Philip Rivers has been called many things during his NFL career, but “boring” has never been one of them. He came into the league with arguably the strangest release any highly touted quarterback prospect has ever had—a half-throw, half-shot-put that shouldn’t have worked but did. After taking over as the Chargers’ quarterback in 2006, he started 224 consecutive games, including the 2008 AFC championship a week after tearing his ACL. He became one of the most surprisingly entertaining players of his generation, an eminently GIFable trash-talker who’d dadgummit defenders to heck and back. Rivers elicits reactions. Regardless of your opinion of him, you certainly had one.
Whenever I’ve talked with Rivers through the years, it’s always clear just how much he loves football. During a conversation last winter, I could hear the excitement in his voice as he described a game-winning pass he threw to Travis Benjamin earlier that month. Both Rivers and his teammates will tell you that he can’t help himself. Those reaction shots, those sideline moments, none of that is forced. And neither was his emotional press conference following the Chargers’ final game this season. It was clear that day, as Rivers held back tears, that his time with the organization was coming to a close. On Monday, the team made it official: After more than a decade and a half together, the Chargers and Rivers are moving on.
The Rivers era was defined by historic production and crushing disappointment. Among QBs with at least 100 career starts, Rivers ranks sixth all time in adjusted yards per attempt (7.68). The players ahead of him? Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Steve Young, Tony Romo, and Tom Brady. In his 14 seasons as a starter, the Chargers finished among the top three in Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA seven times. They cracked the top 10 in 11 different seasons—including this past one. In nearly every way, Rivers’s numbers rival the best quarterbacks not only of the 2004 draft class, but of all time. Unlike his peers, though, his magical season never came.
After cruising to the AFC’s no. 1 seed in 2006 with a 14-2 record, a loaded Chargers team blew a 21-3 fourth-quarter lead to the Patriots in the divisional round. A season later, with Rivers playing on a torn ACL and both LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates also injured, the Chargers fell to the then-undefeated Patriots 21-12 in the AFC championship game. Rivers would take the Chargers back to the playoffs four more times, but those close to the organization admit their best chances came in his early years as a starter. Despite six postseason appearances and five playoff wins, Rivers will be remembered as the best quarterback of his era to never win a Super Bowl—a title he accepts with mixed feelings. “I think in some ways, it’s a compliment,” Rivers told me last year. “I’m appreciative of it. But at the same time, I’d say they’re telling the truth. I don’t mean that arrogantly. I mean, yeah, we haven’t [won a Super Bowl]. We haven’t done it.”
The Chargers’ terrible injury luck during that 2008 AFC championship game wasn’t an aberration. Injuries would come to define this team. The Chargers may have had their best title chances with those stacked rosters early during Rivers’s tenure, but even as that group cycled out, talented young players like Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon, Hunter Henry, and a handful of defensive stars cycled in. Heading into the past few seasons, the Chargers have looked like one of the league’s most complete teams on paper. But by early September, that paper always seemed to take at least one trip through the shredder. San Diego finished in the bottom six in adjusted games lost from 2014 to 2016. While Rivers never missed a start, the rest of the roster crumbled around him, and nowhere was that erosion worse than along the offensive line. A combination of attrition and poor drafting left Rivers with one of the shakiest lines in football in recent years. Rivers had the fourth-quickest release time in the NFL this season, but the Chargers’ line allowed the league’s sixth-fastest average sack time.
It’s never easy to separate a quarterback’s production from the talent—and protection—around him, but that’s exactly what decision-makers around the league will try to do with Rivers in the next month. He has made it clear he still wants to play, and with so much quarterback movement expected this offseason, he’s likely to have at least a couple of different suitors. Much has been made about Rivers recently moving his … considerable family to northern Florida, and some have drawn a connection between the veteran QB and the Buccaneers. Jameis Winston is a free agent this spring, and it’s possible that head coach Bruce Arians could see Rivers as a more reliable stopgap option while the Bucs weigh their future at the position. As an on-field match, though, the move doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Tampa Bay wants to throw the ball down the field more than any other team in the NFL, and while he may have arguably been the league’s best deep-ball thrower during his prime, Rivers’s arm has deteriorated a bit.
The Dolphins are also in the market for a starter, but Rivers—at his likely asking price—doesn’t seem to fit into their rebuilding timeline. Ryan Fitzpatrick for 75 percent of Rivers’s price tag should do the trick. Tennessee could be a potential destination, but after a trip to the AFC championship game, a reunion with Ryan Tannehill (either on the franchise tag or with a longer-term deal) seems more likely.
The team that makes the most sense from a pure football standpoint is Indianapolis. In his end-of-season press conference, Colts general manager Chris Ballard didn’t seem sold on the idea of keeping Jacoby Brissett long term. “The jury is still out,” Ballard said. “That’s why we did the short-term deal with Jacoby. One, to give us some security that we had a player we knew we liked and could go forward with. But also, two, to give us time to figure out if he is the guy or not.” Cutting Brissett would mean eating $12.5 million in dead cap money, but the Colts have more cap space than any other team in football. If they believe Rivers is a better one-year option while they search for their next franchise quarterback, they have the room to make it work.
Going from Brissett to Rivers at this stage in his career may seem like a lateral move to some, but Rivers has a history with multiple members of the Colts’ coaching staff. Frank Reich worked with him for three years in San Diego, including two as the team’s offensive coordinator. Colts coordinator Nick Sirianni served as the Chargers’ QBs coach for two years and spent five seasons there as an assistant. Both are familiar with what Rivers can bring to an offense. It’s possible they believe the Colts’ quick passing offense and one of the league’s best pass-blocking offensive lines could help rejuvenate Rivers for one final run.
As Rivers surveys the landscape, a move to Indiana and away from his family may not be the most attractive option, but among the teams looking for starting quarterbacks, Indy might provide the only (outside) chance of competing for that elusive championship. His chance to get a title with the Chargers may be gone, but Rivers understands what winning a single Super Bowl would do. Now, we’ll just wait to see whether he gets his chance to chase it.