I'm going to try to convince you that Philip Rivers -- a 12-year NFL veteran, multimillionaire, family man -- is a person deserving your sympathy. If that makes you want to run away from this website, then that in itself is reason to open your cynical hearts. Imagine if every complaint you ever had was shunned by an unsympathetic mass. What if you could not relate to anyone, but only because everyone refused to listen?
Rivers is at a pivot point. Recently, LaDainian Tomlinson described his former teammate as disaffected with the San Diego Chargers. Rivers has been with the organization for a long time now. He has seen a lot of old friends go. Now with the team on the brink of moving to Los Angeles, Rivers may have to say goodbye to a city he doesn't want to leave. He will deliberately allow his contract to expire after next season to ensure he can keep control over his future. If he won't be in San Diego much longer, then he most certainly won't be in L.A.
This feels like an impending breakup, and the worst kind at that -- a slow, mutual "welp" disproportionately dull next to what Rivers has accomplished with the Chargers. We may be watching Rivers' brilliant San Diego career die with a drawn-out whimper, and it's not his fault.
Rivers began his career as a compromise. The Chargers wanted to the draft Eli Manning in 2004, but Manning was steadfast he would never go to San Diego. The Chargers settled for Rivers and draft picks in a trade with the New York Giants that worked out well for all parties, in hindsight. Still, our first glimpse of Rivers was as a second-tier "great" quarterback, and his on-field success since supports that view.
Rivers is seventh all-time in passer rating among quarterbacks with at least 45 career starts.* That's a wonderful legacy, except when you consider that five of the six players ahead of him are still active. Four of them -- Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers -- have won Super Bowls. In fact, seven of the top nine players by passer rating since 2004 all have Super Bowl rings. Rivers and Tony Romo form a sad, jewel-less duo among the NFL's passing elite.
*Lower the limit to 44, and Hap Moran enters the list at No. 1. Moran played from 1926 to 1933 with the Frankford Yellow Jackets, Chicago Cardinals, Pottsville Maroons and New York Giants. He went 12-for-21 passing for 91 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions over that span for a sterling 107.3 passer rating. Sorry Hap, for leaving you out.
Rivers has a knack for having his best seasons at the same time his peers were rewriting history.
- His 105.5 passer rating in 2008 led the league, but the bigger story was Drew Brees becoming the second player ever (the first since Dan Marino 24 years before) to top 5,000 yards passing in a season.
- In 2010, Rivers had what could have been an MVP season that included a league-leading 4,710 passing yards, but Tom Brady became the first unanimous MVP ever with a deadly proficient 36-4 touchdown-interception ratio that is still tops for any quarterback with at least 318 passing attempts. (During that 2010 season, Antonio Gates missed six games, Malcom Floyd missed five and Vincent Jackson missed 11. Patrick Crayton was the third-leading wide receiver or tight end with 514 yards. Seyi Ajirotutu was fourth with 262. Rivers was killer with one of the most damaged receiving corps of recent memory.)
- The 2013 season was one of Rivers' biggest karmic snubs. He completed a career-best 69.5 percent of his passes for 4,478 yards, 32 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and another 105.5 passer rating. It was enough to earn him NFL Comeback Player of the Year after two shaky seasons, but the award was a footnote to the carnage wreaked by Peyton Manning in the same division, an NFL record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns on his way to earning the second unanimous NFL MVP award of all time.
The best of Rivers was somehow never superlative for its time and place. He has always looked up to an alpha child -- a delightful, talented Jan Brady who cannot be Marcia, not ever.
The Chargers were fated to lose
Worth noting, too, is that during the 2008, 2010 and 2013 seasons, the Chargers went 8-8, 9-7 and 9-7, respectively. The teams of NFL MVPs during those seasons went 12-4, 14-2 and 13-3. The Chargers haven't made it out of the Divisional round of the playoffs since 2007. If Rivers hasn't been appreciated enough, a large portion of blame falls on a team that has fallen just short of relevancy so often during his best seasons.
The Chargers with Rivers at quarterback fit an odd, but consistent profile. Almost every year, the Chargers were mediocre before catching fire over the final weeks of the regular season. Since 2007, they have gone a combined 21-19 during their first five games, and 23-25 during their middle six. That record jumps to 30-10 during their final five games of the regular season. Keep narrowing the focus and the record trends upward: 26-6 during the final four games of the regular season, 19-5 during the final three, 13-3 in the final two and 7-1 in all Week 17 games during that span.
Then 4-4 in the playoffs -- 4-5 if you include Rivers' first year as a starter in 2006, when the Chargers went 14-2 and suffered a disappointing Divisional round loss to the New England Patriots. The Chargers did just enough to create positive momentum, but it was never consequential.
Only on occasion could Rivers be faulted for poor performances -- he'd no doubt like to take back the three combined interceptions he threw against the Pats in 2006 and 2007. During the 2008 season playoffs, however, Rivers passed 298 yards, three touchdowns and one interception only to lose because a bottom-barrel Pittsburgh Steelers offense put up 35 points and held the ball for all but 17 seconds in the third quarter. In the 2013 season playoffs, the Chargers lost to the Broncos even though Rivers outdueled Manning on a windy day. The defense, again, relented, allowing the Broncos to convert 9 of 13 third-down attempts, including a third-and-17 on the game's final drive.
You can't say Rivers isn't clutch. During that 2013 season, the Chargers had to win every game from Week 14 onward -- including in overtime in Week 17 over the Kansas City Chiefs, who were outscored 10-0 in the fourth quarter. The stars have never aligned quite right for Rivers, and that may be in part why statistically lesser peers like Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have rings and he doesn't.
This all horribly makes sense
The 2009 season was probably Rivers' best shot at personal or team glory. The Chargers went 13-3 to win the AFC West and take the No. 2 seed in the conference. He had the league's third-highest passer rating and second-highest adjusted net yards per attempt. He completed 65.2 percent of his passes and threw just nine interceptions to 28 touchdowns. He was easily the best player on a Chargers team that was in title contention, and he earned just two MVP votes. Peyton Manning won with 39.5 votes.
And that's fine. Manning had a great season, too. Still, if Rivers feels jilted one can understand why. He's an all-time great quarterback who has yet to win the one game he needs to win to be recognized as such in an era of ridiculously good passers. In time, he may be the most easily forgotten great passer of the era -- Romo seems to hold a higher place in our collective consciousness, though perhaps dubiously for his few ill-timed gaffes. Maybe Rivers would be okay with this, too. A lot of players probably aren't as legacy-obsessed as the people who write about them (hi!).
Rivers doesn't come off as legacy-obsessed. His beef is personal. He likes San Diego. He likes that he is surrounded by a strong Christian community. See look, he said so himself talking to something called the National Christian Register:
Our bond in the faith is the foundation of our marriage. San Diego has a very solid Catholic community, which has been great for my wife and kids to make friends and be supported in the faith. This is very encouraging, especially when it comes to living out teachings of the Church that are not as popular as others.
Rivers is deeply concerned about his family: A wife of 14 years and seven, soon to be eight, children. The proof is in the fact that he's turning down an extension now, at a time when teams are giddily throwing money at his peers like jail-broken ATMs. Rivers is about to take his chances that he survives another season behind a Chargers offensive line that was in the bottom half of the league in adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, and 29th in pass-blocking efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus.
Assuming general manager Tom Telesco was genuine when he said he wanted to enter extension negotiations with his quarterback, Rivers may have turned down an opportunity to be a $100 million quarterback with likely $50 million-plus guaranteed before entering a contract season. Rivers is 33 and riding the league's second-longest active starting streak for a quarterback. He has a lot of good years left, and he's worth the paycheck to San Diego. But he seems to have bigger things on his mind and that's ... kind of noble.
Stories admonishing Rivers for the trade rumors that persisted up until the NFL Draft exist solely to fill a narrative gap. Let a story linger long enough and eventually every potential angle will be taken -- one of the easiest is "guy and his agent who aren't fully cooperating with management have set forth Machiavellian machinations." Simpler is to take Rivers at his word that he is concerned about his standard of living if he has to move.
In response, the Chargers are acting rationally within the framework of How People Do Business. This isn't Good vs. Evil, Evil vs. Evil or Good vs. Good. It's people carefully erecting dominoes in hopes that the contraption stays inta--aww hamburgers, everything fell over.
Rivers to the Titans for Marcus Mariota made sense, even if it was a media fabrication. Rivers has been upfront about his dislike for Los Angeles, and San Diego's best chance of retaining the Chargers is by playing chicken with the franchise. The Mariota deal would have been a neat settlement for both dissatisfied parties. It wasn't the perfect solution for quarterback or franchise, however, and so both sides are hedging like anyone who might be trying to salvage a relationship in its final throes. In its current trajectory, the relationship will break.
Rivers' Family is being threatened by Business. Business has never been much concerned with Family. We're watching the natural consequence of misaligned interests, and it's terribly sad. Rivers should be remembered as one of the best quarterbacks to play the game, and if this were a storybook he could forever be associated with the city he loves and that likewise stuck by him. Now, if Rivers ever achieves his greatest moment, there's a very good chance it won't occur with San Diego, and that'd be wrong.
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