The first handful of weeks of the NFL season are always a learning process, especially for teams like the San Diego Chargers with a lot of new players, new coaches and new schemes. The seeds of change are planted during the offseason and watered during training camp, but even the teams themselves can't predict how things will grow.
In the case of quarterback Philip Rivers, we are still trying to ascertain if he's the same player he was last year or if he can still be the elite player he was from 2008 to 2010—or perhaps even something between the two. It's also possible that Rivers has actually been the same player all these years, but his supporting cast has just eroded around him.
Through Week 1, Rivers didn't look much different than he did last year, despite throwing four touchdown passes; as I wrote last week, Rivers didn't look like he was fixed at all. After a great performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2, though, it looks a lot more like Rivers is ready for a bounce-back year.
The Chargers are certainly banking on the latter, but it may be too early to tell.
If you look purely at the statistics, few quarterbacks have been better than Rivers through the first two weeks of 2013. By just about every passing metric, Rivers has been phenomenal.
With touchdowns on 9.2 percent of his pass attempts, Rivers has the second-best touchdown percentage, behind only Peyton Manning. Rivers has one interception on 76 pass attempts (a 1.3 percent interception rate), which puts him in ninth place through two games.
Rivers' production hasn't just been a reversal of fortunes either. Rivers' 8.1 yards per attempt ranks ninth, and his 12.3 yards per completion ranks 11th. Rivers has also completed 65.8 percent of his passes, which is very similar to his completion rate in 2010 (66.0 percent).
Two entirely different statistical methods of measuring a quarterback also put Rivers near the top. ESPN's Total QBR puts Rivers second in the league this year at 82.48, and Pro-Football-Reference's ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt) places him third at 8.75, behind Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
There is no denying the fact that Rivers is off to a great start statistically and that a bounce-back year is very possible. Unfortunately, two games is a very small sample size. Even film breakdowns have to be taken with a grain of salt because the strength of each opponent has to be considered.
Rivers has put together back-to-back good games or strung together solid performances over the span of a few games several times over the past couple years, but he hasn't been able to sustain any type of long-term success. The fact that Rivers has produced in spurts is what leads a lot of people to think that he hasn't been the problem.
One of the notable differences already this year has been that Rivers is getting much more time to throw the ball. Rivers has been sacked just three times in 2013, which accounts for just 3.8 percent of his attempts this season. Not only is that sack percentage good for eighth in the league, but that number is 4.7 percent lower than it was last year.
The additions of King Dunlap at left tackle, Chad Rinehart at left guard and rookie right tackle D.J. Fluker have paid off. Jeromey Clary also looks like a different player in pass protection since moving from right tackle to right guard.
With adequate time to throw, Rivers has been very effective—especially in Week 2 against the Eagles. Rivers is also getting the ball out of his hands much faster, which is a credit to the offensive scheme.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Rivers' average time to attempt in 2012 was 2.66 seconds, and his average time to throw was 2.79 seconds. Both of those statistics put Rivers in the bottom-half of the league.
For the most part, the only successful quarterbacks that could hold the ball that long were mobile players like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. The ones who held the ball and weren't mobile got knocked around significantly and threw a lot more interceptions (Jay Cutler). Successful pocket passers got the ball out in 2.6 seconds or less.
Fast-forward to 2013, and Rivers is getting the ball out faster, even if his delivery has actually been a tick slower. Pro Football Focus has Rivers' average time to attempt in 2013 as 2.33 seconds and his average time to throw at 2.45 seconds.
It's amazing what about one-third of a second can do in the NFL. One-third of a second can mean the difference between a completion and an interception, if that's how you choose to look at it.
The bottom line is that the Chargers have more quick-hitting passing plays, and Rivers is getting the ball out much faster than he was last year. It's a lot easier to pass-protect when the ball is coming out so quickly.
With the offensive line performing under more favorable conditions, Rivers has started to trust them again. For the past couple years, Rivers has grown to expect pressure to the point that he was imagining it when it wasn't there.
One of the ways the Chargers have been able to protect Rivers is by putting him in fewer 3rd-and-long situations. That means he's getting positive yardage on first and second down, and due to the improvements along the offensive line, defenses haven't been able to pin their ears back and get to Rivers as much.
Quietly, tight end Antonio Gates has 173 yards on 10 receptions this season. Gates probably won't maintain an average of 17.3 yards per catch, but five receptions per game is certainly possible, and it would put him on pace for 80 receptions; Gates hasn't gotten close to 80 catches since he had 79 in 2009.
The Chargers have been exploiting Gates in the short passing game, which is where he thrives. Of particular note is a combination route that very well may be an option depending on the defense.
Gates will run a shallow cross—or "whip" route—depending on the way the defender is playing him. Play Gates inside, he'll peel off into the flat; play Gates with outside leverage, and he's going to beat you on the shallow cross.
These short passing plays are helping Rivers tremendously. Gates is so hard to defend on these routes that it's tough to see any defense taking them away entirely. Bring a safety into the box, and the Chargers will use a levels concept.
Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen has broken down how Eli Manning and Peyton Manning have used the levels concept against Cover 1 and Cover 3. Head coach Mike McCoy is surely dipping into the Mannings' bag of tricks to help Rivers this year.
On one of Eddie Royal's three touchdown receptions last week, we saw a gorgeous example of a levels concept against a single-high safety look (Cover 1 or Cover 3). The Chargers ran the play with two shallow crossers and a deep post to occupy the single deep safety. Rivers could go deep or hit an underneath route and settle for a field goal.
Philadelphia's zones broke down with two defenders focusing on Gates on the shallow cross, two on Keenan Allen running the deep post and two on Vincent Brown running the dig route. The linebacker didn't realize Royal was running free behind him.
The Eagles played poorly, but it's still an example of a well-designed play called in the perfect situation. It also wasn't the only brilliant play the Chargers had against the Eagles.
Rivers called an audible to a speed out on Royal's first touchdown with a "rub" from Brown against off-man coverage. On Royal’s third touchdown, the Chargers threw a screen right at the cornerback blitz.
Good design, execution and timing were the perfect trifecta for the Chargers against the Eagles. Sure, the Eagles defense gave the Chargers a lot of extra yards after the catch, but that doesn’t totally minimize the performance.
It's still too early to tell if Rivers will be able to sustain his success against tougher defenses, but there are clear signs of progress. The offense is designed around the players the Chargers have, not the players they had three or four years ago.
Rivers will have to break the bad habit of locking on to his receivers when defenses start getting pressure on him. The Houston Texans used this to their advantage in Week 1 to get a key interception, and it has been an ongoing theme for Rivers over the past couple of years.
The Chargers had a huge margin for error against the Eagles, but that's going to shrink against good defenses, just like it did against the Texans. Opposing defenses will get more tape, and few defenses are going to perform as poorly as the Eagles did in Week 2.
It's hard to imagine Rivers being worse than last year, considering what we've seen so far, but it remains to be seen just how much he can bounce back with the current personnel—especially if there are injuries to the offensive line.