A few months ago, an NFL head coach and I were discussing the 2004 quarterback draft class. I asked the coach if he thought the Giants would swap Eli Manning’s career for Philip Rivers’s. “They should,” he said, leaning back, kicking his feet up on his desk and saying in so many words that Manning has epitomized the “good but not great” quarterback. This was no surprise; the only argument for Manning over Rivers are the quarterbacks’ contrasting playoff pedigrees. When evaluating players, most coaches put a small fraction of the weight fans and media put in Super Bowl titles.
Which might be why, when our 2004 draft conversation shifted to Rivers vs. Roethlisberger, it went in circles. To outsiders, Ben Roethlisberger’s 2-1 Super Bowl record and 13 career playoff wins versus Rivers’s 0-0 Super Bowl record and four career playoff wins shuts the door on any debate. And thanks to a longevity that nobody would have predicted given his physical sandlot style of play, Roethlisberger’s career numbers are surprisingly vast and still growing. The unique toughness behind that sandlot style has earned Roethlisberger respect around the NFL, but what has elevated him into the highest pantheon is his unlikely evolution into a cerebral field general.
Or, to put it another way: Roethlisberger’s late-career maturation has turned him into the type of QB that Philip Rivers has been all along, which is why Rivers is a darling within the NFL. No player has a bigger chasm between the public and private perception of him than Rivers. The coach I was chatting with ultimately couldn’t decide who has had the better quarterbacking career between Roethlisberger and Rivers.
Thirteen games into this season, I wonder if—with some help from recency bias—that coach could decide now. Rivers’s Chargers beat Roethlisberger’s Steelers two Sundays ago. And, coming off a classic Chargers-style win over the Bengals on Sunday, in which an early lead was established with deep-intermediate throws to big receivers and misdirection designs for scatback Austin Ekeler, Rivers enters the Thursday night showdown at Kansas City with the AFC’s top seed essentially on the line.
That game could also decide who from the AFC challenges Drew Brees (and Aaron Donald?) in the MVP race. For much of the season that race has been headlined by breakout darling, Patrick Mahomes—and understandably so, the 23-year-old QB is scintillating. Rivers’s style of play, on the other hand, is awkward: the shotput throwing motion, the lumbering out-of-pocket movement, the frenetic body language, etc.
But coaches rave over Rivers’s style because, unconventional as it appears, it leads to plays being executed exactly as they’re drawn up. Rivers’s pocket mobility and toughness are perfect. His control of the pre-snap chess phase is masterful. Rivers understands every nuance of every play’s design, which is partly why he’s become football’s best anticipation thrower. Sure, it helps that he can trust big athletic receivers like Mike and Tyrell Williams, Antonio Gates and especially Keenan Allen. But it helps more that Rivers throws with pinpoint accuracy—particularly downfield, both inside and outside. This season Rivers ranks third in passer rating and fourth in yards per attempt.
If the Chargers make a Super Bowl run, Rivers’s reputation will jump more levels than any player’s in history. The “can’t win in the playoffs” narrative will vanish, and fans will suddenly notice that Rivers is already top 10 in many major passing categories, and that he could finish his career top 3 in most of them. This, of course, is all assuming that he continues building on what’s so far been the most impressive season of his quietly illustrious career.
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