Any football fan — any American, really — knows the names of the greatest quarterbacks in the NFL: the Tom Bradys, the Peyton Mannings, the Aaron Rodgers and so on. These men are full-blown cultural icons; they are established, in both the sense of endorsements and extracurricular activity as well as the sense of football. But any football fan will also be able to name another category of quarterbacks who aren’t nearly as well known or well regarded.
Marc Bulger. Jake Delhomme. Kerry Collins. Mark Brunell. Jeff Garcia. These are all guys who, at some point in their career, were highly valued QBs, capable of taking their teams deep into the playoffs. They’re also guys who fell off in a huge way toward the back ends of their careers, hanging on and around the league — in Hasselbeck’s case, he’s still there — but no longer as the marquee-contract, program-cover player they once were. There is nothing at all wrong with this, because not everyone can keep making All-Pro teams deep into their 30s a la Brady and Manning; in fact, you could argue that it’s the natural progression of the quarterback as a species, the Circle of Life.
But that doesn’t mean any athlete who once felt the glory and power of primacy in their team and town wants to give it up, even if they know they should. And that’s exactly where the San Diego Chargers’ Philip Rivers is right now. In 2006 and 2007, his first two years as a starter, Rivers went 25-7. From 2008-10, Rivers was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, a guy who completed 65 percent of his passes and threw three times as many touchdowns as interceptions. Coming out of the hallowed 2004 QB draft class, he lacked Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger’s rings, but you could have argued successfully at that time that he was the best of the three as a passer.
In 2011, that changed. Rivers’ yardage remained sky-high, but his completion percentage dipped three points. Most significantly, he started throwing interceptions: 20 of them, or third-most in the league, trailing only Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Freeman and tied with Rex Grossman. In 2012, the situation didn’t get much better: he cut out a few of the picks, throwing 15 that year, but he also gave up a thousand yards of passing, missing the 4,000-yard mark for the first time since 2007. That season ended with the firing of his coach and offensive coordinator, meaning that Rivers would have an experience in 2013 that he hadn’t had since his first year as a starter: playing without Norv Turner as head coach.
So far, so good. Rivers has seven touchdowns and only one interception through two games, and the Bolts are 1-1, with that loss being a late-game collapse against the Texans. Two games is a sample size of almost zero significance, but in the only action Rivers has had with head coach Mike McCoy, former offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, former head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, he’s looked like himself. Which is to say, exactly unlike he did in the last two years.
What’s most fascinating is that it presents a compelling narrative to watch throughout the year: Is Philip Rivers the rare quarterback able to redeem himself in a late-career third act? Can he play well enough to get another contact when this one ends in 2015? How stupid would a team be to offer a 34-year-old Philip Rivers a contract? Would that be stupid at all if he came in as a veteran mentor, a reliable safety valve in case of injury?
What enhances the uniqueness of Rivers’ situation is his coaches. Whisenhunt famously occupied the coach’s chair as Kurt Warner morphed back into a Super Bowl-caliber QB. And McCoy presided over successful offenses quarterbacked by Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, not to mention last year’s Peyton Manning-led juggernaut. Now they’ve switched roles, and we have a situational case study of one of the strangest dynamics in football: the difference in credit owed to an offensive coordinator and a head coach for the abilities of their offense. Whisenhunt’s offense endured for another year after the departure of offensive coordinator Todd Haley in 2008, but in 2010, 2011, and 2012, the Cardinals were a mess at quarterback even with the presence of Larry Fitzgerald.
Both Rivers and Whisenhunt are attempting to rehabilitate their images in 2013, and McCoy’s trying to establish his. At the end of the season, if the momentum keeps up, it’ll be difficult to distinguish who is responsible for what. The only certainty is that each guy should benefit, and that, in the future, when the trio splits up, some new team will find that it only bought part of the car.