For the first time since 2004, Philip Rivers won’t be a Charger. Los Angeles officially parted ways with the quarterback who became the face of the franchise. Over 16 seasons, Rivers was a good and occasionally great player who, through awful luck and questionable decisions, could never get to a Super Bowl.
Rivers is now set to hit the free agent marketplace at a spritely 38 years old and coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro. It marked the third season in which he’s thrown at least 20 interceptions. His 3.9 percent touchdown rate was the lowest of his career as a full-time starter.
The veteran has bounced back from similar downturns in the past. He was 2013’s Comeback Player of the Year after leading the NFL in completion rate. He looked washed in 2016 after throwing a league-high 21 picks, but returned in 2017 and 2018 behind efficient, above-average seasons.
With the threat of retirement dangling over his head, there’s no guarantee those numbers will rebound — but a change of scenery may be the key to unlocking one last playoff run. Where could Rivers fit in an NFL landscape swamped with experienced passers and an influx of solid young prospects? Let’s take a look at the most obvious fits, based on a few different criteria.
The best offense for Rivers’ skills: Cleveland Browns
Rivers is a pass-heavy quarterback who has thrown more than 35 passes per game over the last decade. That’s the kind of profile that most NFL teams are looking for as offenses lean even harder into the air raid-ish tendencies that have taken over playbooks.
Returning Rivers back to his Pro Bowl self may be as simple as trimming his route tree and dialing back on deep throws. Per SIS, his 73 passes of 20+ yards were fourth-most in the league in 2019, but his 32.9 percent completion rate on those throws slotted him between Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston. Instead, he’s thrived in the late stage of his career on throws between 10-19 yards downfield.
Who can give him that kind of mid-range attack? How about a Cleveland Browns offense with a pass-vacuum safety net (Jarvis Landry), a catch-anything field stretcher (Odell Beckham Jr.), and a linebacker-juking tight end (David Njoku)?
The 2019 Browns opted for a steady diet of intermediate passes for Baker Mayfield. That was under the short-lived Freddie Kitchens regime, which lasted only one year. His firing gave way to former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s reign as head coach — and his offenses threw deep even less than Mayfield despite having players like Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in the lineup.
Chance it happens: 0.5/10
This is an unrealistic scenario barring some significant shakeups. Stefanski spent his 2019 turning Kirk Cousins into the best version of himself. He was brought to Cleveland to do the same with Mayfield, the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. The Browns don’t need Rivers and Rivers probably doesn’t want to be a Brown. In terms of pure fit, however, the best place for the former Charger to wrap up his career on a high note may just be Northeast Ohio.
The best combination of need and playmaking talent: Indianapolis Colts
The most successful version of Rivers is the one who is allowed to take shots but is also flanked by short-range options. That means he’s best served by a pass-catching tailback — i.e. LaDainian Tomlinson back in the 2000s or Austin Ekeler now — and a reliable tight end who can keep safeties anchored in the middle of the field without floating too far back.
Which team has a deep threat, a possession receiver masquerading as a tight end, and a running back capable of creating havoc? The Chiefs do, for sure, but they’re pretty well set at QB. If we take teams with entrenched QBs out of the picture, the top supporting cast may well be in the AFC South. The Indianapolis Colts can offer Rivers a rock-solid offensive line that allowed sacks on just five percent of dropbacks and All-Pro wideout T.Y. Hilton.
Rivers would also team with the dynamic tailback duo of Marlon Mack (1,091 rush yards in 2019) and Nyheim Hines (44 receptions). He’d be able to fall back on Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle in the middle of the field when his deep-play choices fail to pan out. Even if the Colts lack depth at their skill positions, Rivers could make the most out of the talent Indianapolis already has — all while filling the gap between Andrew Luck’s tenure and whomever winds up being the team’s quarterback of the future.
Chance it happens: 4/10
The Colts got half a good season out of Jacoby Brissett before injuries and regression indicated he may be better off in a backup role. Adding Rivers to the mix could push him to new heights or give the team an insurance policy if he falls apart late in the year again. Would a 5-2 Indianapolis team miss the postseason again if Rivers were waiting in the wings?
That’s where former teammate Melvin Gordon thinks he’ll end up, even if it’s just a hunch.
Melvin Gordon to @CBSSports on Philip Rivers: “I think he’ll go to the Colts. I don’t know, that’s just my thought. He has Nick (Sirianni) there, the (OC), he came from here. They run the same playbook, so it’d be easy, he could come right in....That’s probably the best fit.”— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 17, 2020
The best landing spot to win a Super Bowl: Chicago Bears
Rivers’ best bet at a Super Bowl ring in 2020 may be as a backup. However, there are a handful of opportunities where he could work his way to the top of the QB depth chart and guide a ready-made roster to the postseason.
The Chicago Bears can offer an array of playmakers who’d been previously lured to the Midwest in what appears to have been a futile effort to help Mitchell Trubisky’s development. The combination of Tarik Cohen and Trey Burton would surround Rivers with an athletic pair who can break off for big gains. Allen Robinson, whose career has been plagued by underwhelming quarterback play, would get the chance to prove himself as an upper-tier receiver alongside a big-armed passer.
The Bears’ defense backslid a bit in 2019, but is still loaded with players like Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, and Roquan Smith. A steady presence behind center could provide an important cantilever to that championship-caliber unit.
Chance it happens: 3.5/10
General manager Ryan Pace says Trubisky is his starter for 2020. That doesn’t mean he won’t at least do his due diligence on this year’s crop of available quarterbacks, especially after the former No. 2 overall pick struggled mightily in 2019.
The best opportunity to jumpstart a rebuild: Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are on the brink of a teardown, and Cam Newton can be released or traded while counting just $2 million against the team’s cap. Should team owner David Tepper decide jettisoning both head coach Ron Rivera and longtime tight end Greg Olsen wasn’t enough, Newton may be next to go. Tepper currently doesn’t sound all that enthused about his former MVP, either.
Newton’s departure would leave the club with two interesting, but flawed, young passers (Kyle Allen, Will Grier) and a draft slot that’s not quite high enough to snipe a top-tier quarterback (No. 7 overall). Rivers could be the stopgap solution new head coach Matt Rhule uses to bring his still-developing quarterbacks along slowly.
While he wouldn’t have the downfield weapons the Bears, Browns, or Colts could provide — D.J. Moore’s ongoing breakout aside — he’d play with tailback whose 2019 season would fit nicely among Tomlinson’s mid-2000s prime. Christian McCaffrey would excel in Rivers’ short-yardage passing game, leaving room for Moore to flourish in the open space behind him.
Chance it happens: 3/10
It all depends on what happens with Newton, but it sounds like the Panthers are barreling toward a change. Even then, Carolina could opt for a younger reclamation project like Winston or Marcus Mariota.
The best opportunity to annoy everyone in the NFL: New England Patriots
Nigh-insufferable fanbase meets nigh-insufferable quarterback.
Philip Rivers on a 5-8 team thrashing a 4-9 team and trash talking with the little tantrum hands move as he screams "NINETY YARD TOUCHDOWN" after Yannick was nice enough to pick him up off the ground. Truly the pic.twitter.com/FC7XvBagtf— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 10, 2019
May I present to you Tom Brady’s replacement: New England Patriots quarterback Philip Rivers.
Just imagine Rivers joining the franchise that ended his playoff runs in 2006, 2007, and 2018. New England follows up the Tom Brady era by swapping out a 42-year-old for a 38-year-old whose resume can’t even compare with his predecessor’s. Boos rain down from both Southern California and the Northeast alike.
It’s perfect and I hate it.
Chance it happens: 0.5/10
Let’s not act like Tom Brady isn’t going to turn around and re-sign with the Patriots, probably through some depressing Facebook ad or something similar.
The best realistic landing spot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rivers was unwilling to relocate to Los Angeles after his Chargers left San Diego behind. Instead, he bought a $200,000 mobile film room so he could do his homework during the 90-minute drive to and from practice.
This all suggests he’s not going to stray far from the Florida home he moved his family to this offseason. There’s only one Sunshine State franchise with both the need and the available salary cap space to bring Rivers to town. Jameis Winston is a free agent after five up-and-down seasons with the Buccaneers, and Tampa is in the market for a veteran quarterback who can serve as a bridge between their present and the future.
Enter Rivers, who’d give head coach Bruce Arians and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers another opportunity to rehabilitate a tarnished former top prospect. Arians transformed Carson Palmer from washed-up piece of Raiders garbage into a Pro Bowl quarterback in the sunset of his career. He also turned Winston into the greatest boom-or-bust passer in league history thanks to the NFL’s first 30-touchdown, 30-interception season. Whatever Rivers has left in the tank, Arians will get the most of it while dialing up his quarterback’s truest self up to “11.”
There’s more to like in Tampa than just Arians. Rivers would sling passes to possibly the NFL’s No. 1 receiving tandem in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Ronald Jones and Dare Ogunbonwale are both decent pass catchers from the backfield, too. Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard have each shown flashes of potential throughout their careers, and either could level up playing alongside a more consistent QB.
The Buccaneers can’t offer the playoff readiness of the Colts or Bears, but they can surround an aging quarterback with a proven, offensively minded head coach and a receiving corps that can turn Rivers’ risks downfield into big plays. Tampa Bay could replace Winston, who played like the Kirkland brand Philip Rivers, with the real thing — albeit a version that could be past its expiration date.
Chance it happens: 7/10
If Rivers wants to play and restore his value in 2019, the Buccaneers may be his best chance. And he could probably still commute to work!