It was only two years ago when I debated with a friend who the best deep-ball passer in the NFL was. He voted Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, which was valid and one that I was hard-pressed to argue, but my ultimate pick was Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers.
Rivers was an old school, gunslinger of a quarterback. He threw passes down the field into the tightest of windows and over the top of all the defenses. He could really blow the lid off of defensive coverages with a breathtaking deep ball and was the league's most dangerous deep passer with a remarkable 65 passes of 20 or more yards (via NFL.com).
Since then, Rivers has seen his deep ball come up short and overall game underwhelm.
In 2011, he was the second-ranked passer in total deep passes of 20 yards or more completed, but this year, he's fallen off dramatically, ranking 15th according to NFL.com. Perusing the coaches tape, it's obvious that he's left far too many throws on the field and occasionally has made some bad decisions as well. The bad decisions have been crippling to his team, and his poor footwork has often affected the outcome of his deep attempts.
His most recent pass was a final one against the Cincinnati Bengals, which sadly resulted in an interception by safety Reggie Nelson.
It was 4th-and-10 and the Chargers, down 20-13, needed a touchdown to tie the game. Rivers was in a shotgun set with a running back offset to his right while three receivers and one tight end created a "Doubles" set by lining up two to a side.
When Rivers received the football from his center, he targeted Malcolm Floyd, the furthest receiver to his left. Floyd ran a 9-route with an outside release, working the defensive back vertically past the first-down marker, but he was double covered.
The Bengals played with two deep safeties on the play, protecting the deep pass and forming a natural bracket against the outside receivers. This meant double coverage against Floyd and Rivers was throwing at it.
Usually quarterbacks are taught to not throw at double coverage for obvious reasons. Rivers may have been best served attempting to hit tight end Antonio Gates down the seam, but the attempted throw to Floyd was one that he could still make provided he had proper footwork.
He didn't, and it cost his team the ballgame.
Once Rivers' back foot hit the ground on his dropback, he looked to throw the ball, and the first mistake he made was by not stepping up through the pocket with his lead foot.
Instead of stepping up to transfer his weight forward, he simply planted his lead foot into the ground at the same spot of the top of his dropback and opened his hips up.
Upon opening his hips, he leaned forward and all of his weight finally followed, disallowing him to bend the knee of his lead foot. As a result, the throw came up short and Nelson intercepted it.
In a Week 6 thriller against the Denver Broncos, Philip Rivers made a similar throw that proved to be fatal.
The destination was outside the left numbers on an outside breaking route, which quarterbacks are taught to throw outside of the receiver. If the pass is inside, the chances of a turnover being forced skyrocket because the defender has the leverage over the receiver. Unfortunately, he threw it inside.
He dropped back from a shotgun set and had a five-man protection scheme in front of him. Rivers, who has had many troubles staying upright this season, had functional space on this play but blatantly ignored it.
Opposed to stepping up and delivering a proper pass, he planted his back foot in the ground with all of his weight on his heel, opened up his left hip and threw the ball as he drifted to his left.
The pass was picked off by the Broncos' Chris Harris, who returned it for 46 yards to complete an unfathomable 24-point comeback.
Philip Rivers' footwork issues appeared to have come from his lack of faith in his pass protection. He has a good reason not to believe in it, as he's been sacked six more times this season (36) than all of last season (30) and four games remain to be played. However, some of the throws he's made have not been the protection's fault. He's had time to set up with proper footwork and deliver a pinpoint pass like he did in past years, but he simply hasn't done so.
What he also hasn't done is make the smartest of decisions. Some of the interceptions he's thrown have been very poor, including another pick-six that came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 10.
Rivers was in a shotgun set and once again with the same personnel on the field: three receivers, one tight end and one running back offset to his left. After signaling for motion and checking in with his blockers, he received the snap and dropped back.
It was a five-step drop, and he immediately bailed out of the pocket at the first hint of pressure. This was not a great idea as it severely limited his receiving options, which went from four to two. What he did next was an even worse idea.
In a 21-24 game in the third quarter, with the ball on the 23-yard line, Rivers attempted to squeeze in a tight throw to underneath receiver Eddie Royal. Royal, who had some space to work with, was not entirely open, making it a tough throw for Rivers to make.
Instead of throwing it away and settling for a field goal, Rivers threw it straight into the hands of undercutting cornerback Leonard Johnson, who took the ball 83 yards the opposite way to make it a 10-point game.
The big question that needs to be answered is this: Can Philip Rivers regain his 2010 form when he threw 30 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions and was widely considered an elite quarterback?
In a word: yes.
To expand, Rivers' issues are correctable. He simply needs to take care of the ball better. In some of the games, he hasn't had a supportive running game, consequently leading to him pressing to make plays. Other games, such as against the Buccaneers, he has no excuses for his mistakes.
Further, his footwork has been detrimental to his performance this season, which means he must clean it up. He can do this through excessive repetitions, which will allow him to regain confidence in his feet and a feel for the pocket. Correcting his footwork and decision-making will quickly lead Rivers to becoming one of the league's best quarterbacks once again.
Otherwise, he'll fade away along with the Chargers and be replaced by a younger and smarter quarterback.