Philip Rivers is the best quarterback of his generation to not win a Super Bowl. That’s a knotty thought, implying plenty of accomplishments but a career that’s still somewhat unfulfilled. Just ask Rivers, who weighed those complexities when presented with the idea late last week. “I think in some ways, it’s a compliment,” he says. “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.”
Part of a 2004 draft class that also featured Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, Rivers is firmly entrenched in the greatest quarterbacking era in NFL history. His peers include those draftmates, former teammate Drew Brees, playoff nemesis Tom Brady, and future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. By every major passing statistic, Rivers belongs among that company. He ranks sixth all time in career touchdown passes (374), seventh in adjusted yards per attempt (7.73), and eighth in passing yardage (54,656). Since Rivers took over as the Chargers starter in 2006, they’ve finished in the top three of Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA seven times and cracked the top 10 in 10 seasons. He has consistently ensured that his team fields one of the most efficient passing attacks in football.
He’s also taken the Chargers to the postseason six times since 2006, the same number of playoff appearances as Brees has made in New Orleans. Each time, the Chargers have advanced past the first round. (For reference, Roethlisberger’s Steelers have been bounced on wild-card weekend three times.) Since ascending to the starting job, Rivers has never so much as missed a start.
In almost every meaningful way, the résumé Rivers has assembled in Southern California mirrors that of his legendary contemporaries, with one important distinction: Every other member of the league’s golden generation of QBs has a ring. And that’s why this postseason looms so large. After going four straight seasons without a playoff berth, the Chargers finished 2018 at 12-4 and bring legitimate title aspirations into January. Rivers insists another championship opportunity coming this late in his career doesn’t carry extra weight, but acknowledges it does bring a sense of urgency that wasn’t always there in the past. At 37, Rivers knows the end of his playing days isn’t far off. Starting Sunday against the Ravens, these playoffs may be his final chance to join the club that’s eluded him for so long. “You don’t know how many more you’re going to get,” Rivers says. “From a team standpoint, I can say that because there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be in it from year to year. And from an individual standpoint, just knowing the truth is, I don’t have that many years left.
“I think there’s no denying the fact that, here we go. We’ve got a shot.”
During Rivers’s first few seasons as the Chargers starter, making the playoffs became an expectation. San Diego went 14-2 in 2006, his first campaign after taking over for Brees. In 2007 the Chargers followed a middling 5-5 start with six straight wins en route to the AFC West title. In 2008 they stumbled into the postseason at 8-8, and in 2009 they went 13-3 to once again claim a first-round bye. “We were in ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09,” Rivers says. “That’s just what you do. You get in the playoffs. You have a chance.”
Looking back on those missed opportunities, Rivers and other members of the late-2000s Chargers say ’06 and ’07 sting the most, but for different reasons. The 2006 team was arguably the class of the NFL, averaging a league-high 30.8 points per game on the strength of LaDainian Tomlinson’s historic MVP season. While Tomlinson was the franchise’s crown jewel, it seemed like a new era of the Chargers’ passing game had emerged, with Rivers throwing to All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates and blossoming second-year receiver Vincent Jackson. “I don’t feel like that ’09 team was anywhere close to what they have now or what we had in ’06 and ’07,” says former Chargers center Nick Hardwick, who was with the franchise from 2004 through 2014. “Talent, strength, the amount of leadership we had on that roster, the coaching staff that we had. That was a stacked organization at that point.”
On January 14, 2007, the top-seeded Chargers hosted New England at Qualcomm Stadium in the divisional round. San Diego took a 14-10 lead into halftime before going up 21-13 on a Tomlinson touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. When cornerback Marlon McCree intercepted Tom Brady on a fourth-and-5 with just 6:19 remaining, it seemed as if the Chargers were bound for the AFC championship. Then Troy Brown ripped the ball out of McCree’s hands, breathing new life into the Patriots’ season and bringing about the Chargers’ demise. “You almost have the game wrapped up, and it all goes south in the last four minutes,” Rivers says. New England scored five plays later and tacked on a two-point conversion to tie the game. It went on to win, 24-21.
That was a crushing defeat for a group with Super Bowl aspirations, but the blow was softened by the inherent belief throughout the organization that the Chargers had the right core to return to the playoffs. This feeling was vindicated when San Diego rattled off seven straight wins from November 2007 through early January 2008. But no one could have predicted what happened next, in that season’s divisional-round matchup against the Colts. With Tomlinson already sidelined after bruising his knee, Rivers jumped to throw a short pass to Darren Sproles early in the third quarter and landed awkwardly on his right leg. Both his meniscus and ACL were partially torn, and backup Billy Volek was forced into action for most of the second half. Somehow, San Diego still knocked off Indianapolis on the road, setting up an AFC championship game clash with the then-17-0 Patriots.
Eleven years later, that game is as a testament to Rivers’s toughness—proof that his body may be made up of indestructible metal rather than human bones and tendons. The day after the Chargers beat the Colts, Rivers had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He slept on the floor every night that week, with a mechanism on his leg continuously keeping the knee bending through the night. “There was a range of emotions on both ends of the spectrum: ‘I’m sure I’ll be able to [play]’ to ‘There’s no way,’” Rivers says. “I was crushed. Like, ‘Golly, we’re a game away, and I’m not good to go.’”
Rivers maintains that he wasn’t in pain that day in Foxborough. He received no injection, no treatment other than what he’d received all week. The knee buckled a few times, but that was all. Yet while Rivers stayed on the field for the entire game, Tomlinson carried the ball only twice before admitting that his injured MCL was too much to overcome. Gates’s turf toe was so serious that it lingered into the offseason and beyond. Hardwick nursed a Lisfranc injury that required surgery during the offseason. San Diego fell to the Pats 21-12, befouled as much by New England’s red zone defense as it was by its myriad ailments. “I think the reason that one hurt so much is we were physically so beat up,” Rivers says. “I had no knee. Gates didn’t have a toe. LT with his MCL. Seriously, it was crazy. Yeah, we’re here, but could we please just be a little better equipped?”
The tone in the locker room after that game was somber. Tears flowed. With emotions running high, head coach Norv Turner approached Rivers with a conciliatory message. “I remember Norv saying, ‘You’re gonna be in a bunch of these games,’” Rivers says. “And we haven’t. We haven’t been back. It just shows you how fleeting it is.”
A few years after Turner tried to comfort Rivers in New England, the veteran coach offered his quarterback some advice that he’s remembered ever since. It was 2010 or 2011, near the end of Turner’s tenure with the Chargers. By then, the roster from San Diego’s days as a playoff fixture had started to turn over, and Turner talked to Rivers about the lifespan of an NFL quarterback. “[Norv] said, ‘Hey, there’s gonna be a time when all your guys are going to be gone, and you’re still gonna be here,’” Rivers says. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, I don’t know that I get that.’ But he was saying that I’m going to outlast some of these guys that I’m used to being around. That there was going to be a little bit of a transition that you go through with younger teammates, and not your core group of guys. And then it happened, and I go, ‘Oh, I get it now.’”
Rivers watched as Tomlinson left for the Jets in 2010 free agency. A year later, stalwart guard Kris Dielman retired. Then Jackson left. Then Hardwick. Soon, Rivers found himself in a locker room without a single familiar face aside from the ageless Gates. The final days of that transition coincided with the first major swoon of Rivers’s career. From 2014 to 2016, he led the NFL in interceptions twice. The Chargers dropped 12 games in 2015 and 11 the subsequent season. “It’s like it is anywhere,” Rivers says. “When you’re losing, it’s just not real fun. You keep losing close games. You keep throwing interceptions to lose close games. Are you going to be miserable, or are you going to fight your way out of it?”
Looking back on that stretch, Rivers credits his wife, Tiffany, for providing the perspective he lacked. “She was reminding me that now is when you can be an even better leader,” Rivers says. “You can be even more impactful with these guys. Because they see how you’re responding when things are going rough, and see that ... he’s still going even though he stunk it up yesterday. You really find out how you lead when things are rough.”
Hardwick likens that period of Rivers’s career to moving into a new house with a growing family, a scenario that should sound awfully familiar to a quarterback with eight kids and a ninth on the way. “You’ve got to reidentify roles: what I’m in charge in, what [my wife] is in charge of, what the kids are in charge of, everyone’s area of specialty,” Hardwick says. “There’s a little bit of that. Who’s gonna provide the energy to the locker room. Who’s gonna be the stern one? Who’s gonna the lighthearted guy who knows when to crack a joke? Who’s gonna be the fatherly figure?”
Initially, Rivers struggled to determine which hat was right for him in an ever-changing locker room. He often felt as if he didn’t fit into a group of 20-somethings with dramatically different lifestyles than his own. “At first, it took a little getting used to,” Rivers says. “I just knew how every guy operated that was part of our [old] core.” He admits that he had a difficult time adjusting to the new wave of personalities, and that his struggles only compounded when he tried to graft his methods onto teammates who were a decade his junior. “I’ve always told people that my favorite part about this game—and I love Sundays, all that stuff—is being a teammate,” Rivers says. “That was something, through that span, where it was, ‘Don’t lose that.’ It was, ‘You’re the quarterback who’s still here, and here’s this new group of guys that aren’t your guys.’ But [don’t] just come to work and play.”
The crucial step was letting go. Instead of trying to control others’ habits, Rivers learned to understand the way this core of players operated. “I think at first, I was a little stubborn,” Rivers says. “We’d be in there watching film, and I’d think, ‘Why does he get in here at that time?’ It was a little bit of, ‘Why am I being so hard-headed about every little thing?’” By allowing his younger teammates to find their own way, Rivers was able to step back and appreciate their development. He mentions how rewarding it was to watch 2015 first-round pick Melvin Gordon transition from an early-down back to a complete back with a total grasp of protections and place in the passing game following Danny Woodhead’s season-ending injury in 2016. He talks about watching receiver Keenan Allen morph from a rookie who seemed to hate football into the player and the presence he is today. “He kind of sets the tone for helping these young guys grow into it, and you create a new set of guys that you can grow with,” offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt says of Rivers. “I think that’s where we’ve gotten to now.”
Whisenhunt also notes that while the organization’s move to Los Angeles last season made for a rocky transition, it served as a crucible for many on the roster. Rivers spent the year commuting from San Diego to the team’s makeshift facility in Costa Mesa. The Chargers split time at two different practice fields. But after stumbling out of the gate at 0-4, this group came together. Their 6-2 surge down the stretch was evidence that the team was on the cusp. “Displaced, lot of time together,” Whisenhunt says. “Having to overcome getting a bus to go to the practice field, getting dressed in a little locker room. Going up to the StubHub [Center]. All of those things, which at times are difficult, also make you closer. You just say, ‘OK, we’re together, and we’ll make it work.’”
The process of arriving at this point brought its share of painful memories, but has culminated in the sort of Chargers roster that rivals those Rivers had during the championship window early in his career. As Hardwick puts up, each room of the house is now in order. For the first time in years, the Chargers offensive line is solidified. Allen and Gordon are flanked by a varied collection of pass catchers who fill specific and diverse roles. This team may be entering the playoffs as the no. 5 seed in the AFC and require three road wins to reach the Super Bowl, but Rivers knows the pieces are in place. “It’s not, ‘Oh, man, we’re really going to have to play beyond ourselves to somehow make a run,’” Rivers says. “It’s ‘Let’s just go do our job and play.’ We have what we need right here.”
One strength that Rivers sees with this Chargers team, compared with former versions in both San Diego and Los Angeles, is that it hasn’t just relied on stars during crucial moments. While L.A. boasts seven 2018 Pro Bowlers, more than any other franchise in football, plenty of the team’s less-heralded contributors have come through when it’s mattered most. A telling example came late in the Chargers’ 29-28 win over the Chiefs in Week 15. With Allen sidelined after suffering a hip injury early in the game, reserve receiver Travis Benjamin was forced to assume slot duties for much of the night. On the final drive of the game, with the Chargers down seven and facing a fourth-and-8 with 1:11 remaining on the clock, Rivers ripped a throw to Benjamin down the middle for a 26-yard gain. That set up the game-winning score.
The throw to Benjamin was vintage Rivers, both in how it was executed and how the QB talks about it weeks later. Based on the coverage that he could decipher before the snap, Rivers had whittled down his receiver choices to Benjamin and Gates. He had a hunch that safety Daniel Sorensen would stick with Gates long enough to make his longtime tight end a riskier target. “And then Travis is just flyin’,” Rivers says, growing more animated as he describes what unfolded. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen if I throw him this ball, but he’s gonna be flyin’. I know that. So as I’m raising my leg, it’s, ‘Ohhh ….. K!’ I’m going Travis! I know I can’t wait around and let the DB get his head around. I’ve got to throw it early and trust he’s going to be there.”
Benjamin’s lack of separation when Rivers let the ball go was another reminder of the quarterback’s status as one of the great anticipatory throwers ever. And the way he describes it captures his essence as a player. “Those are the ones, those couple throws, and there’s really no humble way to say this, but you go, ‘Gosh, that was awesome,’” Rivers says. “Not that it’s, ‘Hey, that was an awesome throw.’ Just the thought process, the whole thing that goes into it. Travis is in the slot. He’s never in the slot. That adds into it. You appreciate those.”
To talk to Rivers about football is to bear witness to his transformation into the demonstrative, endlessly GIFable character he’s known as by many NFL fans. Every nationally televised Chargers game is another showcase for the latest Rivers sideline reaction shot. During a 22-10 loss to Baltimore in Week 16, he pleaded with officials after losing his helmet on a big hit in the second half. Afterward, Gates joked with his quarterback that a decade and a half into his career, people still don’t get him. “Gates was laughing about it, going, ‘You just can’t help it, that’s what people don’t know,’” Rivers says. “‘You really can’t help it. When you’re out there, that’s just you.’”
One of the recent clips that made the rounds came from the sideline before the start of the a Sunday night game in Pittsburgh, an eventual 33-30 Chargers win. As he went for his traditional pregame sip of water, Rivers could hear a fan in the stands yelling his name. “I heard someone going, ‘Philip! Philip!’ And you know when someone calls you, and it just sounds like they know you?” Rivers says. “I looked up, and it was my brother.” With a nod, Rivers responded to Stephen with a simple, “Let’s go”; like so many other Rivers moments, it quickly spawned a wave of memes.
At this point, the oldest of Rivers’s eight children are fluent in the internet. They see the clips being passed around and understand how their father fits into the NFL landscape. For the first time, they also grasp what a Super Bowl run would mean to Philip’s career. In the days leading up to the Chargers’ regular-season finale in Denver, Rivers talked to a few of them about the realities of the playoffs. “I said, do y’all know, [even if] we don’t get a bye, you’re three wins from being in the Super Bowl,” Rivers says. “[They] were like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s crazy.’ They’re excited. Because when you start talking about the tournament, it’s not this long, drawn-out tournament. You’re three games away. When you give yourself a chance, you give yourself a chance.”
With wild-card weekend approaching, Rivers understands what’s at stake. When asked whether a ring would mean more to him—and his legacy—than any other quarterback in the field, he cautiously relents. “I think that’s a fair statement,” Rivers says. “That’s not the drive. But that’s a fair statement.” He’s hesitant to engage with the idea more than that, instead shifting the focus back to what a title would mean for this team. Bring it up with his former teammates, though, and they’re much more direct. “I can tell you what it would mean for all of us: We’re watching him just hoping he can get his ring,” Hardwick says. “We know how much he cares. I would contend that he cares about football more than anyone I’ve ever seen care about the sport. We’ve watched him give his entire soul to being a better football player, a better leader. I know it would mean the world to guys who were ever his teammate, whether it was two weeks or 10 years, to see Philip Rivers get a ring. There’s not a more deserving man.”
As Rivers stares down what might be his final chance to assume his place among the greatest quarterbacks in history, he wants to make it clear that his pursuit was never about hardware. It was never about his individual standing, or shedding the notion that he could be remembered as this generation’s Dan Marino. It’s about getting to say, just one time, that the Chargers stand alone. “You want to stand at the top of the mountain with a group of guys and say, ‘We’re the best,’” Rivers says. “That’s really what drives you. That’s the goal.”