Philip Rivers has been looking forward to actually putting on the pads and being a Colt for months now. With that coming in the next few weeks, he can say that, for the most part, Indianapolis has lived up to all his expectations. But he’s also bracing for one notable exception that, for sure, is coming.
The team’s first home game is Sept. 20. It won’t be what he was hoping for.
“I have to admit I was excited about that,” he said, late Wednesday morning. “I was personally excited about a packed Lucas Oil Stadium, having that environment again. Because that environment existed in the old days in San Diego, and the last three years, it didn’t exist at all in L.A. So I was excited about that.”
And then, he stopped—and acknowledged the reality of 2020, and how this fits into it.
“But so what?” Rivers continued, now getting fiery. “What are you gonna let that do? You gonna let that make you say, Oh man, what in the world is this? No! I’m fired up, because you love to play. I do love to play. If they said ‘We’re gonna play in the backyard and nobody’s coming,’ would you still want to play? Heck yeah. That’s the way I grew up.”
Rivers turns 39 in December and, even with changing norms in how NFL quarterbacks age, he knows that plenty of people thought his split with the Chargers in January, after 16 years together, would lead to the end of an illustrious career in pro football.
He had other ideas. Signed to a one-year, $25 million deal in March, Rivers enters his 17th NFL summer in a new place for the first time since he was a rookie. As for his desires, well, he wanted to keep playing badly enough to uproot his family of 11 from the Gulf Coast (where they were after the break from the Chargers) to suburban Indiana, and he’s been willing to keep going through unprecedented circumstances.
He knows his time in Indy, and the NFL, is limited. He’s prepared for the next stop in life, more so than almost any pro athlete could be.
But the fact that he’s gotten older and has his post-career ducks in a row hasn’t made Rivers’s flame flicker. That much was clear on Wednesday.
In fact, it sounded like Rivers would play in the Lucas Oil parking lot if it came to that.
So now we’re into the walkthrough phase of training camp. Practice—actual practice (in shorts, but still)—starts next week. We’re getting there. And to get you ready, in this week’s GamePlan …
• We’ll give you the next set of names due for big contracts.
• We’ll give you scouting reports on opt-out stars from Minnesota and Penn State.
• We’ll examine the Matthew Stafford situation and what it means for the NFL.
But we’re starting with the Colts’ brand-new quarterback, who happens to be a relatively old quarterback.
Really, all of the above related to the first question I had for Rivers: Why do this?
Rivers has made eight Pro Bowls and over $200 million as a football player, just went through a tumultuous end to his time as a Charger, moved his wife and nine kids closer to his native Alabama, and even got his next job, as a high school football coach, lined up and ready to go. Most people would add all that up, along with the pandemic, and probably think to themselves that whatever the season ahead looks like wouldn’t be worth the aggravation.
But to Rivers, it is.
“I think in the purest form, there’s still that love of the game, and I love to compete,” he said. “And this new opportunity at this point of my career, that’s it in its simplest form.”
So amid everything around him changing, there Rivers was in April, logging into Zoom meetings with his new coaches and teammates. There he was later in the spring, after moving to town on June 1, finding fields for casual throwing sessions with the guys who happen to live locally. There he was at the end of June organizing a minicamp at Grand Park, the complex north of town where the Colts, in a normal year, would hold camp.
And there he’ll be in a (probably) empty Lucas Oil Stadium in September, making another run at a title with a whole new set of teammates.
Over a half hour or so, he and I caught up on everything associated with all that’s coming, and more. Rivers—always one of the best guys in the league to talk to—was amped up, as usual, which allowed us to cover plenty of ground and jump around to bunch of different topics.
Opting out was a non-starter for Rivers. The new Colts quarterback, addressing COVID-19, sounded like a lot of the rest of us. He’s still trying to figure it out, and trying to adjust his life, both at home and at work, to be as efficient as he can be without being reckless with what’s happening in the world.
That said, he told me opting out, and pushing pause on the final phase of his career, was never really something he considered.
“I really didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t even get close to that, really, to be honest with you. I think the pause button at this point, voluntarily pushing it, for me, would’ve been the end. Now, if something crazy happens here and the season doesn’t finish, I don’t think I’ll completely just say, ‘That’s it, obviously.’ We’ll see what happens. But I felt like if I said, ‘Alright, I’m just gonna take the year,’ that would be the end. So I never really got there.”
That said, he did acknowledge, with nine children at home, he’ll need to be cognizant of everything around him the next few months. “Yeah, there are a lot of us in the house, all the moving parts. The biggest challenge and one that is a little bit selfish, but it’s also for the team, golly, I’m gonna be sick if I have a positive test on a Friday of a game week, and you feel fine but you can’t go because of something you did. So you’re careful in that regard.”
Indy felt like home quickly. And Rivers knew it would. He was with head coach Frank Reich, offensive coordinator Nick Sirriani and tight ends coach Jason Michael in San Diego, which has made taking the wheel of his new offense, in certain ways, like riding a bike for the quarterback.
In fact, Reich and Sirriani were part of a Charger braintrust in 2013—one that also included Mike McCoy, Ken Whisenhunt and Shane Steichen—that pieced together the offense from different parts that Rivers operated the last seven years. When Reich got to Indy in 2018, he did change some terminology. But the bones of the offense, which meshed what Rivers had done with the background of all those coaches, are the same.
“The scheme, is very, very, very similar, I’d say 80%, at least,” Rivers said. “But the terminology has been tweaked, which, in some ways, is really good. Like you said, you get so used to things. This is one of the first offseasons in a while, where—and you always work on your game—but it was like, ‘Man, I was studying the drawings and the play sheets. Normally, I’m just working on a fundamental here or there, or trying to find a new wrinkle.
“That was good for me, just because it was similar concepts, I was relearning them with a new terminology, and then hammering home all the reads and how we did it. So being in a different environment, but with the same offense, it’s a new challenge. It’s reinvigorating.”
And while Reich is key to that, so too is Sirriani. The two were very close in San Diego (Rivers is actually just six months younger than Sirriani), so that’s a factor. Another, believe it or not, is that Sirriani’s experience as the Chargers receivers coach (2016-17), maybe even more so than his time as the team’s quarterbacks coach (2014-15). Which has actually led to some tape that Rivers is pretty familiar with being shown in meetings.
“The way that the receivers have been taught to run routes, all the little nuances of the pass game, now that [Sirriani] has been here is exactly the same as I’m used to being taught,” Rivers said. “So yeah, there’s cutups of Chargers on there, because that’s stuff we have, it’s part of it, Colts running it, Chargers running it. So that’s a part of us watching it.”
Which, as you might imagine, will help grease the skids on the relationship-building process with established Colts like T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle.
His coaching career can wait. In case you hadn’t heard, Rivers has been named head coach-in-waiting at St. Michael, a parochial school in Fairhope, Ala., near Mobile, that’s going into its fifth academic year. Last summer, you may remember, Rivers and I spoke about his plans to go into coaching, and his desire to coach his sons, like his dad coached him as a teenager. That desire made the St. Michael opportunity perfect.
Rivers had built relationships at the school over the last few years, even running clinics there, and AD Paul Knapstein put the unique opportunity in front of him in the spring after the program’s first coach, Scott Phelps, stepped down. The concept: Knapstein would be head coach until Rivers finished his playing career, then hand the program off to him.
“I made it clear to them, Hey, if you have a guy you wanna go hire that’s there, that’s been coaching Alabama high school football, then by all means, please don’t feel like you owe me,” Rivers said. “And they said, No, we want you to be here, and we think this is the time that can help us to show our direction and we’ll just stay in-house. So that’s the way it happened, it was just what was best for the school and I thought, golly.
“And I checked with Frank and Chris [Ballard] here to make sure it wasn’t going to be an issue at all. And Frank’s like, Shoot, I’ve known you were gonna coach high school football ever since you told me in ’13.”
And while he won’t put a hard end date on his career (we’ll get to that), Rivers’s eldest son is a sixth-grade quarterback, and Rivers plans to coach him as a high schooler. So that does give him a timetable. As for the here and now, Rivers has had a Zoom meeting with the St. Michael players, and does have a Hudl account to access their film (“On a Saturday afternoon, if college football’s not going, or a game’s not good, I may pull up the Hudl account and watch the game”), but his focus is with the Colts.
That said, this is a pretty crazy scenario. He has one dream job now, and another waiting.
“It’s super exciting,” Rivers said. “I really feel like I’m getting to, potentially, live out both childhood dreams—playing in this league for this long, which was a dream of mine, and then I’ve always wanted to coach high school football. It’s like, man, I’m thankful. … They’re doing things the right way at the school and building it the right way. I look forward to it, one day. But I’ll put that on the shelf for now, and I’m super excited to be here.”
And he’s excited not just because it’s a new start. Or that he gets to work with Reich and Sirriani again, both of whom were a big part of his decision.
It’s also what he’s seen since he got to Indy. We’re now in the fourth season on Ballard’s watch, and the third with Reich in charge. The talent is really good, and after getting knocked around the last couple years in L.A., playing behind Anthony Costanzo, Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly should help Rivers plenty. But more than just that, even without much face-to-face interaction, the quarterback’s feel for the culture is already really good.
“It’s not coming to a place that needs fixing, at all,” he said. “It’s like, golly, just mix in, and do your job, and then where you can make us better, let’s do that. It wasn’t one of those, Hey, we gotta go find some guys who can change this place. It’s the complete opposite of that. So that’s been nice, being able to just kind of ease my way in, in that regard, and not force any role, or force my personality, or force anything.”
Along those lines, it’s easy to forget how we all looked at Indy a year ago—the Colts were coming off a playoff berth, with an exceptionally promising crop of young stars, fronted by pair of cornerstones that made first-team All-Pro as rookies (Nelson and Darius Leonard), and a coach who had proven a lot in his first year.
A few weeks later, Andrew Luck retired, and everything changed. So naturally, one of the calls Rivers made in the spring was to Luck himself.
“We had a good conversation about the area. It was brief but it was good,” Rivers said. “I’ve always had a ton of respect for Andrew, never knew him real well, we’d visited at the Pro Bowl a little bit. But I always had a ton of respect for him, and certainly the guys in this building spoke super highly of him. So it was brief, and it was good, it was somewhat informative, and somewhat just catching up.”
And now, Rivers gets to walk into a situation that so many thought was going to, finally, maximize Luck’s generational potential. He’s older than Luck was, of course, and the offense will look a little different with No. 17 than it would’ve with No. 12. But all the upside we saw last summer in the roster, as Rivers sees it, is still there.
Add that to the aforementioned I’ll-play-in-a-sandpit-if-they-make-me enthusiasm for football, and Indy’s getting an energized, motivated 38-year-old. So much so, in fact, that, when I asked about his retirement plans, he left his options open—and then conjured up a dream scenario.
“I always tell you this—I try to be as candid as I can with you—I truly think it’s one year at a time,” he said. “I just think that’s the best approach. For one, it’s what my contract is. Two, it’s just the best approach. Every year, family, season, and the team will have a say after that. But if you said, ‘OK, in a perfect football world, what would hope happens?’ I sure hope this isn’t my last year playing here, that’s what I would tell you.
“Moving all 11 of us here—I know it’s trying times for our country, so you never know what’s to come—but if you said ‘How’s your perfect football world scenario playing out, from a playing standpoint?’ I would say, ‘Shoot, I hope this isn’t the last one.’ And I think I’d leave it at that, whether it’s one more after this or whatever. Now, if you follow that up with, ‘Well, what if y’all won it all this year?’ I’d go, ‘I don’t know.’ How about I tell you after that?”
And answering that question, of course, would be the kind of problem playing in an empty stadium will be worth for him.
One he can deal with.
With Joey Bosa’s five-year, $135 million deal done, and the bar for non-quarterbacking stars raised once more ($27 million per year!), it’s time now to refresh the list of players waiting on their next big financial score. So here’s one take on the five most eligible …
1) Rams CB Jalen Ramsey: L.A. surrendered two first-round picks for Ramsey, giving him leverage similar to what Laremy Tunsil had over the Texans after Houston’s big trade for the franchise left tackle. Tunsil parlayed that into a deal at $22 million per, which represented a 22% jump over what had been the top of the tackle market. Such a markup on the corner market would make Ramsey the league’s first $20 million man at the position. It’s a fair bet he gets there.
2) Texans QB Deshaun Watson: Dak Prescott’s not on this list because he’s, well, literally not eligible for a deal until 2021. So Watson’s the next QB up, and Houston intends to lock him up at some point. The issue is the amount of grey area there is at the top of the market. Patrick Mahomes’s deal was an outlier in length and APY. So assuming Watson’s deal is much shorter, which most players would prefer, where do you land between Mahomes ($45 million APY) and Russell Wilson ($35 million APY). There’s a lot of room for interpretation there.
3) Ravens LT Ronnie Stanley: Quietly, Stanley’s become a top-five left tackle, and Tunsil’s deal sets a pretty nice precedent for where he might land contractually, playing a premium position and protecting a young franchise quarterback. More than just that, Stanley’s a really high-quality dude, who you’d have no problem putting at the head of the financial table in your locker room.
4) 49ers TE George Kittle: We detailed in the MMQB column why this one will be tricky. Kittle’s the top weapon for one of the best offenses in football, but plays a position that’s at once critically important and criminally underpaid in today’s NFL. The top paid guy (Hunter Henry), in fact, is on the franchise tag, at $10.6 million. And Kittle’s worth more than that. The question is how much more, making this another negotiation where there’s a lot of grey area to work through.
5) Broncos OLB Von Miller: Did you know this is Miller’s 10th NFL season? It’ll be interesting to see what Denver does to take care of him. Both he and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson are guys who’ve kept playing well through their second contracts, carry big sticks in their organizations, and now could cash in a third time. Of course, that’s assuming both keep playing well, and stay healthy.
And then, you have the most interesting ones—the running backs. New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon have all done enough to merit new contracts. But these sorts of decisions at that particular position often become less about the player, and more about the team’s philosophy, so it’ll be interesting to see how those shake out.
THE BIG QUESTION
How high will some of the college opt-outs go in the draft?
The answer, on the guys who’ve already made their decision, is very high. On Monday, we gave you the rundown on Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley—I had scouts compare him favorably to Falcons CB A.J. Terrell, who was the 16th pick in April’s draft. When all’s said and done, he could be a top-10 pick. And the two names that have surfaced since won’t have a long wait on draft weekend either.
Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman declared his intention to skip the college season, and focus on the 2021 draft, on Monday. Yahoo! Sports’ Eric Edholm reported Tuesday that Penn State LB Micah Parsons is expected to follow suit. Here’s the skinny on both …
NFC exec on Bateman: “Good quickness off the snap. Little wasted motion as a route runner so he’s very efficient. Gets open on his own. Has good size to run through arm tackles after the catch and good speed, so that when he does have room after the catch he can get gone. Good ball skills and excellent hands. … I guess [the question] would be his ability to play through press coverage because I don’t recall him seeing a ton.”
AFC scouting director on Parsons: “So the guy played defensive end in high school, which means he’s only been playing as a true linebacker for two years. And he’s a badass, fast as hell, explosive, physical, big. He looks very long on tape. You saw how nasty he is, ripping the ball out on [J.K.] Dobbins, he was all over the place in the bowl game. He’s very, very explosive. He’s not a [Luke] Kuechly yet, where he’s never out of place, but, again, he’s new at the position. … He doesn’t drop in coverage much, he still has the defensive end mindset, they blitz him a lot, he closes on running backs. So he’s really good, and still has a lot of room to improve. I’d be shocked if he’s not the first linebacker taken. He’s a bad dude now.”
The comps I got for these two were interesting. On Bateman, it was to Titans WR Corey Davis coming out. Davis was the fifth pick and, like Bateman, played for P.J. Fleck as a collegian. On Parsons, it was shorter, but faster, more explosive version of Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds.
Bottom line, based on that, these guys made very reasonable decisions, as did Farley. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest fall—because there is fear that you’ll have a kid or two opt out with an inflated sense of his worth, that really puts himself in a tough spot next spring.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
The Lions’ situation.
And that’s no one in the national media. Because I can tell you that lots of people with teams had their radars raised with that situation.
We actually mentioned on Monday how Matthew Stafford’s positive test on Friday could be a harbinger of what’s to come in the NFL—since he’d passed tests last Tuesday and Wednesday ahead of the one he failed. Sure enough, he passed three tests thereafter, and was cleared to return to the facility on Tuesday.
In the process, though, this highlighted the concerns of so many coaches. On one of the league-led conference calls ahead of camp, owners were warned about false positives and the repercussions that were possible. And any doubt over that could be eliminated with the example of Stafford.
Let’s say Stafford’s positive test came on Friday, Sept. 11, rather Friday, July 31. I’m told Stafford was independently tested again after his positive on Friday, and came up negative, and tested negative three more times after that—and he still wasn’t cleared to be back around his teammates Tuesday. So if we move this scenario six weeks forward in the calendar, guess what? The Lions don’t have their starting quarterback in Week 1.
Moreover, it’s why Detroit and other teams considered the collateral damage in a situation like that. If the Lions were loose on their social distancing standards (and they weren’t, this is just a hypothetical) in the quarterback room? The tracking devices would catch that, and there’s a decent chance another player or two could be quarantined as part of the contact-tracing process, which could really have a team up a creek.
So this is why, to further the Lions’ example, they’ve done what a lot of other teams have done, and rearranged their meeting room situation. The quarterbacks are now meeting in the tight ends room, the tight ends are meeting in the linebacker room, and the team meeting room is now simply occupied by the biggest position group—the offensive line—with its capacity reduced from 120 to 33.
The good news going forward is the Stafford situation did enough to prompt some action. According to sources, the NFL and NFLPA are discussing adjusted protocols for players who have persistently tested negative, and have a single positive, followed by more negative tests.
Which, as we saw this week, could save a team from losing their starting quarterback.
THE FINAL WORD
The clock’s ticking on opt-outs, with decisions due by 4 p.m. ET. Should be interesting, with Bills CB Tre’Davious White being the highest-profile of guys to publicly concede that he’s considering pressing the pause button on his NFL career.
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