Philip Rivers only had to be retired about 90 seconds for some to declare him a “first ballot Hall of Famer.” Others pronounced him a “sure-fire Hall of Famer.’’ The fence straddlers asked, “Is Philip Rivers a Hall of Famer?’’ And a few went so far as to insist, “Philip Rivers is not a Hall of Famer.’’ That’s about as wide a range of opinions on one man’s career as is possible.
So what’s the truth of it?
Considering that Rivers retired after 17 NFL seasons ranked fifth all-time in passing yardage (63,440), touchdown passes (421) and completions (5,277), is 12th all-time in quarterback rating (95.2) and 14th all-time in completion percentage (64.9 per cent) it is obvious his career will surely land him in the Hall-of-Fame conversation among the 48 voters charged with the high office of deciding who gains admittance to Canton. But the truth of it is that those numbers, while highly impressive, are also heavily skewed by the radical rule changes in the game over the last decade or so that all but outlawed playing pass defense in the NFL.
That is not Rivers’ fault because it was none of his doing. But to ignore the fact that those changes greatly skewed the value of such numbers would be to deny reality.
Secondly, before the coronation that began with Michael Irvin and Antonio Gates declaring Rivers a first-ballot Hall of Famer, let us consider a few other of Rivers’ career statistics.
His 209 career interceptions ranked him second among active NFL passers when he retired and 23rd all-time, and his 25 pick-sixes rank sixth all-time in a very negative, game-changing statistic.
More damning, at least when the issue is “first-ballot’’ status is this: In 17 seasons he was never once voted All-Pro, meaning he was never once seen as the best quarterback in the game. Although he made eight Pro Bowls, it was never as the starter. He was not an all-decade selection, either. So unless there was a proliferation of “first-ballot’’ Hall of Famers in those 17 seasons like never before in the 100-year history of the game, I suggest you pump the brakes on the “first-ballot’’ talk.
“In anything you do, if you finish in the top five in any sport, any position, to me, it’s self-explanatory in terms of what I feel about you being a first ballot,’’ loyally said Gates, who was arguably Rivers’ favorite target for most of the years they were together. “I can’t imagine him not being (first ballot).’’
Loyalty is a good thing, and we all know love is blind. So is Gates if he thinks a guy who was 5-7 in the playoffs and whose numbers tumbled in the post-season is a first ballot Hall of Famer.
Rivers’ career post-season completion percentage, for example, is only 59.4. He threw 10 picks to 16 touchdowns in the post-season, which is not winning football. When it comes to matters as difficult to define as “first-ballot’’ Hall of Famers, moments of slippage when it counts most count a lot because, after all, in theory at least we are talking about the very best of the very best when it comes to first ballot, are we not?
In that case Rivers comes up short, as proven by the fact that he never made either an All-Pro or all-decade teams during his career.
So now the question is: If he’s not a first-ballot Hall of Famer, is he at least a Hall of Famer? That is where the plot thickens.
Rivers’ amassed a large pile of numbers to be sure. As Gates says, if one finishes top-5 in completions, passing yards and touchdowns what else do we have to debate? Add to that the fact that he is among the most durable quarterbacks in history, having not missed a start in the last 15 YEARS (240 starts in 244 games) and playing valiantly in the 2007 AFC championship game (in January of 2008) with a torn ACL that would require surgery after the Patriots beat his Chargers 21-12. Add his toughness and durability to his numbers, and you have the basis for a strong case that one day he will wear a mustard-colored sports coat and have a bronze bust in Canton.
Yet, in the end, what is the quarterback’s real job? Is it to pile up statistics? Not in the opinion of Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Parcells, who once famously said, “Coaches and quarterbacks are judged by their jewelry.’’
If we add in that fact, Philip Rivers comes up woefully short. His record as a starter is 134-106, a winning percentage of .558. That is a good number, but nothing special. Earl Morrall had a winning percentage of .636 and was once the league MVP. Anybody talking about him for the Hall of Fame?
Rivers is also 5-7 in post-season play with a completion percentage a full five-and-a-half points below his regular-season average (64.9 to 59.4). That is significant performance slippage in the biggest games of his career with teams that had gone 12-4, 14-2, 11-5 and 13-3 in various seasons in the mid-2000s. To argue that he didn’t have winning weapons around him would clearly be a misrepresentation.
Few athletes can simply be defined by their career stats or their won-lost percentage. Rivers was a great leader who worked for a pretty sorry ownership for much of his career with the Chargers, yet had only four losing seasons in his 16 years in San Diego/LA. He then went 11-5 this year in his only season in Indianapolis. That’s to his credit.
But he arguably never won anything, either, so one can see that the deeper one looks into his career the further one drifts from the “first- ballot’’ nonsense and more toward is he a Hall of Famer or a member of the Hall of Very Good?
Is he Dan Fouts or Warren Moon, two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks who never won (don’t even start with Dan Marino, who never won a championship, either, but won every individual award that exists)? Or is he Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan or Eli Manning, who unless something changes seem members in good standing of the Hall of Very Good?
Manning is 8th and Ryan 9th all-time in passing yardage for example yet Manning retired as a .500 quarterback in what counted most, winning games. Sure he quarterbacked the Giants to two Super Bowl championships, but Jim Plunkett did the same for the Raiders and not many people think his career was Hall-of-Fame worthy.
As for Ryan, like Rivers and Stafford he compiled a mass of passing yards but has a winning percentage of .551. That’s only slightly lower than Rivers’ .558, and he at least once got his team to a Super Bowl (although he then helped blow a 25-point lead in the final 18 minutes to lose to Tom Brady, who is a future “first-ballot’’ Hall of Famer).
Philip Rivers had an outstanding career but, in the end, was it a Hall of Fame career? It doesn’t look like it from here.