River's Edge Forget the awkward throwing motion and the lack of mobility. N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers has the moxie to succeed in the NFL

April 25, 2004

The best athletes have a rare combination of qualities--skill,
poise and the kind of moxie that says, When the game's on the
line, I'll make the play to win it. NFL teams pay scouts to find
players who have this gift, particularly when teams are
evaluating the most important position on the field. ¶ "There's
an it factor for quarterbacks," says New York Giants general
manager Ernie Accorsi, who, as G.M. of the Baltimore Colts and
the Cleveland Browns, drafted John Elway and Bernie Kosar,
respectively, because he thought each passer had the gift. "You
know when your guy has it, and you know when he doesn't. When

I came into the NFL with Baltimore [in 1970], I was around the
ultimate it guy, Johnny Unitas. Guys like that are natural
leaders and play so well that you say, 'We'll win with this
guy.'"

This winter, when NFL coaches and scouts analyzed game tape and
the workouts of North Carolina State's Philip Rivers, who started
more games (51) than any other quarterback in NCAA Division I
history, they saw a passer with a three-quarter throwing motion,
an average deep arm and little mobility. So why might Rivers go
as high as fourth in the NFL draft this Saturday? Simply put, he
has it. "He's so mature, so talented," says Accorsi, who with
coach Tom Coughlin led a Giants delegation that worked out Rivers
in Raleigh on April 5. "When I walked off the field after the
workout, I told Tom, 'This guy will succeed in our league.'"

But this weekend's NFL draft is shaping up as a particularly
unpredictable one. The San Diego Chargers and the Oakland
Raiders, picking first and second, respectively, could move down
for a package of draft picks and/or players. Selecting third, the
Arizona Cardinals appear set on taking a wide receiver, and the
Giants, at No. 4, would love to move up for a shot at Mississippi
quarterback Eli Manning or Iowa tackle Robert Gallery. The
Washington Redskins, picking fifth, have great interest in
Gallery (box, page 58). Because six potential offensive standouts
are available--Manning, Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger of Miami
(Ohio) at quarterback, Kellen Winslow Jr. of Miami (Fla.) at
tight end and Larry Fitzgerald of Pitt and Roy Williams of Texas
at wide receiver--teams needing a boost on offense, such as the
Pittsburgh Steelers (picking 11th), the Buffalo Bills (13th) and
the Denver Broncos (17th), may also try to move into the top 10.

For teams in need of defensive help, there's not much marquee
talent. Ends Kenechi Udeze of USC and Will Smith of Ohio State
are the best pass rushers, while in the secondary cornerbacks
DeAngelo Hall of Virginia Tech and Dunta Robinson of South
Carolina and safety Sean Taylor of Miami (Fla.) are likely
first-round selections.

The deep-talent position is wide receiver, with as many as seven
going in the first round. And though there probably won't be any
premier players left after the top dozen picks, as Tennessee
Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz says, "There's
tremendous value this year in the second, third and fourth
rounds."

That bodes well for teams who have stockpiled picks, such as the
Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots, who have two selections
in the first round and a total of six in the first four. The Pats
have never been shy about dealing for additional picks--in the
last three drafts run by coach Bill Belichick and vice president
Scott Pioli, New England has made 16 trades, including six last
year--but don't expect them to move up very far, if at all, from
their 21st and 32nd spots in the first round. The depth on their
roster comes from mining the middle rounds.

The 22-year-old Rivers, who grew up in Athens, Ala., as the son
of a high school coach, is 6'5" and a lean 232 pounds, with a
Southern drawl and Wally Cleaver politeness. Second in Division I
history with 13,484 passing yards, Rivers played for three
offensive coordinators and three quarterback coaches at N.C.
State. Others might have seen that as a hindrance, but Rivers
viewed it as a positive. His plus-61 career
touchdown-to-interception margin (95 to 34) was better than those
of Manning (plus 46) and Roethlisberger (plus 50). Rivers also
completed 63.6% of his throws in an offense that featured more
intermediate passes than the dink-and-dunk variety.

He started as a freshman, and in his first game--at home against
Arkansas State--the Wolfpack trailed by three with 2:18 left.
Before taking the field for a drive that would start at his own
11, the young quarterback railed at his offense, "We can quit
right now and lose to this sorry bunch, or we can suck it up and
find a way to win!" Rivers drove N.C. State for the tying field
goal, and the Wolfpack won in overtime.

"Sometimes talk is cheap," Rivers says. "Like last season,
against Ohio State, when we were down by 17 with nine minutes
left. Everything had been said. We just needed to do something on
the field. But in that first game I felt I had to give us a
spark. Sometimes you just know when it's right."

That's a key in evaluating Rivers, who doesn't have the classic
throwing motion of Roethlisberger or the football pedigree of
Manning. But look at the perceived flaws in other passers who
went on to greatness. Kosar's throwing motion was funkier than
that of Rivers, yet Kosar threw for 23,301 yards in 12 NFL
seasons and led the Browns to three division titles. Tom Brady
ran a 5.24-second 40-yard dash at the 2000 combine, and his arm
strength is average at best, but he has won two Super Bowls for
the Patriots. Rivers was clocked at 5.05 seconds in the 40, but
teams shouldn't be looking at his speed. They should be looking
at his pocket presence, his knack for rising to the occasion.

Rivers says he likes watching Brett Favre play, "because he makes
some throws that make you think, That's not how they drew it up."
Just before halftime against Ohio State, a jarring hit left the
righthanded Rivers with a separated left shoulder. He took a
painkilling shot and returned for the start of the third quarter.
With two minutes left and a crowd of 104,890 imploring the
Buckeyes to hang on to a 24-17 lead, N.C. State faced
third-and-12 at the Ohio State 42. Rivers dropped back and went
through his progression. His primary receiver was covered and so
was his second option. With pressure coming from his left, Rivers
glanced quickly at his third choice, but that man wasn't open
either. Just before the pocket collapsed, he flung a strike to
his fourth option, wideout Brian Clark, down the left sideline
for 23 yards. "Only time this year I threw to the fourth option
on that play," says Rivers, who drove his team to a tying
touchdown, only to lose in triple overtime 44-38.

"That's why I think I'm so ready for the NFL," Rivers says, a
smile on his face. "When something goes wrong, what are you going
to do? That's how a quarterback has to think. Whichever team I go
to will be getting a guy who's passionate, dependable, who hates
to lose."

In other words, a guy who's got it.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SEAN MEYERS/ICON SMI TOUCH OF CLASS Rivers completed 63.6% of his attempts as a four- year starter and knows how to manage a game.

Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback and Dr. Z's Inside
Football, at si.com/football/nfl.

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