Game days werethe worst. For the entirety of his first two seasons with the San DiegoChargers, Philip Rivers was an NFL quarterback's apprentice, which is almostlike being an actual NFL quarterback. The fourth player selected in the 2004draft, he was compensated well (a six-year, $40.5 million contract) and givenall the rights and privileges of his status except the one that mattered most:playing time. Drew Brees took the snaps, while Rivers discovered longings thata starter never imagines.
"Sundays were tough," says Rivers, whose game experience amounted tofour spot appearances, mostly in garbage time. "I look back on those twoyears, and a lot of things were no fun. But Sundays were tougher than the otherdays."
On a recentTuesday afternoon, the customary day off for NFL players, Rivers has come tothe Chargers' practice facility for recuperative physical therapy and to get ajump start on the week's video study. He sits in a lounge chair in an otherwiseempty locker room, so preternaturally full of energy that he doesn't so muchoccupy the chair as guard it, fidgeting left and right, stretching sore musclesand pumping his legs as if moving around in some imaginary pocket. No wonder hedidn't like the bench.
Things aredifferent in Year 3. Brees injured his throwing shoulder in the last game ofthe 2005 season and became an unrestricted free agent. Lowballed by theChargers, he signed a contract with the New Orleans Saints, bequeathing the SanDiego starting job to Rivers. The North Carolina State product has responded byguiding the Chargers to a 6--2 record, tied with Denver for first in the AFCWest, despite a rash of personnel losses on the defensive side that have forcedthe young quarterback not just to keep games close, but to affect them. Rivershad never practiced with the first team before this season; now he's third inthe AFC in passer rating at 96.7--ahead of Carson Palmer and Tom Brady--with 10touchdown passes and just three interceptions. "It's safe to say he hasexceeded expectations," says Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer. "Andwe have accelerated his progress every day because he's handled it.''
Veteran wideoutKeenan McCardell says, "I don't care how many games he's started, there isno way, no how, you can call him a rookie. He's been a part of thisteam."
It often didn'tfeel that way to Rivers. Before home games the last two years he would starthis Sundays by attending 7:15 Mass, then have breakfast with his wife, Tiffany,and their two young daughters, Halle and Caroline. (A third, Grace, was bornlast June.) By 9:45 he was on I-15, headed for Qualcomm Stadium. And somethingwas missing. "I didn't have that feeling you get before a game," Riverssays, "that nervousness you love to have. It just wasn't there. Thenleaving the stadium, I wouldn't have a bump or a cut anywhere on my body. Ijust never felt like I was a part of the wins--or the losses."
The rhythm ofgame day had been carved into Rivers's soul. He grew up in Decatur, Ala., theson of a football coach, a sideline ball boy from age six. He rode team busesto games all over northern Alabama, soaking up the singular vibe of thefootball team, listening to the players' fraternal jibes. "I love thatstuff," Rivers says. "It's what I've known since I could walk."
At N.C. State,Rivers was a four-year starter, playing in coordinator Norm Chow's pro-stylesystem as a freshman and finishing second in NCAA history with 13,484 passingyards. Chargers general manager A.J. Smith considered him the best quarterbackin a draft class that included Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. And still hesat.
But he didn't sitback. During those two seasons Rivers willed himself into the Chargers' innercircle. On the practice field he'd show his competitiveness by barking atfirst-teamers like linebacker Donnie Edwards: "Y'all better be ready, I'mgonna hit 'em all today." In the locker room the 6'5", 228-pound Riversmade a point of bouncing from cubicle to cubicle, chatting up the veterans whomhe might someday command in the huddle. "I tried to buildrelationships," says Rivers. "If I wound up being the starter, I didn'twant to have to walk up to guys and say, 'Hello, my name is Philip.'"
All-Pro tailbackLaDainian Tomlinson howls at this revelation. "Is that what he was doing?You'd never know it. It was like he was another guy in the room having aconversation with his teammates."
Rivers's debutseason as a starter is the latest bit of evidence in the endless debate overhow best to grow a young player at the toughest position in professionalsports. Play him or sit him? Nature or nurture? Rivers chafed on the Chargers'bench but admits, "I learned a lot." Manning, who was drafted first in'04, started 11 weeks into his rookie year with the Giants. "I think it'simportant that you play that first year," says Eli, "and get that gameexperience and that game speed."
Troy Aikmanplayed as a rookie for the Dallas Cowboys and took countless beatings butultimately won three Super Bowls. David Carr has started from the first snap ofhis first year as a Houston Texan, and the jury remains out. Palmer sat behindJon Kitna in his rookie year in Cincinnati and was brilliant by his third."It depends on the team's need," says Palmer. "We needed Jon to bethe quarterback. There's no formula. If there was people would stick toit."
With apologies toPalmer, there is one formula: Money talks. Two of the three quarterbacks takenin the first round in 2006, Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans and the ArizonaCardinals' Matt Leinart (combined price tag: $109 million), are starting."You have to pay attention to the economics," says Rod Graves, theCardinals' vice president of football operations. "You take a quarterbackhigh, those guys usually sign six- or seven-year deals. Realistically you havefour or five years before you're back at the bargaining table. The longer he'son the bench, the less benefit you get from that rookie contract."
Rivers's arrivalin San Diego involved a draft-day drama in which Smith ignored threats fromManning's representatives that Eli would never sign with the Chargers anddrafted him, with no assurance that the Giants would make a trade. But theGiants did call after drafting Rivers, and Smith got the player he wanted, plusdraft picks that landed San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman and kicker NateKaeding. Rivers then held out for 23 days of training camp, all butguaranteeing that Brees would keep the job--and likewise opening a dividebetween Smith and Schottenheimer that persists. "I thought [Rivers wouldwin the starting job as a rookie] because of his talent," says Smith."But that was up to the coach."
This off-seasonthe Chargers had to decide once and for all between Brees, who despite shouldersurgery was likely to draw strong free-agent interest, and Rivers, who'dalready collected $14.5 million in signing bonuses. "I was hopeful that wecould keep both of them," Schottenheimer says. But Smith offered Brees only$2 million in guaranteed money; Brees took New Orleans's guarantee of $10million.
As he was handedthe job, Rivers was also handed the daunting prospect of leading a team thatwas bitter over losing a proven quarterback. "A lot of guys in the lockerroom were upset," says fullback Lorenzo Neal. "Drew was our leader. Itwas like having your girlfriend break up with you."
In early March,Rivers opened a notebook, and on top of the first page wrote, be myself. "Iwas reminding myself that I had to do things my own way," he explains."I had to keep doing some of the things Drew started doing here, but I hadto use my own personality. I couldn't try to be Drew."
In the summerRivers worked with wideouts McCardell and Eric Parker and All-Pro tight endAntonio Gates, the catching machine with whom Brees had connected for 170completions and 23 touchdowns over two seasons. "Drew and I had developedtrust," says Gates. "He knew where I was going, and he would give me achance to make a play. I had never caught a ball from Philip in a game andhardly any in practice. We needed to find our own trust."
The same was truefor the rest of the team. Yet Rivers swiftly put his imprint on the Chargers.In the season opener, a Monday-nighter in Oakland, McCardell was supposed torun a medium-deep curl but read blitz from the Raiders. Says McCardell, "Igave Philip the big, wide eyes, like, You see it, don't you? and he gave me theeyes back--and then hit me on a slant." In the same game Rivers hit Parkeron a seam pattern despite being leveled by Warren Sapp as he released the ball."A lot of guys would have tucked the ball and curled up for a sack,"says Neal. "He stood tall and made the throw. That takes courage."
On a Sunday nightin October the Chargers were holding a late lead against Pittsburgh."Hey," Rivers yelled in the huddle, "people say we can't finishgames. Let's get this one!" The response was silence. Rivers shoutedlouder: "Can you hear me?!" This time the offense broke up in laughter."That was the perfect reaction," says Rivers. "You've got to behaving fun out there."
His teammates arestill learning, in big ways and small, that he's not Brees. "Funnything," says Tomlinson. "Philip is tall, but he squats in the huddle;Drew was short, but he stood up. I looked up at Drew, and now I look down atPhilip." The effect is reversed when Rivers drops back with the ball."When Philip is in the pocket, I can actually see him," says Gates."With Drew, I'd just look for the ball to come out."
The little kid inRivers loves to hear that kind of talk, which cuts through to a team's soul. Hestill starts his Sunday mornings with early Mass and breakfast with his girls,but now he climbs into his 2006 Ford King Ranch F-250 pickup and rolls down thefreeway with butterflies alive in his belly. When he reaches the stadiumparking lot, he blasts his horn twice, announcing his arrival. For the game.For his career, too. "The last two years, football wasn't complete," hesays. "Now I feel like I'm back home again."
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Manning Bowl 2.0
Halfway through the season SI's NFL Preview forecastof a Carolina-Miami Super Bowl is looking a little under the weather, with thePanthers a middling 4--4 and the Dolphins a lowly 2--6. Herewith some healthierpredictions for the 2006 playoffs.
1. INDIANAPOLIS 15--1 (South)
2. NEW ENGLAND 13-3 (East)
3. SAN DIEGO 11--5 (West)
4. BALTIMORE 10--6 (North)
5. DENVER 11--5 (wild card)
6. JACKSONVILLE 10--6 (wild card)
SAN DIEGO 33, JACKSONVILLE 9
DENVER 19, BALTIMORE 10
INDIANAPOLIS 30, DENVER 17
NEW ENGLAND 16, SAN DIEGO 13
INDIANAPOLIS 27, NEW ENGLAND 24
1. CHICAGO 13--3 (North)
2. N.Y. GIANTS 11--5 (East)
3. SEATTLE 10--6 (West)
4. NEW ORLEANS 10--6 (South)
5. DALLAS 10--6 (wild card)
6. CAROLINA 10--6 (wild card)
SEATTLE 28, CAROLINA 23
DALLAS 20, NEW ORLEANS 14
N.Y. GIANTS 27, SEATTLE 13
DALLAS 19, CHICAGO 17
N.Y. GIANTS 16, DALLAS 10
SUPER BOWL XLI Feb. 4, 2007, Dolphin Stadium
INDIANAPOLIS 27, N.Y. GIANTS 17
Rivers is third in the AFC in passer rating and has the Chargers in the thickof the playoff chase.
The 6'5" Rivers stands tall in the pocket--and has willed himself into theChargers' inner circle.
Gates hadn't worked much with Rivers, so he needed time to develop a rapportwith his new QB.