In the span of two seasons, Philip Rivers has gone from one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL to an average starter. Such a drastic drop in production is not something you normally see from a good quarterback, and that puts the Chargers in a unique situation.
The Chargers need to “fix” Rivers. If they can’t get Rivers to play like he did two years ago, then they have to start thinking about finding a replacement. If Rivers fails, the offense fails, and the team probably fails too.
It’s up to Tom Telesco to give Rivers the tools he needs and Mike McCoy to put them into a position to be successful. The organization may not be quite a patient waiting for things to turn around as they were the last time, which means fixing Rivers will not be a long-term project.
Rivers is also 31 years old and only has a few years left at his physical peak. If Rivers can’t turn it around now, there’s not much hope he’ll be able to survive when his physical skills start to erode. The Chargers need to move quickly, or it will be too late. There is no time for excuses or delay.
One of the bigger problems with Rivers has been his pass protection. It’s obviously not a secret that protecting Rivers is a key to making him play better, but it’s important to understand how it will help him.
Rivers is a statue in the pocket, but he tries to get the ball out before he is sacked. When Rivers gets good protection, his interception rate goes down. Rivers’ touchdown rate hasn’t been impacted by his sack rate all that much.
Simply put, Rivers isn’t going to be able to overcome poor pass protection. He’s a pocket passer who needs good protection to produce. With bad protection, Rivers is going to compensate by getting the ball out earlier which is going to result in more interceptions.
It’s worth noting that Rivers’ touchdown rate has only surpassed his sack rate twice in his career. Rivers threw a league-best 34 touchdowns in one of those seasons and a career-low in interceptions in the other. In both seasons, Rivers’ sack rate was around five percent.
Of course, sacks don’t tell the whole story. Rivers had a sack percentage of 4.9 percent in 2011, but he threw 20 interceptions. That also doesn’t tell the whole story because Rivers had a sack percentage that was much higher prior to Jared Gaither’s arrival.
The Chargers need to bring in several offensive linemen who can protect Rivers. This is probably the biggest issue facing the team and should be one of the biggest focuses this offseason.
A good running game can do a lot for a passing game. The obvious benefit of a productive running game is the play-action pass, but it has other benefits. The threat of the running game alone changes the way the defenses play.
A safety has to worry about coming up and supporting the run, and the defensive ends can’t ignore his responsibility to contain when the running game is working. The Chargers can throw the same amount and be more productive if the running game is more productive.
Mike McCoy was a relatively run-heavy coordinator even with Peyton Manning under center. Fixing the run game is going to be one of his major focuses this offseason. If McCoy can get more production out of the running game, that will give Rivers additional weapons.
The production of the running game on a per carry basis has had a significant impact on how many wins the team has each year with the exception of 2008 and 2009. Those happen to be Rivers’ two best years—years he was given plenty of pass protection.
The Chargers went from one of the better run-blocking offensive lines to a solid pass-blocking line to neither. It’s reasonable to assume that the Chargers would have been much better if the offensive line was good at either one over the past three years.
In order to have a productive running game, the Chargers need to revamp the offensive line and potentially find a running back. Thankfully, finding offensive linemen is already on the to-do list, and the Chargers could try to squeeze production out of Ryan Mathews.
The Chargers could also be changing to a zone-blocking scheme, which can really help a running game if executed properly. There are a lot of ways that the Chargers can improve the running game and even a marginal improvement will help Rivers.
Rivers misses having a No. 1 wide receiver.
Antonio Gates is getting older, and Malcom Floyd hasn’t been healthy for 16 games since 2009. Gates and Floyd are both on the wrong side of 30 and probably don’t have too many good years left. The Chargers did a good job finding Danario Alexander last season, but he’s not a Vincent Jackson replacement.
The Chargers can’t reasonably rely on players over 30 for the bulk of the offensive production, and Rivers needs a top-flight receiver to be at his best. If the Chargers can find a No. 1 wide receiver to pair with Floyd, Gates and Alexander, then they might have a dynamic passing attack once again.
At least three No.1 receivers will be available in free agency: Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings and Mike Wallace are all expected to be available in March. The Chargers could have some trouble affording a top option because they are stuck with Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal.
The Chargers simply have too many areas of need to spend frivolously in free agency. For the time being, Rivers is going to have to continue to produce while his offensive weapons age. It might be another year before the Chargers can find a No. 1 receiver to add to the mix.
If Rivers ever wants to go to Disney World, he needs a mental reset.
Joe Flacco is not the greatest quarterback, but he had one of the better performances in playoff history in leading his team to victory in Super Bowl XLVII. Flacco has nine postseason victories in five seasons compared to three for Rivers in seven years.
Flacco doesn’t throw as many touchdowns, but he also doesn’t throw as many interceptions. Flacco also takes more sacks than Rivers does, despite having a much better offensive line. It’s easy to point to supporting cast as the reason Flacco has been so successful, but there is another factor that is often overlooked.
Rivers needs a mental reset. Rivers has spent the last six years under Norv Turner and his entire career in the same offense. It’s easy to get complacent when you know an offense as well as Rivers knew Turner’s offense. Rivers tried unsuccessfully for years to improve, but the offense largely remained the same.
It’s hard to pour yourself into something year after year and fail. At some point, Rivers just needs to forget about the past, and that might finally be possible with Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt directing the offense.
Rivers will have a new offense to learn, and that will be a new challenge for him. Rivers will be able to forget about the expectations and the past. The best thing the new regime in San Diego can do is start fresh with Rivers. Don’t focus on the past—focus on how Rivers can become the quarterback who many were calling “elite” just a few years ago.
The Chargers can fix Rivers by forgetting the past, protecting him in the pocket in the future, giving him viable running game and finding him a No. 1 wide receiver. If the Chargers can accomplish two or more of these things there’s a good chance that Rivers will improve in 2013.