Exactly one month ago we were mere days away from the beginning of the 2013 NFL season. David Wilson was a darling of the fantasy community. Arian Foster was getting drafted after C.J. Spiller and Ray Rice. Trent Richardson was on the Browns. Zach Sudfeld was everyone's favorite sleeper at tight end. It was a crazy time.
When we look back on the 2013 draft-prep season, perhaps the craziest nugget we'll remember is the pervasive belief that Philip Rivers' days as a fantasy quarterback were done. Rivers was an afterthought in August, a guy you threw one of your last picks at while you looked for a backup. A once-proud fantasy stud, Rivers was now saddled with the single-digit auction value indicative of a quarterback on the outside of the starting class. Forget Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. He couldn't even find space alongside Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck or -- gasp -- Eli Manning.
Well, the summer is a distant memory, as is the palpable feeling that Rivers' downfall has arrived. Through four weeks, he's fourth among quarterbacks in fantasy points per game, trailing only the great triumvirate of Manning, Brees and Rodgers. Despite losing No. 1 receiver Danario Alexander to a torn ACL in the preseason, he has completed nearly three-quarters of his passes for 1,199 yards, 8.4 yards per attempt and 11 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Antonio Gates has experienced a parallel rebirth, but he's otherwise making do with Vincent Brown and castoffs from higher-profile teams, such as Eddie Royal and Danny Woodhead. So how is he doing it? How has Rivers gone from "done" to "stud" in four short weeks? Look no further than new head coach Mike McCoy.
McCoy came over to the Chargers after spending the last three seasons as the Broncos' offensive coordinator. He oversaw a team in which Kyle Orton handed the reins to Tim Tebow who handed the reins to Manning. Believe it or not, he had a little more freedom and success in his offense in his third year with the Broncos than he did in the first two. However, no matter who was under center, his offenses always prioritized getting the ball out quickly. If any QB in the league was in desperate need of an offense that forced him to turn it loose early, it was Rivers. Among all quarterbacks for whom scrambling is not part of their game, think Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III, only one held onto the ball longer on average. McCoy's offensive principles are clearly at play here, something that we can see by looking at a few select plays from the Chargers' 30-21 win over the Cowboys last week.
Rivers is throwing out of shotgun more often than ever, but no matter the formation, there's clearly an emphasis on him throwing the ball right when his right foot hits the ground in a three-step drop. On this play, it's 3rd-and-8 from the San Diego 37-yard-line. Rivers is in shotgun with three wide receivers, two of which are on the same side as the tight end. With free safety Barry Church creeping into the box, Rivers clearly has man coverage on Keenan Allen to his left. Rivers takes his drop and delivers a pass thrown to a spot where only Allen can make a play on it.
Look how early that ball comes out. Rivers is already throwing well before Allen looks back for it. Here we can see McCoy's influence. Rivers throws the pass early, knowing Allen can beat the coverage and understanding he can't let the blitzing defense get home. The result is a gain of 31 yards that sustains a drive and eventually leads to a touchdown.
Our next play falls in the middle of San Diego's two-minute drill to end the first half. It's 2nd-and-17 at the Charger 23. Unless they pick up serious yardage on this play, they're likely to play it safe and punt, heading into the half trailing 14-10. Rivers is again in shotgun with two receivers to his left and one to his right. Gates is also lined up on the right side of the line, balancing out the formation. This time Rivers takes a five-step drop, but the ball comes out immediately upon that last foot hitting the ground.
Right here Rivers is already stepping up into the pocket to throw. Vincent Brown, the intended receiver, hasn't even gone into his break yet, much less come out of it. Still, Rivers steps up with confidence and delivers a ball that is right on target.
In the first screenshot above, you can see the shadow of the ball crossing the 20-yard-line. At this point, Brown is just coming out of his break. Rivers anticipates exactly where he'll be, and thanks to a scheme that forces him to throw the ball early to can hide the deficiencies of an offensive line that ranks just 17th in pass blocking this season according to Pro Football Focus, the Chargers pick up a huge first down to keep the drive going.
Like many of my brethren in the industry, I was selling Rivers this year. Thanks to a new head coach and a scheme that does not allow him to indulge one of his greatest inherent weaknesses, he's proving all of us wrong. The Rivers Resurgence is for real.