Two interceptions by Philip Rivers cost the San Diego Chargers a victory in Tampa Bay on Sunday. One interception was returned for a touchdown when the Chargers were in range of a game-tying field goal, and the other came with about three minutes left with the Chargers needing a touchdown to tie the game. The interceptions were Rivers' 11th and 12th of the season.
While Rivers himself and a lot of the media will blame the interceptions on poor decision-making (some have been), they are ignoring a correctable and glaring reason for many of the interceptions: sloppy footwork.
The Chargers need Rivers to generate offense, but they also need him to stop throwing interceptions that cost them points. Basically, the Chargers need to have their cake and eat it too. In every game in which Rivers has thrown two interceptions, San Diego has lost. He has avoided an interception altogether in two games, but he has a total of one touchdown in those games.
It’s very easy to blame poor decisions, but there's no way for coaches or Rivers to correct decision-making. The coaches can tell a player to throw the ball away, but the player still has to make that decision. All the coaching staff can really do is minimize the need to make decisions, which means more conservative plays. That strategy hasn't worked for San Diego.
Also, poor decisions are often only considered poor only because of a physical limitation. A good example would be a quarterback rolling one way and throwing across his body to the opposite side of the field. That unofficial rule doesn't apply to everyone, and Brett Favre got away with it a lot because he had a great arm. For most other quarterbacks, it’s a poor decision. Decisions are often only poor because of the results. Basically, they are relative to the outcome.
On the other hand, footwork is very correctable. If Rivers cleans up his footwork, the Chargers can probably live with the interceptions that result from ill-advised throw into triple coverage that 99 percent of people will agree is a poor decision. That hasn't been the case nearly as much as you would expect from a guy who has 12 interceptions in nine games.
Interception No. 1: 3rd-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 23-Yard Line
Rivers’ first interception was returned 83 yards for a touchdown. It was a play that swung the game 10 points. Instead of a tie game, the Chargers were down 10 with a quarter to play. If you watch the replay, it looks like a terrible decision.
It’s only when you slow it down that you realize that Rivers’ decision was only bad because it resulted in an interception. Had Rivers completed the pass, no one would be saying Rivers got away with a bad decision.
Rivers was rolling toward the sideline, and throwing the ball away and preserving the field goal was a very safe decision, and no one could have faulted Rivers. That’s true, but the decision Rivers did make was actually not bad. His footwork and his throw were bad.
The throw went right to the defender, and Rivers knew the defender was there. The problem was that Rivers throws this ball on the run. Rivers isn’t totally square to his target, and his hips are pointed toward out of bounds. The throw (yellow line) wobbles short and hits the defender right in the chest.
Had Rivers set himself (which he had time to do) and gotten himself square to his target, he could have thrown a ball to the sideline, where only one of his two receivers would've had a chance to make a play on the ball (blue lines).
This is a footwork problem and one that resulted in a poorly executed pass. His receivers were open and there were two safe passes available. There is nothing wrong with this play if Rivers had been able to execute the pass, and it either falls incomplete and the Chargers try a field goal to tie or is thrown complete and the Chargers have 1st-and-goal inside the 10.
Rivers has to work on his footwork on the run or stop and set himself. Either way, 100 percent of the blame belongs to Rivers. Just because Rivers is a veteran doesn't mean the coaching staff shouldn't work with Rivers on his footwork under pressure or on the run.
Interception No. 2: 2nd-and-20 from the San Diego 12-Yard Line
Trailing by seven, the Chargers could have tied the game with a touchdown drive and instead basically gifted the Buccaneers another three points. After Rivers was sacked, the offense was facing a long second down. The Chargers ran a couple underneath routes and a deep route. If the deep route isn’t there, the smart decision is to pick up positive yardage and try to convert on third down.
Rivers has both shorter routes open, but he passes them both up for the deep shot to Danario Alexander down the left sideline. The only reasonable explanation is that it was wide open.
Indeed Alexander had a full step on the defensive back, and there was no help over the top. Rivers simply needed to throw it deeper and to Alexander’s outside shoulder because the cornerback had inside leverage. Rivers underthrew the pass, but why?
There was pressure on Rivers, but it wasn’t enough to physically impact the throw. The pressure only impacted Rivers mentally. Instead of stepping into the throw, Rivers throws flat-footed and doesn’t get his body into the deep throw because he’s worried about the pressure coming up the middle. Rivers’ arm is simply not good enough to get this ball deep to Alexander without Rivers getting his momentum into the throw.
The offensive line is at least partially to blame for allowing quick pressure, but it’s hard to fault them when the defense knew the Chargers were going to pass. The read was good, and if Rivers makes the throw, no one is going to say Rivers shouldn't have thrown it deep. Rivers was impacted by the pressure, and in that circumstance he didn’t maintain his footwork or body mechanics.
This isn’t a unique problem to this interception. Rivers is imagining more pressure than is really there, and it’s impacting his footwork and throws. According to ProFootballFocus, Rivers has a quarterback rating of 42.0 under pressure and 112.0 when not under pressure. It’s not unusual for quarterbacks to struggle under pressure, but Rivers’ is so much worse when pressured compared to when he isn't pressured.
Rivers’ quarterback rating in 2009 and 2010 went down, but by less than 35 points in each season. That seems to be pretty typical for a pocket passer. The pass protection is certainly to blame for his 2012 struggles, but Rivers is performing worse when he is pressured. He was actually pressured more in 2010 than he was in 2011, according to ProFootballFocus.
The vast majority of Rivers’ struggles can be attributed to his footwork and mechanics under pressure and not simply his decision-making. There’s not a lot the Chargers can do to protect Rivers better with the offensive linemen they have, so it will be on Rivers to clean up his footwork. Playing more conservatively hurts the offense just as much or more than Rivers' interceptions.
It's possible the coaching staff simply does not have the time to correct these issues during the season and this is going to continue to be a problem for Rivers and the Chargers.