By doing enough to dissect the Denver Broncos’ top-tier defense in the first half and ruin the defending Super Bowl champions’ one-night-only Clemson metamorphosis, Philip Rivers continued to show he’s capable of putting just about any kind of team in position to win.
He proved this by guiding an injury-ransacked San Diego Chargers operation to a season of close games last year, with nine one-score losses appearing on the Chargers’ 2015 ledger, and has done so again as more maladies have befallen San Diego’s franchise.
Rivers’ quality work on two long scoring drives against the Broncos notwithstanding, the kind of injuries the Chargers have sustained will further the trend of the 13th-year quarterback having to be next-to-perfect for his team to win games. They’re not talented enough to make an unlikely playoff push otherwise.
This has unfortunately been a pattern that’s typified Rivers’ career, and 2016 threatens to derail another year of the quarterback’s prime.
The 34-year-old passer finds himself in a strange position, being nearly universally respected despite his teams not being overly successful in his prime. There isn’t another example of that in the league.
While Rivers’ playoff cameos mostly came during the initial seasons of his career, when better Chargers teams helped what was not quite as good of a quarterback make consistent January appearances, he’s been a better player for worse Chargers squads. Legacy talk around this particular position centers around postseason victories, so Rivers’ mid-30s are beginning just as his early 30s ended — with a limited team lowering his potential for greatness.
No one categorizes Rivers as a truly elite quarterback, but he’s been an upper-echelon passer since those Norv Turner years that involved three Chargers playoff triumphs. However, he does not have a peer when it comes to how he’s regarded.
The list of the 2010s’ best quarterbacks involves the aging or retired Tom Brady/Drew Brees/Peyton Manning group, the 30-something talents (Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Rivers), with young stars Russell Wilson and Cam Newton now factoring into this. Rivers consistently lands in this class, but he’s the only member of the group to have not guided his team to a 10-win season or a division championship during the ’10s.
Manning and Brady qualified for multiple Super Bowls, with Brees’ three seasons with at least 11 wins. Rodgers has two MVPs, while Roethlisberger faced him in a Super Bowl and is consistently mentioned among the most irreplaceable players in football. Wilson and Newton continue to appear on big stages, with their rivalry set to replace Brady-Manning as the league’s premier signal-caller matchup. Romo and Eli Manning are less consistent and comprise the bottom of this tier, along with Rivers, but both NFC East passers have division titles, with Manning obviously enhancing his legacy with another Super Bowl MVP trophy.
Rivers does not have these accolades but is one of the league’s more indispensable parts due to how vital he is to the Chargers ability to be at least average.
The Chargers have not done well enough to supplement him with a ground game post-LaDainian Tomlinson or a consistent defense. These past two years have featured one of the more complete rosters, but injuries have prevented the Chargers from finding out if their roster management was a success or not.
It’s not exactly being discussed nationally right now, but Rivers could take a hit for this despite being the Chargers’ best player this decade. The hot-take era doesn’t go for depth much, so it’s easy to miss the quality seasons he’s strung together for mostly forgettable Chargers teams.
Rivers has three 30-plus-touchdown passing seasons in the 2010s, and last season’s 29 may be just as impressive as his Pro Bowl campaigns considering the carnage his offense endured. He kept the Chargers in just about every game they played, but the Chargers’ recent inability to finish contests — largely because of a lack of available talent — has invaded Rivers’ career narrative.
That chapter’s continued this season. It’s easily arguable that head coach Mike McCoy’s outfit would be right up there in the glut atop the AFC West had some of Rivers’ key cogs — Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead chief among them — been healthy. They were going to beat the Chiefs if Allen didn’t go down and likely would have held off the Saints to avoid this McCoy-should-be-fired chorus.
Rivers’ methodical drives to vex the Broncos in the first half showed the kind of quarterback he still is, and it’s just hard to wonder if the Chargers’ myriad issues have largely squandered his prime.
He’s fifth among starting quarterbacks in passer rating (105.9), and among season-long starters, his 67.2 completion percentage ranks seventh. This comes after Rivers somehow completed 66 percent of his throws (for a career-high 4,792 yards) in 2015 with Allen, Stevie Johnson and Antonio Gates absent for several games, not to mention a slew of replacement-level offensive linemen who were forced into action due to injuries.
Rivers turns 35 in December. That’s no longer old for a quarterback, but it’s hard to get past his late 20s and early 30s being devoid of memorable moments commensurate with his talent. The one playoff berth he did help book — on a 9-7 2013 Chargers team — nearly featured a shocking comeback upset of the eventual AFC champion Broncos in the divisional round.
He’s been a model Charger, stumping for the downtown stadium measure to pass this year, but the franchise has not taken care of him — and when it has, bad luck has intervened.
Rivers is probably a Hall of Fame talent, but his place in Canton is uncertain as a result of bottom-barrel team success for a franchise quarterback for many years. This season could well deal another blow to that cause. Rivers will need to continue to perform at top level, as the Chargers are somehow ahead of last year’s injury pace.
If he can keep the Chargers in games and end up pushing them back into contention, it would mark another consistent effort from one of this era’s most reliable players. If he can’t, it likely won’t be his fault. Yet he’ll be judged as if it was in the long run, with the national consciousness often omitting key reasons for failed seasons when it comes to quarterbacks.
And if Rivers has to relocate to Los Angeles next season and be the B-team’s cornerstone player, it could only add a new wrinkle to what’s been a confounding career — one that’s gone off track due to factors largely out of his control.