Philip Rivers' frustration has been clearly visible at times this season.
The Chargers propensity to stumble and stagger out of the gate under head coach Norv Turner has been well documented. And while, collectively, San Diego has finally gotten the proverbial monkey off their back with an impressive 4-1 start, they've done so in spite of Philip Rivers, who's tendency to struggle early-on has carried over into this season.
Certainly the absence of Antonio Gates has played a significant role in Rivers' less than spectacular performance thus far. Also contributing to the problem has been the time missed by supporting cast members Malcolm Floyd and Patrick Crayton whose sporadic presence has significantly limited Rivers' options down-field at times.
Still, true as these facts may be, they don't explain why Norv Turner has been at or below .500 at the mid-season mark 9 times in his 13 seasons as an NFL head coach. Nor do these facts explain why, prior to this season, San Diego is 15-17 through the first eight weeks and 26-6 through the last eight weeks over the course of Turner's tenure.
In light of this, it seems far more likely that Rivers and the Chargers have simply taken on the personality of their leader. But Turner-coached teams habit of performing poorly early-on is no coincidence, nor is it by accident.
Actually, it's by design.
Rivers has been without his dynamic trio of over-sized receivers.
Of course, it doesn't help to have three of your top four targets on offense spending varying amounts of time wandering the sidelines in street clothes. Vincent Jackson, Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews have performed admirably in the absence of Gates, Floyd and Crayton.
After Malcolm Floyd and Patrick Crayton, though, the Charger's options at wide receiver become exceedingly thin. Second year man Richard Goodman, along with rookies Bryan Walters and Vincent Brown have each seen time at wide receiver but have struggled to get open and, as a result, have failed to entirely win over their quarterback's confidence.
Gates absence may hurt most of all, especially inside the red zone, where he has used his basketball rebounding skills so effectively to box out defenders, allowing him to catch passes whether open or not.
So it goes without saying that, in order for Philip Rivers to get his game on for real, he'll need to get some of his favorite targets back.
Turner's unorthodox approach has clearly frustrated Rivers at times this season.
However, the most significant reason for Rivers' early-season woes has more to do with who's calling the plays on offense than who's running them. A comparative analysis of Turner's play calling early in the year reveals the true source of the Chargers' inability to perform better off the starting line.
So far this year, just as it has been through the early part of each of the last four seasons consecutively, over 90 percent of the plays called on offense have been out of what is called the “max-protect” formation. The Max-protect entails keeping two or more skill position players back to block on passing downs, sending as few as two receivers out into the pattern on any given play.
While the max-protect can be a highly effective tool in providing more protection for a quarterback facing a fierce pass rush, Norv Turner may be the only coach in the history of the NFL who runs out of the max-protect through the first 6-8 games of the season.
He may also be the first and, almost certainly the last, to attempt playing a prevent defense through an entire game against the New England Patriots. As hard as it may be to believe, the tape does not lie. The Chargers rushed only three down linemen, dropping eight defenders into to coverage virtually the entire 60 minutes against Tom Brady, and with predictably horrific results.
But what using the max-protect as your base offensive set means to Philip Rivers is that he rarely has more than two down field targets on any given play and so no more than two reads before going to the check-down or simply throwing the ball away.
This fact becomes more obvious when you compare the plays Turner has called through the first eight weeks of any given season against his calls through the last eight. The difference is night and day.
As has been his MO, Turner all but completely abandons the max-protect at some point between the first and second half of the season. You can set your clock to it. Somewhere between Week 6 and Week 9, Turner opens up the offense, spreading out opposing defenses with 4 and 5 wide receiver sets, rarely keeping even more than a single running back in to help pick up the blitz.
Knowing this, is it any wonder why Turner perpetually starts out slow, only to go on a late-season run no matter which team he's coaching? And while we can only speculate as to why Turner would do such a thing, especially given the talent he's had to work with in San Diego, there is only one answer which suggests a clearly identifiable method to his madness.
The reason Turner sandbags his playbook speaks volumes to how important film study has become to the preparation process each NFL team goes through during the week prior to each game. What Turner has done, and not without some degree of success, is to limit the amount of game film that opposing coaching staffs have in order to nail down the Chargers tendencies, strengths and vulnerabilities.
It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that Turner is 26-6 in the latter half of each season in San Diego. Oddly enough, the strategy has worked to perfection so far this year, as the Chargers should be no worse than 5-3, or 6-2 at the mid-point without having given anything thing away in terms of film study material.
Not to let Rivers off the hook entirely. Rivers knows as well as any what Turner is trying to accomplish and has been guilty of not staying within himself and the system, at times.
Rivers is being asked to take what the defense gives him, manage the game, and protect the football. But Rivers is a competitor and so inevitably does what all true competitors do in situations like these which is to push too hard, committing mental errors as a result. In all fairness to Rivers, though, it's hard to build up MVP stats when his best option, more often than not, is a dump-off to the tailback in the flat.
The good news for Rivers, and Chargers fans alike, is that when Turner finally does open up the playbook, somewhere around the mid-season mark, Rivers numbers will pick up dramatically as they have each and every year under the genuinely enigmatic leadership of Norval Eugene Turner.