No player typified (and caused) the Chargers’ struggles last season more than Philip Rivers. He was showered with praise for his work during the 2010 season, where he threw to a record 17 different receivers.
With Vincent Jackson holding out and every pass-catcher on the roster being injured at some point, Rivers threw for a career-high 4,710 yards. His 30 touchdowns were second only to his 34 of 2008.
With all his weapons returning for 2011 and a new special teams coach to remedy a historically bad showing the year before, many assumed Rivers would utterly dominate and follow Aaron Rodgers as “the next great quarterback to win a championship.”
Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who lobbied for MVP consideration for Rivers in 2010, predicted him winning of Offensive Player of Year and MVP in 2011.
How can Rivers bounce back in 2012? As is the case with everything involving the Chargers, it is necessary to take a deeper look at how they got here. While Rivers threw for more yards (and more frequently) than ever before, in 2010, he wasn’t conjuring the late-game magic we’ve come to expect.
In games at St. Louis and Seattle, he tried to dig the team out of the hole it built and came up short. The Chargers' November win at Houston, their first road victory of the year, was the only real Rivers comeback.
The fact that he threw four touchdowns, two of them to virtually-unknown Seyi Ajirotutu, made many think he could walk on water. It may have also convinced the Texans to hire Wade Phillips.
But that game, and the ones that preceded it, proved to be fool’s gold. The Chargers didn’t function best with Rivers carrying the entire load. He lost at home to Oakland for the first time in his career with the Bolts basically needing to win out.
He would also lose at Cincinnati, giving him first two losses in December as a pro. But that was 2010. What clues did last season leave, and what can Rivers do to make things right?
I know, this would be on the top of any quarterback list. But Rivers was abysmal in 2011. He threw 17 interceptions by Week 11. The last one was when he was trying to throw it out of bounds. He had two returned for touchdowns against the Packers on a day when he threw for three for the first time in his career. By the time Rivers brought his interceptions down, the Chargers had lost six in a row.
What made it worse was that these picks (and one infamous fumbled snap on Halloween) were often in the opponents’ red zone. We may never know exactly what caused this rash of interceptions, but it was clear that Rivers was pressing.
Receivers were often getting little or no separation from defenders. He was under more pressure from opposing pass-rushers than ever before. The running game was too inconsistent to keep defenses guessing.
The Bolts’ defense was forcing him to play from behind early in games. Nonetheless, Rivers cannot revert back to the “chuck and suck” offense. The decision-making and the accuracy must improve this season.
The difference between being viewed as a petulant child and a leader who refuses to let up on his teammates is often in the end result. But Rivers often looked rattled. As the undisputed leader of this team, he needs to rein project more confidence. I’m talking about confidence, not cockiness.
Again, I know the distinction is often defined by the end result. It’s no secret that Rivers is chatty on the field, but he’s hardly the trash talker critics have claimed. Although he knew he was being filmed, these “miked up” clips at Oakland are a pretty good taste of his G-rated jawing. But when things aren’t going as well as they did for him in the season’s final game, he needs to find some poise.
This also means he needs to cut down on the delay of game penalties and miscommunications at the line of scrimmage. The Bolts hurry-up offense has left something to be desire over the last couple of seasons.
In 2009, Rivers led the Chargers back to a last-second win at the Giants that ignited them for rest of the regular season. The Chargers’ two-minute drill at the Meadowlands last season, however, brought back memories of Mark Vlasic. It was that bad.
There also appeared to be a couple of “flare ups” on the sideline with Norv Turner last year, despite the fact that Rivers is Norv’s most vocal supporter. Rivers needs to return to the form he showed before the Jets clamped down on him in the playoffs and knocked him off the pedestal he’d built for himself and Chargers fans.
It’s easy for me to say that the Bolts win more when Rivers throws a little less. Every team wants be balanced just as they’d like to have a better pass rush. The Chargers’ defense, running and blocking will have a lot to do with whether Rivers throw frequently by design or necessity.
One thing he can do to help his own cause is improve his screen passes. Drew Brees seemingly had more balls batted down at the line of scrimmage than Doug Flutie during his time in San Diego. It’s still an area of concern with Rivers under center.
He threw a crucial interception to Roosevelt Colvin in the 2007 meltdown against New England while trying to drop the ball in to then-MVP LaDainian Tomlinson. There were instances last season where Rivers similarly couldn’t find the right touch on attempted screens and threw interceptions to Jarred Allen and Vince Wilfork.
Other times he’d fire it in when lighter fare was needed. The Chargers need those short passes to keep the heat off Rivers and open up his other targets.
I’m not just saying this because of the aforementioned Chicago game. Rivers still takes more seemingly avoidable sacks than he should. His Marino-like mobility doesn’t make it easy on him. But he needs to remember that hurling it wide isn’t always a bad thing.
The Chargers field-goal kicking has been legendarily suspect, especially in the clutch. A 10-yard sack can sometimes make all the difference.
When he’s outside the tackles, he also has to minimize the chance of being called for intentional grounding. It might sound like I’m nitpicking, but anyone who’s watched Rivers knows that he flicks the ball into the turf like a shortstop with the “yips” when he’s trying to kill a play.
But sometimes, he doesn’t do a good enough acting job for the refs. These types of mistakes aren’t acceptable for a guy who’s established the high standards Rivers has.
Every Super Bowl-winning quarterback reminds us that it’s how you finish that matters. This applies not only to specific games, but also to entire seasons.
Up until 2009, Rivers was as good down the stretch as anyone. This was what LL Cool J was talking about in that DirecTV commercial when he yelled about him going all “PHILIP RIVERS!” in a must-win game against the Bucs in 2008.
Everything is magnified in crunch time. In Rivers’ case, it’s not as if his missteps appeared out of nowhere in the final two minutes. This isn’t a pre-2012 LeBron we’re talking about.
Many of the trends I’ve outlined really manifest themselves when the game is truly on the line. It may surprise you to know that I’m a huge believer in Rivers. I watched him first-hand orchestrate that Jersey miracle in 2009.
But some bad habits have slowly crept into his game, and these last two seasons they’ve snowballed. No one expects Rivers to become a “game manager.” But he’s been forced to (or forced on himself) more of the burden as other parts of the team have broken down.
As a result, he’s faltered and the Chargers have missed the playoffs for two straight seasons. The last time they were in the postseason, Rivers looked ready to join his 2004 draftmates in securing a Lombardi Trophy. But the Bolts got knocked down that Sunday and haven’t gotten back up. Rivers and the Chargers need to finally learn from their mistakes his year.