Why—and How—the Chargers Moved on From Philip Rivers

Chargers GM Tom Telesco made the decision two days before it was announced. Why they're moving on, how they informed Rivers, and what's next for the franchise.
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Even before the Chargers came to finalize their big quarterback decision last week, GM Tom Telesco had it in his head how he wanted everything to go. This wasn’t his first time, after all. He was a Colts exec when Peyton Manning was released in early 2012, and so he knew making it happen wouldn’t be easy, for the player or the team. But if there was going to be a break with Philip Rivers, he badly wanted it to be clean.

“Once we saw the way this was heading, it was in the forefront of my mind,” Telesco said, after wrapping up a draft meeting late Monday. “I mean, he’s an icon for the organization and he’s done so much here. I wanted to make sure everything was done as respectfully and classy as possible. This can be a very difficult business for all of us to be in—head coaches, GMs, players. That was the thought in my mind.”

On a tough day for the Chargers organization, at least that much was accomplished. Often, breaks like these get nasty. This one was marked by a morning press release, with statements from the owner and the quarterback himself, closing the book on Rivers’s 16 years with the franchise, 14 of those as its starter and face.

The news itself held for 48 hours, which in this era serves as a vivid illustration of the respect between the Chargers and Rivers, for whom they traded on Day 1 of the 2004 draft.

Things have been heading in this direction for a while, of course. Rivers kept his family in San Diego when the team moved to L.A. three years ago. There were rumblings during the second half of last year that Rivers could be benched. The quarterback’s deal was up. And while putting the franchise tag on him was an option to delay a looming transition, doing so would’ve swallowed more than half the cap space the team projects to have this offseason.

So everyone had an idea this could be coming, but the call wasn’t made final until last week. While Telesco and Rivers’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, had been talking about what was ahead for some time, the GM thought it important to get some separation from a disappointing 5-11 campaign before diving headlong into the biggest decision he’d make in 2020.

“I don’t like making big decisions right after the season. There are just too many emotions involved,” Telesco said. “You need to take a step back a little bit. So that’s what we did, just looked at all the different options. It’s a complex decision to make. I mean, he’s a legend here. But at the same time, the bigger thing was to try to get to get to a resolution as quickly as possible so everybody could kind of plan their next step.”

So as the Chargers held a day-long meeting to map out the 2020 offseason, the quarterback situation was at the top of the docket. By then, they were aware of where Rivers stood, and Rivers wasn’t oblivious to the team’s position, either. On Friday, Telesco finalized the divorce with Sexton. On Saturday morning, he discussed it with Rivers. And just like that, the book was closed on the most prolific run a Chargers quarterback has ever had.

“It’s really hard, because he’s the starting quarterback, which is the most important position on the field, and he’s been here for 16 years, and he’s played at a high, high level for a long, long time,” Telesco said. “You’re talking about a legend as a player here, a legend as a teammate, he’s a legend as a parent, I mean, he’s done so much for this organization. And it’s natural when players go on the field and play with the passion he does, every game, every practice, that there are emotions involved from a front-office standpoint, too.

“You also have to look: What’s best for the whole organization, what’s best for the football team both in 2020 and beyond that? But no, it’s hard. You spend a lot of time with these players. And obviously the players that are here a long time, you get attached to them.”

It also won’t be forgotten what Rivers did the last three years—and this plays to Telesco’s line about Rivers the parent—as the team moved up the 5 from San Diego to Orange County. He and his wife decided it best that the kids (there are nine of them now) stay where they were, and he bite the bullet and make the 90-mile commute to work.

Telesco did a double take at first. But it didn’t take long for him to fall back on three simple words: I trust Philip. Rivers, in turn, hired a driver, retrofitted a conversion van so he could watch tape in the back, and resolved to not let the unique circumstance get in the way.

“He made the best choice for his family,” Telesco said, “and it never affected his football performance at all. Never affected his time in the building, never affected his treatment, his meetings, anything like that. After he first told us he was planning on doing it three years ago, I gave it some thought then and I just remember thinking to myself—I trust Philip, and if it doesn’t work, he’ll make some adjustments to it.

“But I just trusted him, that he’d do the right thing and it was gonna work. And after that, I didn’t really think about it anymore.”

Because of who Rivers is, the Chargers haven’t had to worry much about the quarterback position, either. After arriving in the midst of Eli Manning's shunning the franchise, and waiting for two years behind Drew Brees after that, Rivers left no doubt on his worth—and he’ll leave as the team’s all-time leader in completions, attempts, passing yards, passing TDs, passer rating, game-winning drives, 4,000-yard seasons and wins.

As such, whenever he retires, he’ll have a party waiting for him in Southern California. “He’s an all-time Charger, and when he’s done playing, whenever that may be, a year, two years, whatever, we’ll have a huge celebration for him,” Telesco said.

But the flip side of this is what’s ahead, which is exciting in its own right. Anthony Lynn has two quarterbacks on the roster, Tyrod Taylor and Easton Stick, who have the athleticism he’s long prized at the position, and Telesco has some $48 million in cap space and the sixth pick in the draft to work with. So whether it’s a quarterback like Tom (Brady), Tua (Tagovailoa), or something in between, the Chargers have a lot of work ahead.

Telesco says it’s too early to talk with any certainty on what direction the Chargers will go, but there’s no question this circumstance, for him, is a new one for a lot of people involved.

“It’s going to be a little bit different,” Telesco said. “I spent a lot of my career with Peyton Manning as my quarterback, and one year with Andrew Luck as the quarterback, and then seven years with Philip. But we move into a new era of Charger football. And really that’s figuratively and literally, because we’re moving into a brand-new stadium. As a football team, it’s the nature of professional football. You wish players could play forever, and I know the fans hope their stars can play forever. It just doesn’t work like that.

“But there’s an excitement getting into a new era of Charger football. And you have to build this a different way without Philip here anymore. It’s not gonna be easy, I know that, because from Philip you knew year after year after year, you got consistent play, high level play and a quarterback you could count on, every single day. Not just games, but practice. He was accountable day in, day out. It’s gonna be new here.”

And Telesco affirmed that there are a lot of Rivers’s qualities that he’ll be looking for in whoever’s next. Which should tell you all you need to know about just how much he’s meant to the franchise.

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