For the better part of his career, Philip Rivers dragged uninspiring San Diego Chargers rosters into playoff contention, yet has little to show for it. With his career winding to a close, Rivers has been surrounded with a young, capable team, provided that they can stay relatively healthy for the first time in ages (Editor’s Note: rookie WR Mike Williams likely to be placed on PUP list). Rivers has to drain himself of whatever good play he has left in order to allow the newly relocated Los Angeles Chargers to reach their playoff potential.
Rivers will have more than enough talent around him to run an effective offense in 2017. Wide receiver Keenan Allen will return from injury after missing almost all of last season. Additionally, deep-threat wide receiver Travis Benjamin will return after missing the tail end of last year. With the returns of Allen and Benjamin, wide receivers Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman can step into more fitting rotational roles, where they can come off the bench or into spread formations and provide good receiver play from the back-end of the depth chart.
The Chargers also have a quality tight end duo. Antonio Gates is not the player he was in his youth, but his knack for winning in the short-game and bodying through defenders makes him a good option underneath. Second-year player Hunter Henry is an athletic, electric tight end who can roam the intermediate areas of the field and be a mismatch piece, both as an in-line player and as a pseudo-wide receiver. Tight ends often take a dramatic step following their rookie season, so Henry may be due for a breakout season.
Running back Melvin Gordon proved to be a nice pass catching option, too. Gordon isn’t much more than a check-down option, but being able to rely on him in that capacity still provides a safety blanket for Rivers, who is one of the best passers in the league at recognizing the appropriate time to check the ball down to a running back.
The Chargers also sought to protect Rivers better in 2017. In addition to signing former Denver Broncos left tackle Russell Okung, the Chargers drafted offensive guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney in the second and third rounds, respectively. Any upgrade over what the Chargers had up front last season would be excellent news for Rivers.
Health permitting, the Chargers have a versatile, deep skill group that will allow the offense to do whatever it pleases through the air. They will have the potential to finesse teams in the short game and they can stretch the field to attack the intermediate and deep areas of the field.
Hope For 2017
Rivers is one of the league’s smartest quarterbacks. With over a decade of experience, he has grown his acumen to be able to decipher and counter opposing defenses in order to make life easier on his offense.
The play above versus the Indianapolis Colts, for instance, shows Rivers’ ability to counter what a defense is showing. The Colts show a one-high safety look with the second safety playing a deep cushion over the No. 3 receiver in the formation (innermost player on the trips side). Prior to the snap, the linebacker aligned to the trips side of the formation creeps toward the line of scrimmage, signaling that he is a likely blitzer. Rivers holds off on snapping the ball and appears to give a check to his offensive line, asking them to slide left in their protection so they can smoothly pick up the blitz.
Assuming the blitzer will attack as Rivers suspects, there will be a gaping hole in the defense between where the linebacker vacated and the deep safety playing over the top of the No. 3 receiver. As expected, the blitzer storms the pocket and Rivers immediately searches for his No. 3 receiver. Rivers has to hesitate on the throw because a defender initially blocks the throwing lane, but Rivers is able to reset and get the ball out for an easy completion.
Simple checks like the one above are what make Rivers who he is. Whether he’s switching protection calls or audibling for a running back to switch from a protection assignment to a quick swing route, Rivers is constantly making little adjustments that give the Chargers advantages over defenses.
Rivers also has impeccable poise in the pocket. Few passers in the league possess the boxer-like footwork that Rivers does. No matter how deep the pocket has collapsed, Rivers has a knack for finding any sliver of space and summoning a throwing platform from almost nothing. He is able to make throws with bodies around him, often from angles that few are capable of.
Above is only one of endless examples of Rivers completing passes from obscure platforms. Rivers drops back initially searching for a target further down the field, but quickly realizes he isn’t going to have any luck there. As a Denver Broncos pass rusher begins to beat the left tackle, Rivers has to scoot to his right. By then, Rivers realizes that his best option is to throw to Tyrell Williams on the ‘under’ route, but his pocket movement is pulling him away from the throw.
As is usually the case, where Rivers is in the pocket on this play is hardly a worthwhile detail because he can make throws work from anywhere. Rivers hops off of his back foot and, with a quick flip of his hips, is able to cleanly release the pass across his body to hit Williams in perfect stride.
It may be a short pass, but to make a flawless throw across one’s body with an incoming pass rusher impeding one’s ability to step into the pass is a rare trait Rivers and very few other QBs possess. Much like his checks and audibles, it is the little things Rivers does that make him the caliber of player he is.
Additionally, Rivers doesn’t second-guess himself. A player with that sort of bravado can run himself into some trouble, a la Jameis Winston, but when the player is as intelligent as Rivers (or Winston), the confidence is often an advantage. Confidence and quick wit is especially valuable in the red zone. Inside the 20-yard line, the field condenses and allows safeties to become more involved in coverage, thus tightening the windows that quarterbacks can throw into. There is no room for uncertainty.
Rivers torches the Miami Dolphins defense in the play above. Before the snap, the Dolphins align one defensive back about seven yards off and a few yards wide of tight end Antonio Gates. The Dolphins also have a safety aligned roughly ten yards deep over the left tackle. Rivers knows Gates has the inside track on the defender lined up over him, so it is on Rivers to beat the rest of the coverage.
As Rivers receives the snap and fakes a hand-off, his eyes remain locked on the safety who was lined up deep over the left tackle. Rivers’ back foot hits the ground and he instantly turns to throw to Gates. By the time Rivers goes to throw, Gates has handily beaten his defender and is running across the plane of the end zone. Rivers fires in a dart to beat the safety trying to cut off the pass and Gates hauls it in for a Chargers touchdown.
Winning in the red zone is and has always been Rivers’ calling card. He isn’t one to consistently score from beyond the 20-yard line, but he excels once he’s in that area. With a handful of mismatch weapons heading into 2017, Rivers should have no issue continuing his success as a clinical red zone passer.
The Shadow of 2016
While Rivers is still every bit as much of what makes him excellent, his physical limitations have grown with age. He can’t move outside the pocket the way he once could and his arm has lost some of its zip. While age is the clear denominator there, the cause for Rivers’ ineptitude in the fourth quarter of games last season is a trickier equation. He regularly crumbled late in games last season. It may be fair to brush off some of Rivers’ struggles in 2016 as the fault of his offensive line and injury riddled receiving corps, but Rivers himself was to blame for much of his poor play in the fourth quarter.
Rivers had an implosion in seemingly every close game. On a number of occasions, the Chargers would be in close or tied games and Rivers would make an inexcusably bad throw. Be it the decision or the accuracy that was to blame, Rivers’ fourth quarter disasters in 2016 were too common to be considered random. He fell apart last year.
The Dolphins game in Week 10 was especially damning. Rivers threw a head-scratching pick-six that felt like a microcosm of the Chargers last season. With little over a minute left in the fourth quarter, the Chargers had the ball on the opposing 42-yard line in a 24-24 tied ballgame. The Chargers had just called their final timeout, but they had more than enough time to run a few plays and spike the ball, if need be. A field goal was all they needed to win.
Coming out of the timeout, the Chargers called a short-to-intermediate passing play that featured a handful of quick timing routes for Rivers to hit. On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins were showing blitz. The Dolphins altered their defensive front at the last moment and linebacker Kiko Alonso dropped back into coverage instead of blitzing. Alonso drifted directly into the throwing lane of the quick five-yard ‘in’ route that Rivers wanted and, overwhelmed by the pressure, Rivers tried to fit the throw in anyway. Alonso picked off the pass and ran it back 60 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
Moments like that were littered throughout the season. When the Chargers needed him most, Rivers collapsed time and time again. It was as if Rivers became a shell of himself as soon as the scoreboard ticker switched from a “3” to a “4” where it indicated which quarter the game was in. Rivers’ fourth quarter blunders go well beyond the eye test, too.
Rivers was bad in the fourth quarter. Most of his efficiency numbers remained somewhat on par, but the rate at which he threw interceptions skyrocketed. His interception rate jumped from 2.89% through the first three quarters to 5.56% in the fourth quarter. He could not refrain from making rushed, ill-advised throws.
It’s likely Rivers’ fourth quarter implosions were in part because he felt overwhelmed by the pressure to pick up the slack for the team around him. Last season served as a sad reminder that Rivers may no longer be a superhero. He needs the conditions around him to be better than they were a year ago.
As mentioned before, the Chargers return a couple of injured receivers (Allen, Benjamin) and will have as many as three upgrades along the offensive line. It may take time for this group to gel, but the addition and return of so many quality players will create for a more stable work environment for an aging quarterback.
The success of the Chargers in 2017 is banking on Rivers’ 2016 being more of a product of circumstance finally getting to him than it being the beginning of his downfall. Given last season was one of very few times that Rivers has shown incompetence, the Chargers should still be in good hands for the immediate future.
In many respects, Rivers was still a fine quarterback last season, despite his late meltdowns. He hovered around or just above league-average in a number of notable categories, including ranking among the league’s elite with a 5.7% touchdown rate. Stretching beyond just last season, Rivers has one of the best career ANY/A ratings in the history of the sport, and has proven to be one of the most efficient passers around when he has a capable supporting cast, which he should have next season. The pieces are there for Rivers to return to form and lead the Chargers into the postseason.
A crowded AFC West is the only obstacle Rivers will face other than himself. If he can prove that last year was an anomaly, the Chargers will be in position to creep up on the rest of the division and snag the crown.