Phillip Rivers is like a pop star that burst onto the scene as part of a QB Super Group released into the 2004 NFL Draft. The other heart-throbbing members were Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers, 11th pick) and Eli Manning, who was taken first overall by San Diego. The NY Giants selected Rivers with the fourth pick and then worked out a trade with the Chargers to flip quarterbacks.
Group member Matt Schaub was the least-heralded talent. He went in the third round to the Atlanta Falcons. Before Schaub broke out as a 4,000-yard passer and All-Pro leading QB with the Houston Texans Country Music Group, he was considered no more than a backup slinger.
Fast forward 10 years, and all of these guys have gotten solo deals. Big Ben and Eli have each won two Super Bowls and are considered elite NFL QBs. Big Ben has even boosted his celebrity and record sales with some run-ins with ladies and the law.
Schaub fell short of his Super Bowl dreams and is getting run out of Texas, but the 32-year-old has accomplished more than scouts predicted, passing for almost 23,500 career yards and counting. He might get offered a solo deal with another label. Or he’ll go back to singing background for another group.
Rivers lives with a lot of failed expectations and what-ifs. He was initially supposed to sign a multi-album deal with the NY Giants and be announced as their next huge artist, but Ernie Accorsi and The Mannings sort of strong-armed their way to the Big Apple. Rivers ended up in San Diego with Marty Schottenheimer and then Norv Tuner. Eli ended up in NY with Tom Coughlin, and the rest is riveting NFL history.
Some industry experts and fans of Rivers argue that the resources and marketing isn’t the same in San Diego, and Rivers is at a disadvantage against other A-list QBs. Rivers had strong production teams that made illmatic records, but his big stage show was lacking. For some reason he could never produce that hit single. He could pack a local club, but couldn’t sell out an arena.
The 6-4 firecracker who re-wrote passing records at N.C. State has 81 wins and no Super Bowl appearances, the most of any current NFL QB. To be anointed a football god you have to contribute to getting your franchise a Lombardi joint. The next closest player is Falcon’s QB Matt Ryan, who has 60 wins and also has a ton of passing yards, but nothing to show for it.
I’m not knocking Phil the Thrill because the supreme talent level of his 2004 QB Super Group provides him some stiff competition. It’s possibly the best of all-time, rivaling the storied 1983 class of passers—John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien and a dart-throwing, TD-ripping machine named Dan Marino. They already have twice as many Super Bowls as that group and aren’t finished catching wreck.
"As I've gotten older, it's more neat to see (Manning's) success, to see him getting two Super Bowls, because I think it just adds to the legacy of our draft class," Roethlisberger told Jenny Vrentas of The Star-Ledger in 2012. “ And all four quarterbacks — Matt Schaub, Philip (Rivers), myself and Eli—that were drafted there. I hope we can play well enough that one day they talk about us as maybe the best quarterback draft class.”
If Rivers doesn’t catch a wave and lift San Diego to a Super Bowl win, then he ends up more like the Jim Kelly of his class. He’ll get his seat among Hall of Famers, but he’ll have to keep his hands in his pocket when NFL Kings begin their long-winded and ego-driven discussions of Super Bowl brilliance and dramatic playoff triumphs.
It’s up to him to change that. He can turn the NFL town upside down, wild-out like he just flipped a Vegas poker table, and go out like John Elway. Elway is considered one of the greatest talents the NFL has ever seen. His rocket arm, clutch pedigree and precision passing is well-documented NFL lore.
But even Elway was overlooked in discussions of all-time great NFL QBs until he got a running game, a sick D and won back-to-back Super Bowls at age 38.
Elway recorded the most victories by a starting quarterback at the time of his retirement, and led his teams to six AFC Championship Games and five Super Bowls. Winning the last two, however, when most people had counted him out lifted Elway from borderline HOF status to the top of many all-time great lists.
Similarly, Rivers still has time to transform his shaky legacy. One would assume his track record of NFL regular season-dopeness is too thick for him not to eventually break through and at least reach one Super Bowl.
It’s his turn. It’s got to be.
We saw Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers get theirs. Now, we see Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck pushing Old Man Rivers into the background. At this point, he’s like an aging pitcher who still throws heat. His football IQ hides his diminishing skills like a right-handed boxer with a broken jab hand who can also go southpaw. He’s primed for a run.
After all, isn’t that his destiny as a boy who grew up in “football Mecca” Alabama, where his father Steve, was the head of Decatur High’s football team? He at least owes the Chargers a David Tyree moment for chucking aside the NFL’s all-time single-season passing boss in favor of a young, unproven Rivers.
After sitting for two years behind future Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees, the Chargers made Rivers their starting QB in 2006. Brees went on to win a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints and gain incredible acclaim as the pigskin-slinging, super-selling leader of that controversially-charged, gold and platinum selling group, Who Dat Nation.
In his first season at the reigns, Rivers threw for 3,388 yards, 22 touchdowns and just nine picks. The Chargers finished an impressive 14-2, but exited the playoffs with a divisional round loss to the New England Patriots.
Some NFL heads still hold the unwavering opinion that he is better than Eli and Big Ben, despite not brandishing the same blingy hand accessories or plaques on the wall. They say his raw talent and skills on wax make him a people’s choice as the No. 1 QB out of that class. Rivers has more careers TDs than Big Ben (221-219) and a higher career passer rating than both of them, at 96.0.
Unfortunately, that rooting section isn’t loud enough to drown out years of playoff failure. How that failure has affected the opinions of the NFL masses concerning Rivers standing among his 2004 QB peers.
Anthony Blake of rantsports.com says the Chargers’ failed fortunes at crunch-time come from a lack of killer instinct and called the Chargers on it during their playoff run this season, which looked improbable at times along the way.
Now it’s time for the same inescapable questions to come up again about the Chargers’ lack of killer instinct in the clutch . From the failures to finish off the Houston Texans with a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter in Week 1 to the struggles to complete a similar task against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3, this team lacks a certain gravitas to come through when needed the most.
Until the Bolts can overcome this stigma as a team destined to fail and become one that is primed for success these questions will only continue to grow in volume.
That’s the story of Rivers’ career. The NFL’s Memphis Bleek is always just one hit away from the platinum-plaque that will solidify his place among the elite of his craft.
In addition to the playoff futility, Rivers' overall performance dipped, as the Chargers ground game suffered from the departure of LaDanian Tomlinson in ’09. LT’s multi-faceted skill-set was vital to Rivers' early success.
Before his return to form in 2013, Rivers threw 53 TDs, but he also surrendered 35 of his 104 career-interceptions in 2011 and 2012. Last season his frustration skyrocketed as he threw for just 3,606 yards – his lowest total since 2007.
His reputation as a 100 passer-rating QB was tarnished by turnovers largely attributed to the fact that Rivers offensive burden is immense. And he’s not afraid to chuck it down the field.
In eight full seasons as a starter, he’s passed for over 4,000 yards five times. Since hooking up with new HC Mike McCoy, Rivers passed for 4,478 yards, but most importantly threw 32 TDs and just 11 picks. His 105.5 passer rating tied a career-high.
Now is the time for Rivers to produce that hit record. If not this season, it may never happen. Eventually the label is going to drop you and the fans are going to accept you for what you are –very good, but not legendary.
Rivers’ powerhouse squads have fizzled in the funkdafied trenches of playoff battle.
In 2007 they lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship. In 2008 (Steelers) and 2009 (Jets) Rivers and Co. lost divisional playoff games.
In 2010, Rivers tossed for a career-high 4,710 yards that earned him the nickname, “The Juggernaut,” but the Chargers reign as four-time defending AFC West champs ended. And a streak of three consecutive years missing the playoffs began.
More often than not, it was someone else’s fault; a janky D or an inopportune fumble or a lame HC with football savvy and no killer instinct. The excuse caboose has run out for San Diego’s Human Rocket Launcher. He’s facing Denver again in a divisional playoff round on Sunday. It’s going to be a tough crowd and he’s going to get booed a lot, but he can win great favor with the NFL world if he matches Peyton’s prolific aerial attack and advances to his first AFC Championship Game since 2007.
From there, Rivers becomes a QB of destiny, similar to Eli on those road-runs to improbable Giants rings.
Rivers has the offense to win three more road games—and similar to past surprising Super Bowl squads—the Chargers pass rush is on the come up. They’ve registered eight sacks and a ton of pressures and hurries over the last four games. They sacked Andy “the Red Rifle” Dalton three times in their Wild Card victory over Cincinnati, and the rushing game of Ryan Mathews was the difference in that Week 15 win over Denver. He rushed 29 times and helped the Chargers control the rock
Some say there’s no such thing as a team of destiny, just winners and losers. Others will dispute that claim and maintain faith in the belief that particular groups are chosen by a higher power to seize the moment and do the unexpected.
If Rivers is a true believer, he can rise to this occasion. Get in the lab and chef up something incredible, Phil.
Every great artist needs a career-defining moment. Just don’t go Tony Romo on us. Get yourself a ring, take your rightful place among the 2004 QB class and sing your own praises as a bonafide legendary signal-caller, while gazing up at the platinum Super Bowl plaque prominently displayed at Qualcomm Stadium, culminating a hard-body career.