Philip Rivers’ career is almost without blemish. The Chargers legend, who played the 2020 season with the Indianapolis Colts announced his retirement on Wednesday after playing 17 seasons in the NFL. The only thing missing from his list of accomplishments is a Super Bowl ring, but that also puts him in extremely rare company as one of the best to ever play the game without winning the Lombardi trophy, and yes, I’m going to say it — Rivers is the greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL without getting a ring.
That’s been Dan Marino’s title for a long, long time. Marino retired in 1999 and to this day he’s been the no-brainer answer to the question of who the best was to play, and not win a ring. Now that’s not only a debate, but it’s clear that Rivers holds the crown — and I’m not even sure it’s close.
Dan Marino vs. Philip Rivers
Obviously Marino is a legend. Saying that Rivers was statistically better over the course of his career doesn’t take anything away, and critics will point out that the NFL has become more passer-friendly since Rivers entered the league than when Marino played at his peak. However, it’s important to also note that for many of Marino’s seasons in the NFL he had a far better supporting cast in Miami than Rivers had with the Chargers.
Look at Marino’s legendary 1984 season, where he threw for over 5,000 yards and a then-record 48 touchdowns. His receivers that season were five-time Pro Bowlers Mark Clayton (1,389 yards), three-time Pro Bowler Mark Duper (1,306 yards), and the Dolphins had a defense that allowed just 22 passing touchdowns on the season.
Rivers, meanwhile, threw for 4,710 yards in 2010 — and basically had nobody of note to throw to. No receiver on the Chargers had over 1,000 yards on the year, with the team-leader in receiving belonging to tight end Antonio Gates (762 yards). Gates was incredible, no doubt — but it was a mile away from having true, elite receivers.
That’s kind of the story of why Rivers never managed to win it all. The Chargers were never able to put a complete cast around him. There was always one other good player on offense, whether it was LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates or Vincent Jackson — but it always seemed that none of these players all peaked together to amount to one great season.
One area where Rivers and Marino match up perfectly is how underrated they were coming out of college. Marino fell to the 27th pick in 1987 after a down senior season at Pitt, while Rivers was the consolation prize in the legendary 2004 draft. He was selected by the Giants in order to make a trade with San Diego work to get Eli Manning, who pitched a fit about playing for the Chargers. Had the Giants not worked the deal and selected Rivers, it’s unclear where he would have fallen in 2004.
There was so much criticism of Rivers entering the league from NC State. His bizarre 3⁄4 sidearm release was predicted to never work in the NFL. Analysts believed he’d need a full teardown and rework of his mechanics to make it in the league. When it came to the top quarterbacks in that class he didn’t garner attention for his leadership like Manning, or his arm like Ben Roethlisberger — but nobody had the accuracy, or smarts of Rivers in that class.
In the wake of Rivers’ retirement, JJ Watt shared an anecdote of just how well Rivers understood the game.
I’ll never forget lining up for a play and Phil pointing to one of our linebackers and telling him he was lined up wrong based off the blitz we were about to run and being 100% correct about it haha.— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) January 20, 2021
One of the smartest I’ve ever played against and a hell of a competitor. https://t.co/1AZxyvDafu
Above all else Rivers was loyal, to his credit, and detriment. The epitome of a professional, he spent the majority of his career with the Chargers, on teams without deep talent, in an organization who didn’t know how to build success. Yet he never complained, not once. It wasn’t his way. Rivers deserved better. He deserved a team that could build around him, but he was content to be one of the league’s best quarterbacks, not make waves, and create a life for him and his family.
Philip Rivers is a legend, ring or not. While there are sure to be debates on where he belongs in the “greatest of all time” conversation, he is cemented in stone as the fifth all-time in passing. Even if you disagree with the assertion Rivers is better than Marino, there’s no way to argue against him being one of the greatest passers of all time.