Fixing Philip Rivers may not be easy for the Chargers, but it might not matter.
The narrative so far has been that Rivers needs better protection to play like one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but that is too simplistic and far from a guarantee.
The Chargers have taken steps to help Rivers. The hiring of Mike McCoy as head coach, Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator and personnel changes on the offensive line were all made with an eye toward "fixing" Rivers.
Even with a mini-overhaul on offense, the Chargers have a tough task ahead.
One of the challenges facing the Chargers is how to use limited resources to solve complicated problems. Without the cap space to make significant personnel changes, the Chargers will have to get creative.
Defining the Problems
We don’t need complicated statistics to tell us San Diego’s offensive line was a big reason Rivers has struggled. However, knowing the severity of the problem is the key to finding the proper solution.
You don’t put out a forest fire with a five-gallon bucket of water, so knowing how big the problem is and what the Chargers have done to address those problems is important. Some problems can only be solved one way, while others may have multiple possible solutions.
Once you dive into some of the data, you immediately notice a big problem with the perceived problem.
Rivers was plenty productive in 2010 despite being pressured 34.9 percent of the time, but struggled when he was only pressured 29.1 percent of the time in 2011.
The 2010 season more closely compares with 2012 and the 2011 season with 2008 and 2009. Although we know that protection was a big issue for Rivers, it’s not immediately clear why he was able to overcome it in 2010 and not 2012. It’s also unclear why Rivers struggled like he did in 2011.
Rivers has been bad against pressure, but he is also getting worse with each passing year.
If this trend continues, the offensive line will have to be even better than it was from 2008-2010 if Rivers is going to produce like he did in those years.
Rivers also went from 7.2 yards per attempt in 2008 down to 5.2 yards per attempts in 2012 when under pressure. Rivers’ touchdown and interception rates under pressure have also been trending in a negative direction since 2008.
It doesn’t make sense that Rivers would continue to decline in these areas because the percentage of plays where he feels pressured hasn’t followed the same path.
The only explanation is that Rivers himself is a big part of the problem.
Maybe even more concerning for the Chargers is that Rivers has also seen a decline in yards per attempt when he’s not pressured. Only Rivers can be to blame.
Rivers averaged 12.5 yards per attempt without pressure in 2008 and last year that was down to 7.6 yards per attempt—a difference of nearly five yards per attempt.
One possible reason for all of this is the offensive personnel around Rivers, but the Chargers are pretty much stuck with what they have in 2013. Outside of running back Danny Woodhead, they didn’t do much to give Rivers more offensive weapons.
If Rivers needs elite offensive weapons to produce like he did prior to the 2011 season, chances are he will continue to struggle.
Unless schematic changes turn wide receivers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal into productive members of the offense, there’s no sense dwelling on the issue. If offensive weapons are the problem, the hope for the Chargers hinges on wide receiver Vincent Brown.
The other possibility is that Rivers is getting pressured so much that he’s imagining it when it’s not there. It seems like imagining pressure is something Rivers picked up gradually, which could make it a difficult thing to correct in one offseason—especially if the offensive line isn’t significantly improved.
Despite some declines in yards per attempt when he’s not pressured, Rivers had been able to maintain a low interception and high touchdown rate when he has time.
You may notice a slight decline in Rivers’ non-pressured touchdown rate, but this is easily attributable to the aforementioned talent problem.
It’s easy to see that Rivers is still a very good quarterback when he isn’t pressured. Having less talent doesn’t seem to be impacting his ability to score touchdowns or avoid interceptions when he is given protection. If the Chargers have drastically improved the offensive line, Rivers could easily bounce back.
Unfortunately, an offensive line that is only moderately improved may not make a significant impact.
Fixing the offensive line is only part of the equation. The Chargers need Rivers to produce better under pressure.
Solving the Problems
The first and easiest step to fixing Rivers is to fix the offensive line. Unfortunately, the most obvious solution can also be the most difficult to execute.
In a perfect world, the offensive line could be rebuilt in one offseason. The Chargers just didn’t have the resources to turn things around that quickly and will have to explore alternate means of accomplishing their goals.
Drafting right tackle D.J. Fluker made sense, except his ability to pass-block on the outside in the NFL is his one major question mark.
The Chargers also lost their best offensive lineman—right guard Louis Vasquez—to the Denver Broncos at the start of free agency.
Going from Michael Harris at left tackle to some combination of Max Starks and King Dunlap is an improvement, but it’s hard to determine just how much of an impact that will make. The guess is that they will help, but the offensive line will still have trouble pass-blocking.
The combination of Harris, Kevin Haslam and Jared Gaither produced an average of 4.3 combined pressures, sacks and hurries per games last year. Starks and Dunlap produced an average of 2.8.
It's a difference of roughly 1-3 pressures per game depending on how this information is used which is hardly enough to move the needle on Rivers' production. Unless Fluker, Jeromey Clary and Chad Rinehart are significantly better than Clary, Vasquez and Tyrone Green were last year at pass-blocking, the Chargers are going to have to find other ways to help Rivers play like an elite quarterback.
The other classic way to help a quarterback is by running the ball.
The Chargers averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last year, so they are going to need to run the ball more effectively for this strategy to work.
Four out of the top five rushing teams made the playoffs last season and only one team in the bottom five made the postseason. The NFL may be a passing league, but a team's ability to run the ball is still very important.
Yards per rushing attempt and yards per passing attempt have a seemingly adverse relationship, but that makes sense. If a team can move the ball effectively on the ground, it doesn’t need to do it in the air and vice versa.
Since Rivers became the starter in 2006, the Chargers' ability to win games has dovetailed with their ability to run the ball in every year except one. Great production from Rivers only seemed to have a favorable outcome for the Chargers in 2009, which looks like an extreme outlier at this point.
The justification for drafting Fluker and signing Woodhead makes even more sense if the Chargers have also figured this out.
The focus by outsiders has been fixing Rivers and improving the offensive line's pass-blocking, but fixing the running game will actually yield better results.
Despite the obvious injury and fumbling issues, Ryan Mathews has been a very productive running back. He has proven capable of producing well over 100 yards of offense per game when healthy, making him the key to the Chargers' success.
Rivers may never be as good as he was from 2008-2010 and it may take time to correct the underlying causes of his decline, but he’s still good enough to win a lot of games with a running attack that complements his abilities.
If the Chargers are winning a lot of games, will anyone care if Rivers isn’t quite the quarterback he was in his prime?
All pressure data courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).