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Philip Rivers Retires With a Complicated Legacy

The former Chargers and Colts quarterback was among the most prolific passers in NFL history, but never reached the heights of the all-time greats

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After 17 seasons, Philip Rivers officially retired from the NFL on Wednesday. The former Chargers and Colts quarterback steps away having earned a reputation for his competitiveness and his comprehension of the game. He leaves a legacy that places him among the most prolific passers not only of his era, but in the NFL’s history. And while he never managed to win a Super Bowl—or even appear in one—the heights he did reach could earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

On Tuesday night, Rivers explained his reasoning to The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee, saying, “It’s just time. It’s just right.” The 39-year-old acknowledged that the itch to play is still there, adding, “I can sit here and say, ‘I can still throw it. I love to play.’ But that’s always going to be there.”

Rivers proved in his final season that he was capable of guiding a playoff team from behind center. He joined the Colts this past offseason, following 16 seasons with the Chargers, and led Indianapolis to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. Rivers walks away fifth in both career passing yards (63,440) and touchdown passes (421)—each stands as the most by a quarterback who never appeared in a Super Bowl. He notched eight Pro Bowls, a testament to his stature relative to his peers during his career.

Rivers achieved his success after a winding path to being an NFL starter. The Giants originally drafted Rivers with the no. 4 pick in the 2004 draft—but the Chargers’ no. 1 selection, Eli Manning, refused to play for them, triggering one of the most dramatic draft-day trades in league history. Rivers, a North Carolina State star, was jettisoned to the Chargers, where he backed up Drew Brees for two seasons before taking over as their starter in 2006. Rivers led talented, high-powered Chargers squads to four consecutive AFC West crowns upon becoming their no. 1 QB. With him starting behind center, he led the franchise to six playoff appearances, significantly elevating its status as a legitimate contender in the AFC.

Despite Rivers’s efforts, the Chargers never reached the Super Bowl during his time with them, though they seemed close to breaking through early on during his tenure. Bad luck and ill-timed miscues plagued what could have been an even more legendary career. In 2006, Rivers guided the Chargers to a 14-2 record in his first year as a starter. He led them to an eight-point lead midway through the fourth quarter of their 2007 AFC divisional-round matchup against the Patriots, but safety Marlon McCree’s fumble helped New England stay alive and complete a 24-21 comeback, capped by a missed 54-yard field goal from Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding. The following season, the Chargers reached the AFC championship game, and Rivers put together one of the gutsiest playoff performances ever, playing six days after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee. But the Chargers lost to the Patriots again, with Rivers tossing a pair of second-quarter picks that helped New England pull away.

“The fact that he played was unbelievable,” then-Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said to reporters 11 years later, in 2019, before facing Rivers again in a divisional-round contest that would be Rivers’s last playoff game in a Chargers uniform.

Rivers is one of the league’s definitive iron men. After being named the Chargers’ starting QB in 2006, he registered 252 consecutive starts (including playoffs), which ranks second all time only to Brett Favre (321). However, Rivers’s renown for durability might be outdone by his on-field competitiveness. Rivers consistently provided some of the most entertaining sound bites of the past decade, cracking clean-worded trash talk at opponents and chirping at referees.

“I appreciate the opposing defense making it challenging physically and mentally every week,” Rivers stated in his retirement letter shared with ESPN. “I also enjoyed the banter. I appreciate the referees for putting up with all my fussing. I think I was right most of the time dadgummit!”

Rivers’s energy was evident, even in the final days of his career. That passion should serve him well as he assumes a role as the head football coach at St. Michael Catholic High School in Alabama. Rivers, an Alabama native, follows in the footsteps of his father, Steve, who coached Rivers when he played at Decatur High School. “What has helped me come to this [decision] is the growing desire to coach high school football,” Rivers told the Union-Tribune. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s been growing. I can’t wait.”

Rivers could have returned to the NFL next season to continue his quest toward winning a Super Bowl. He hasn’t yet reached the 40-years-old threshold that Brady and Brees have crossed, and this season he appeared capable of doing so, throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. Colts head coach Frank Reich told reporters after their wild-card loss to the Bills that “I want Philip Rivers to be my starting quarterback next year,” adding, “I think Philip still has a lot of good football [left].”

Now, the Colts face another offseason without a starting quarterback. Unlike in 2019, when Indianapolis’s Andrew Luck abruptly retired two weeks before the start of the season, Reich and the Colts front office will have time to address the hole. Whether that means we’ll see a Reich–Carson Wentz reunion or if the Colts will sign a quarterback in free agency or select one with the no. 21 pick in this year’s draft remains to be seen. Rookie Jacob Eason is the only QB under contract entering next season; veteran Jacoby Brissett is an unrestricted free agent. Reich determined earlier this month that he would “do what’s best for the team, and as an organization” in addressing his club’s quarterback situation. Rivers no longer figures into that picture.

Five years from now, Rivers will be eligible to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will have an interesting case. According to Pro Football Reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor, Rivers’s career rating (97.64) ranks slightly below the average rating of a Hall of Fame quarterback (101). Only five quarterbacks have been placed in the Hall without winning a championship: Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, and Fran Tarkenton; Fouts and Moon are the only two enshrined without making a championship appearance. That’s a discussion for another day. The fact that it will be a discussion, however, proves just how prolific Rivers’s career was.