Amid relocation talk and losses, Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates weather the storm

Tuesday December 13th, 2016

With his full Alabama drawl and shirt opened to the third button, Philip Rivers chronicles one of the worst games of his career, a 28-16 loss to the Carolina Panthers. He turned the ball over five times—three interceptions and two strip sacks—and ensured his team would not have a winning record to close the season once again. Rivers understands there's little pressure now. Buried in the AFC West with a mountain of injuries, the Chargers aren't playing for much. The 5-8 Chargers will miss the playoffs for the sixth time in the past seven years.

“I just mean it wasn’t like we were a team trying to hang on to an 11-game winning streak, trying to hold on to home field advantage,” Rivers explained. “We are just a team fighting, scratching, clawing. We lose a man or two every week, and another man or two steps up and fights like crazy, and that is what we are going to do the last three weeks.”

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Rivers is so likeable you want to believe him. He’s not faux-folksy—that would have worn off after 13 years in San Diego—and by all accounts he appears to be a good role model for young NFL fans and his eight children. Before he begins his press conference Sunday, he adjusts his belt buckle bearing a Christian cross. 

Rivers is free to be free.

But being free doesn’t mean he is careless. There’s plenty Rivers cares about. He cares about keeping a young core of this Chargers team, about getting healthy the 16-and-counting players on injured reserve, about winning more than one AFC West game in two seasons in the toughest division in football and about staying in San Diego to finish his career.

Rivers and his pal Antonio Gates will likely finish their respective careers with the Chargers. Gates has another year left on his deal and Rivers’ runs through 2019. Both are Hall of Famers and, unless the calculus changes drastically, it’s possible Rivers will be the rare Canton-enshrined quarterback without a Super Bowl appearance. It’s interesting that we know where the duo—or at least their busts—will be in the 2020s, but we don’t know where they’ll be in 2017. They don’t know either.

Each week seemingly brings a new report about the Chargers’ future home. This past week the move to Los Angeles was “almost a done deal,” though Chargers’ boss Dean Spanos has kept quiet on the matter and said he wouldn’t address it until season’s end. But his most-tenured Chargers can’t help but hear.

“I try to block things out. The reality is that when you hear certain things, you still hear them,” Gates said. “That doesn’t mean you listen to them or pay attention to them but you try to put things in perspective based on what you hear.”

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Said Rivers earlier in the week: “Last year was kind of tough because we thought that it was the end, and we almost said our goodbyes the last game. And then we find out we are staying and now it seems like the news is picking up against here this last month. I don’t think it has been a distraction, but it has certainly been a topic of discussion at my house.”

Uncertainty for next year has been compounded by misfortune this year. Running back Danny Woodhead, receiver Keenan Allen, cornerback Jason Verrett and linebacker Manti Te’o are just a few of the Chargers that have found themselves on season-ending injured reserve this season. Running back Melvin Gordon may very well follow them there this week after his hip/leg injury against the Panthers called for him to be carted off.

And their division isn’t getting any easier. Kansas City has one of the most exciting rosters in the league, Oakland has an MVP candidate at quarterback and Denver just won a Super Bowl with one of the best general managers in all of sports. San Diego is 9-20 in the past two seasons and 1-9 in the division, but Rivers still thinks these Chargers have a chance in the near future.

“It’s going to be tough. I don’t think the division is getting any easier. We beat Denver once this year, we were right there in the Oakland game with the lead late in the third quarter. We have Kansas City 27-10, and we still have two (division games) left,” Rivers said in the visitors’ locker room Sunday. “And we’ve dealt with a lot of injuries. Those aren’t excuses but that’s just looking at the body of what has happened. I think there’s a lot of optimism around. Obviously we don’t feel that right now; we’re miserable for losing.”

Perhaps no one in the league has appeared to handle losing better than Rivers. Again, it’s not that he’s careless, but the opposite. He has said he wants to set an example for children watching that you can deal with a loss with class and then wake up Monday and go back to work. Sunday’s performance was rivaled only by his four fourth-quarter interceptions in the loss to Miami earlier this year, but as Rivers said he doesn’t “want to stand back there and throw balls away and get beat 35-3,” so he’s going to take chances.

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Rivers said he needs to stop turning over the football (10 interceptions in the past four games), but if the Chargers want to keep him around (they will), then he has a “handful” of years left to play. Gates said he wants—nay, needs—a Super Bowl, and that with so many guys injured he has hope for his final season under contract—wherever that may be.

“I think we stay focused on the task at hand, which is let’s get another win. I don’t know where we’re going to be (next year) but I know we definitely play the Oakland Raiders in San Diego next week,” Gates said. “That’s the message that I try to get to these younger guys. I don’t know where we’re going to be next year, I don’t know what’s going to happen or if you’re going to be here or I’m going to be here. I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that, together, we had a game in Carolina this week and have one against Oakland next week, so let’s make the most out of that.”

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