other end, Rivers imploded in that game with four interceptions.
Even so, team success is a tough measure by which to judge a QB, and there’s no doubt that when it came to coaching, players, and luck, Rivers had it far worse than his ‘04 peers, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. So does Rivers really deserve blame for his team’s lack of success, considering how good he has seemingly been individually? Unfortunately, there is one area where Rivers deserves a lot of blame for being unable to win more games, and that is his play in the 4th quarter.
For the first half of his career, this wasn’t a problem, Rivers had four 4th quarter comebacks/game-winning drives in 2006, four in 2008, and four in 2009. 2010-2012 was probably the worst stretch of 4th quarter play you will ever see, as every time there was a close game, Rivers seemed to make a mistake. And although he would finish his Charger career with 27 fourth-quarter comebacks and 32 game-winning drives, most notable were the games where Rivers didn’t come through. Rivers now has 76 games in his career where he was unable to lead a 4th quarter comeback or game-winning drive, an astronomical number.
Rivers can be looked at similar to Tony Romo, another very good QB without much postseason success. But although Romo regularly got the reputation as a “choker”, it was Rivers who really struggled the most in these situations. Of course, you can be a great QB without being a great comeback QB, but that typically requires you to be a frontrunner, a la Kurt Warner, Steve Young, or Aaron Rodgers for most of his career. Rivers was not that guy and did not have that kind of team.
Of course, it wasn’t all on Rivers. For years, it seemed like the Chargers found ways to lose games late, no matter who the coach or the players were. Sometimes it’s a miscommunication on a route. Other times it’s a special teams error. But for years now, and pretty much most of the last decade, it’s been the same old script for the Chargers. It’s not a huge surprise then, that the organization felt like it was time to try something new.
We’ll see if Rivers can write a new chapter in his career on a different team. It’s a tough break for Rivers, who was a very good QB that happened to play during the golden age of QB’s, with Peyton, Eli, Ben, Brady, Favre, Rodgers, Ryan, Romo, and Brees all active at some point during his career. Rivers might just be a really good QB that couldn’t quite get into the A-tier. That’s tough for people to accept in a world where you’re either great or awful, but there’s no shame in being around the 8th – 12th best QB of your generation.
At the end of the day, if I had to sum it up for Rivers, I’d say he was a very solid QB that played for a below-average organization and underperformed when it mattered most. His peak play was phenomenal, but he wasn’t always able to play at that level.
Still, after all these years, it’s hard not to look back at that 04 trade and think that Archie made the right decision in pushing Eli out of San Diego. Had Rivers stayed with the Giants, we could be having a very different conversation about his career. But that’s something we’ll never know.