Is Philip Rivers a Hall of Famer?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 15, 2019

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 13: Philip Rivers #17 of the Los Angeles Chargers reacts during the fourth quarter in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on January 13, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

It's official. Philip Rivers has gone 15 NFL seasons without winning a championship, and he won't even appear in a Super Bowl—if he ever does at all—until he's at least 38 years old.

How might a long record of playoff shortcomings impact Rivers' chances of getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? By all indications, we've yet to reach the epilogue in the story of Rivers' career, but his case for Canton is shaping up to be one that will arouse a familiar debate pitting team accomplishments against strong individual statistics. 

After all, Rivers is the eighth-highest-rated passer in NFL history. Only five quarterbacks in league history have thrown more touchdown passes, only six post-merger quarterbacks have averaged more yards per pass attempt, only seven have more passing yards, and only eight have higher career completion percentages. 

But in 13 seasons as an NFL starter, Rivers has won just five playoff games. He's been to just one AFC Championship Game—a two-score road loss to the New England Patriots 11 years ago—and he owns a sub-60 completion percentage as well as a sub-85 passer rating in 11 career postseason outings. 

Following Sunday's blowout divisional round loss to the Patriots, his all-time record against the perceived GOAT, Tom Brady, is 0-8. 

And it's not as though the 2004 No. 4 overall pick hasn't generally been well-supported. Early in his career he had the opportunity to work with superstars LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Shawne Merriman, Antonio Cromartie, Jamal Williams, Kris Dielman and Marcus McNeill. Lately, he's benefited from the presence of studs like Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon, Gates, Hunter Henry, Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. 

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

But the Chargers have continually come up short in winnable January situations. And unless that changes between now and the moment Rivers finally decides to walk away, that'll be held against him every time his legacy is assessed. 

"As time takes its toll on our ability to recollect his many seemingly unforgettable regular-season feats," yours truly wrote in a feature on a championship-less Tomlinson in 2015, "Tomlinson is at risk of fading at least marginally from our memories. Those who were lucky enough to watch him in his prime might know better, but Super Bowl and playoff moments are the key artifacts of consciousness that football fans of future generations will seek."

That's especially the case with quarterbacks, who—whether it's fair or not—are usually awarded more credit than their colleagues for team accomplishments but are in turn lassoed with more disparagement than those same colleagues when the team fails. 

What's more, with only one divisional playoff victory, zero conference title game wins and no Super Bowl experiences, Rivers has rarely been part of indelible NFL moments. How many non-Chargers fans have a favorite Rivers memory? He doesn't have a Manning-to-Tyree moment, and we've never witnessed him on a podium, immersed in confetti, accepting a trophy of any kind from Terry Bradshaw or Jim Nantz. 

In the only divisional playoff win of his career, Rivers wasn't even on the field for the game's most critical moments. He left in the third quarter of an eventual victory over the Indianapolis Colts after suffering a knee injury, and backup Billy Volek led a fourth-quarter drive that resulted in the winning touchdown. 

But a lack of memorable plays or monumental accomplishments in January or February isn't all that is interfering with Rivers' Canton candidacy. 

I mentioned that the 37-year-old has the eighth-highest qualified career passer rating of all time, but Kirk Cousins ranks ninth on that list. Matt Ryan, Chad Pennington, Marcus Mariota, Matt Schaub and Andy Dalton also rank in the top 20. Passing numbers have exploded this century, making it impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons between Rivers and quarterbacks from previous eras. 

And those dynamics could hurt Rivers even more as his post-retirement years go by without a Hall of Fame nod. Because eventually he might also be jockeying for Hall of Fame votes with current quarterbacks who are on the rise. 

Imagine the quarterback backlog (quarterbacklog?) that could arise if young passers like Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz or even Jimmy Garoppolo, Dak Prescott and Jared Goff continue to flourish? Mahomes, Watson, Garoppolo and Prescott have higher career passer ratings than Rivers, but they've yet to qualify based on Pro Football Reference's minimum requirements. Andrew Luck, Goff and Baker Mayfield aren't far off in passer rating either, and they have a lot more time to build on their respective legacies than Rivers does. 

That could be problematic for Rivers, who right now has to rank lower on the Canton priority list than shoo-ins like Peyton Manning, Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. He'd also have a tough time beating out two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning as well as Russell Wilson, who has superior rate-based numbers and a pair of Super Bowl appearances. And it doesn't help Rivers' cause that while Matt Ryan and Cam Newton haven't won championships, each has been to a Super Bowl and won an MVP. 

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 13: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots hugs Philip Rivers #17 of the Los Angeles Chargers after the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 13, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa
Elsa/Getty Images

With space for lesser-accomplished young quarterbacks like Derek Carr, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Mitchell Trubisky and the entire five-man 2018 first-round rookie quarterback class to emerge, that could leave as many as 21 quarterbacks competing with Rivers for Hall of Fame love in the next decade or two. 

Many of those signal-callers will fail to accomplish what Rivers has, but it wouldn't be surprising in the least if at least half did. An argument could be made that both Mannings, Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Wilson, Ryan and Newton already have. 

And just like that, Rivers is near the bottom of a 10-man quarterbacklog.

Only 26 modern-era quarterbacks have been elected to the Hall of Fame over the course of the last 55 years, and no more than eight former players can be enshrined in a given year. We'll likely see quarterbacks elected more frequently now that the position has gained more prominence than ever before, but only three quarterbacks have been elected in the last 12 years.

Without adding to his resume, it's hard to imagine Rivers getting elected within 10 or even 15 years of his retirement, and at that point he'd potentially be going up against a whole new wave of currently budding stars like Mahomes and Watson. 

It'd help if he were ever an MVP, an Offensive Player of the Year or a first- or second-team All-Pro. He might for a long time be the only non-Hall of Fame quarterback with more than seven Pro Bowl nods, but his strong cumulative stats are likely to lose their luster in an increasingly pass-happy era. 

Those numbers, those Pro Bowls, about a handful of playoff victories and no major postseason accomplishments won't likely get the job done in the current/upcoming Hall of Fame climate. 

The reality is Rivers desperately needs at least one deep playoff run to become a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, and he's running out of time. 

          

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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