Film Room: Philip Rivers

Film Room: Philip Rivers
Film Room: Philip Rivers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

Philip Rivers has always been the other great quarterback.

He has never been considered on the same level as his generation's top quarterbacks (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) while the two other quarterbacks from his draft class (Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger) have both gone on to win multiple Super Bowls. Even when he entered the NFL, Rivers was ultimately viewed as the consolation prize for the Chargers because Eli Manning refused to play for the franchise and forced a trade. He was still a first-round pick, but not the top quarterback in his class or an immediate starter. In fact, he sat for two seasons while both Eli Manning and Roethlisberger each started at least 16 games and gained widespread applause for their early performances.

Rivers was late to start, he isn't considered alongside the top quarterbacks of his generation, and he hasn't won a Super Bowl (or even played in one), but he has played to an MVP level for much of his career. Over 11 seasons (including his first two years when he threw just 30 passes), Rivers has accumulated more than 36,000 yards and 252 touchdowns with 122 interceptions while completing 64.7 percent of his passes. Since 2006, when Rivers was first a full-time starter, he has thrown the fourth-most touchdowns behind Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, while only Brees has thrown for more yards. Rivers has finished among the top three quarterbacks in passing DYAR four times, and has ranked in the top ten a total of seven times.

At 33 years of age, Rivers didn't have his best season last year, but he was still very productive. He threw for 4,286 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions while completing 66.5 percent of his 570 attempts. Those numbers helped the Chargers decide to reward Rivers with a new contract extension ahead of this season. Despite some trade speculation and concerns that the quarterback was unhappy with a possible franchise move north to Los Angeles, Rivers signed a four-year extension worth up to $84 million. That extension included a no-trade clause and $65 million guaranteed, so the quarterback isn't going anywhere despite his age.

It's unlikely that Rivers will offer the Chargers value over the latter years of his contract. His age is obviously an issue, but his inevitable decline may be accelerated by the beating he has taken behind poor offensive lines over the years, as well as his reluctance to play with refined mechanics. Unrefined mechanics will make it tougher for him to get the most out his physical ability when it begins to diminish. In 2014, Rivers suffered a decline, but it may have been injury related. He began the year playing at an MVP level, repeatedly making outstanding plays and carrying a limited supporting cast to victories over the first eight weeks of the season. In Week 9, he had his worst display of the year and never fully recovered to replicate his early season form.

In Weeks 1-8, Rivers had 38.4% DVOA and the Chargers went 5-3, with two of those losses coming by a field goal or less. From Week 9 onwards, Rivers had -9.9% DVOA and the Chargers were 4-4, with all four losses coming by more than a touchdown.

Recognizing how much pressure was put on Rivers to perform last season, the Chargers set about rebuilding his supporting cast this offseason. Trading up for Melvin Gordon is supposed to improve a running game that finished 25th in DVOA last year, although a healthy Danny Woodhead may be more significant. Orlando Franklin and Joseph Barksdale have arrived on the offensive line, allowing the team to move D.J. Fluker from right tackle to a more preferable right guard spot. The Chargers roster is set up to contend in the AFC, but only if Rivers can continually elevate his teammates the way he did over the first half of last season. He won't need to do it to the same extent because of the improvements on the offensive line and in the backfield, but the roster isn't so talented that he can become a complementary piece or even just a quality starter.

Elevating teammates is a familiar topic when discussing NFL quarterbacks, but it is often misunderstood. It's discussed as a leadership trait, something that it happens off the field to a degree. Or it is simply used after the fact to justify a player's value when his team wins games. It's often subtle, but elevating teammates is about on-field actions. Quarterbacks can elevate offensive linemen by covering for losing assignments or lost blocks; they can elevate receivers by throwing them open; and they can elevate the running game by audibling into favorable plays against specific defensive alignments.

In terms of elevating offensive linemen and receivers, you can count on the hand of Homer Simpson how many players are on Rivers' level.

This play comes from that Week 9 game against the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins' defensive line dominated the Chargers' offensive line throughout the game, so everything Rivers did had to be done a tick faster than would be typically expected. Therefore, even a play that appears as simple on initial viewing as this one required Rivers to elevate his teammates. Rivers both covered for his offensive line and threw his receiver open on this play.

The most important part of this play was Rivers' process in the pocket. He wasted little motion or time breaking down the coverage on the back end. He didn't hold the ball at the top of his drop; instead he immediately released it downfield. He released the ball so early that his receiver wasn't close to the end of his route. That route ultimately ends at the 38-yard line, but the receiver is at the 31-yard line when Rivers releases the ball. Therefore, Rivers must anticipate exactly where the receiver will turn, and then put the ball at that spot without being able to see it.

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Beyond that, he also must understand the timing of the play. The receiver doesn't create any separation at the top of his route, so Rivers has a minuscule window between the time his receiver turns and when the defensive back breaks on the ball to get the pass in there.

Not only does Rivers perfectly time his pass, but it also arrives in a spot where it's a simple reception for the receiver and safe from the defensive back. This is a perfect throw. It's a throw that was made so early that the offensive line was largely irrelevant. The line was able to pick up the blitz initially, but multiple linemen were being rapidly pushed backwards to the point that Rivers had no margin for error with his mental process. Immediately after Rivers released the ball, three defenders converged on him. One came through his left tackle, one through the center, and one through his running back to the right.

Making this kind of play a few times per game is impressive for any quarterback. Rivers wasn't making this kind of play a few times per game in 2014. He was making this type of play a few times per drive, and with great regularity these plays were of a much higher degree of difficulty.

The previous play showed a subtle example of Rivers' work, but here Rivers' efforts are clear. The Chargers' offensive line picks up the Cardinals' blitz but only slows it for a moment. Multiple unblocked defenders are closing on Rivers when he releases the ball. Rivers' footwork was crucial here as he subtly reset his feet in the pocket to move backwards. He didn't sacrifice his balance moving backwards, and he didn't drift away from contact during his release. This extra moment of time was crucial because he needed to allow the route combination downfield to develop.

Rivers is looking to his left. He has two potential targets to that side of the field, tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Malcom Floyd. It was third-and-13, and with the Cardinals in off coverage, neither receiver is open at this point. Yet, this is the point when Rivers releases the ball. He had to hold the ball this long to make sure Floyd could drag the outside cornerback infield, leaving space for Gates to turn up the sideline on his double-move route. Gates hasn't turned at this point, he is running towards the sideline. Therefore, Rivers has to drop it into the space deep down the left sideline for him to run under the ball.

Any quarterback's job is to make every play work to its design. NFL offensive coordinators, at least the better ones, design plays to be run in specific ways to best exploit opposing defenses. While there will be times for individual creativity, 95 percent of the time the design of the play will work. It's the quarterback's job to figure out where it's going to work against the called defense and, if he's good enough, to cover for the breakdowns around him.

Keeping the play working the way it's designed is infinitely easier to write than to execute, as the example above shows. Too many things can go wrong in and too many decisions/actions need to be made by the quarterback in an instant.

On this play, the right guard and right tackle are beaten almost instantly at the snap. Rivers steps up through the pocket and into space before throwing the ball back across his body. His feet weren't set and he was making the cardinal sin for a quarterback extending a play, throwing across his body. His arm strength, accuracy, and awareness allowed him to do this effectively though. He fit the ball into one of the tightest windows you'll come across. This was one of the most impressive plays any quarterback made all last season.

The Chargers didn't necessarily have bad wide receivers last season, but with Antonio Gates and Malcolm Floyd well past their primes and Eddie Royal complementing them with Keenan Allen, Rivers didn't have receivers who could consistently create their own separation. Allen and Royal were often crowded out by defenses that didn't need to blitz very often, meaning they could squeeze the space and give safety help to their cornerbacks. The receivers were still able to be productive by creating small throwing windows that Rivers could hit and winning at the catch point. This example of Rivers dropping a ball perfectly into Floyd, despite the running back getting dominated and pushed back into the quarterback's face, is a great example of the kind of throw Rivers had to make.

Floyd had gained good positioning on his cornerback, but he never pulled away to offer his quarterback a greater margin for error.

Leading receivers to space with touch and accuracy down the field is difficult in seven-on-seven drills when there is no pass rush. When there is a pass rush and the quarterback is forced to hasten his process in the pocket, the difficulty of these throws is multiplied. This throw against the Denver Broncos is another perfectly placed pass to a receiver who was well covered. Rivers had to drop the ball into his tight end between the underneath cornerback and the incoming safety over the top, all the while with a collapsing pocket around him and hastened process in the pocket.

Because of the construction of the offense around him, Rivers threw a huge number of short passes in 2014. He had to get rid of the ball quickly to negate the pass rush and keep the offense out of second- or third-and-long situations.

Thee prevalence of short passes can be seen on Rivers' accuracy chart. This chart has 423 accurate passes and 112 inaccurate passes. Even though he had to make exceptionally difficult downfield throws under pressure with a hastened process, the quarterback was still accurate on more than 79 percent of his throws last season.

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If he had sustained his play from the beginning of the season, he would have challenged Aaron Rodgers for the MVP award -- or at least, he would have played to that level. Whether the media's consensus would align with that is another thing altogether.

Philip Rivers is the other quarterback of his generation. He's not Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, or Ben Roethlisberger, but that doesn't mean he's worse than them. Rivers' career has been subtly brilliant for a variety of reasons, but more important than any of those ancillary aspects is his subtlety on the field. He has built a fine career on doing spectacular things that are unspectacular to your typical onlooker. His subtle genius on the field is only matched by his brash insanity off of it.


13 comments, Last at 21 Aug 2015, 1:53pm

1 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

The tagline indicated that we would see exactly where to rank him. EXACTLY. I would like my money back!

3 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

I'm not sure why Rivers would decline any more than the other QB's mentioned:

Manning = 39
Brady = 38
Brees = 36
Rivers = 33

A four year contract seems to me to be a safe bet. You just need to make sure that Rivers has a decent offensive line. Rivers is not mobile at all, but he is excellent at moving around in the pocket. He is extremely tough. There were lots of whispers out of San Diego last year that he had some undisclosed injury, although Rivers denied it over and over again. I guess it's possible that his decline at the half way point was simply due to a lack of trust in his o-line, which was awful last year. Improve the o-line, and the MVP candidate of the first half should return.

I'm fairly confident that the Chargers will have a much improved o-line:

LT - Dunlap is solid but not spectacular.
LG - Orlando Franklin was brought in, should be a massive improvement over Rinehart.
C - Watt was a rookie last year and is hopefully past his growing pains.
RG - Fluker has been moved here, even if he doesn't pick up guard play right away he should still be a massive improvement over Troutman (the worst starting guard in the league last year).
RT - Barksdale seems like an absolute steal, and if I remember correctly I thought Muth had good things to say about him in the Rams articles last year.

Unfortunately, there is little depth, but you can't have everything. This starting five should be much better in both the run game and in pass protection than last year's unit.

4 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

I was curious enough about Barksdale to go look up what Muth wrote about him. It turns out that he just got two short blurbs all year:

25 Sep 2014:
"Contrast Long's set with that of right tackle Joseph Barksdale (who was very good in pass pro all day). Barksdale also gets a great initial set, but once he's in position he just kind of stops and waits to throw his punch. Now Barksdale's punch is really good here (right on the defender's inside number with great extension), but even if it wasn't he'd still be in better shape simply because he has much more room to give."

18 Dec 2014:
"The big question for the Rams' line is what they do with Joe Barksdale at right tackle. The LSU product is a free agent this year and is going to be overpaid by somebody. I don't mean that as a slight against Barksdale at all, it's just a fact. He's a fine right tackle (a good run blocker who can hold his own in pass protection), but when you let a player reach free agency in his prime, someone will pay more than he's probably worth. The Rams have to decide if they want to be the team that can splurge a little bit for a known entity at right tackle."

Interestingly, Muth's prediction about Barksdale getting overpaid did not come true. He signed a 1 year, $1m offer with the Chargers. I'm not sure why he didn't generate much interest, but now I wish that the Chargers had locked him up for longer.

6 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

FWIW, Rivers WAS injured, suffering what was described as a "season-threatening back injury". He just played through it because he's an ironman (& their chances of making the playoffs w/a BU QB were minute).

8 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

That was later in the year. I went back and looked and there was a thing where Gates revealed that Rivers had been battling a rib injury as well:

According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, doctors fear that a bulging disk in the quarterback's lower back is on the verge of being herniated and that surgery may be necessary soon. Rivers played through a rib injury earlier in the year that Antonio Gates described as "very severe" and elected to play through his back injury despite requiring "urgent treament" two weeks ago

9 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

For the life of me I'll never understand the lack of respect Rivers gets in fantasy circles. Always has. I've seen post after post, year after year, of folks claiming he's no better than a QB2 or low-end QB1. I've never understood that sentiment. He's thrown for over 4,000 yards in 6 of the last 7 seasons. His one down year (by his standards) was 2012, the last year of Norv Turner's reign, when Norv kept dialing up "everybody go deep" routes despite a horrible offensive line.

10 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

Having watched Rivers a bit, the player he really reminds me of is peyton manning, but with more inconsistency across all parts of his game. His accuracy can be surreal, but is also at times pretty inconsistent. Ditto for his pocket awareness and decision making.

But that's really just nit picking. I know its chic to say Big Ben is clearly the better qb now, but no, to me - rivers was hands down the best qb of his class and tragically will be seen as the clear worst by most fans.

12 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers is kind of like this generation's Jim Kelly. Their games aren't completely similar, but while neither has ever been the league's very best QB, they were both something like the 4th or 5th best QB in the NFL for like 8 straight years.

13 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

He is also the only guy not named Peyton Manning to run his team's offensive meetings for film study of opponents, etc, that I've heard of. (most teams OC or HC runs them)