Has Philip Rivers Peaked?
By Evan Silva
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers tied for third in the NFL in interceptions in 2011, an out-of-character distinction for one of the league's most historically efficient passers. In-season rumors swirled that Rivers was hiding an injury, speculation both he and the Chargers' organization adamantly refuted. In late November, ESPN's Adam Schefter published a story stating that "numerous NFL executives and coaches around the league" believed something was wrong. "Based on the opinion of people around the league," wrote Schefter, "Rivers has to be playing hurt, no matter how much he denies it."
The rumors died down when Rivers finished statistically strong, posting a 12:3 TD-to-INT ratio in the Chargers' final six games. Having studied the game tape closely, NFL Films guru Greg Cosell has since attributed Rivers' career-high interception total to struggles with "accuracy and decision making." So perhaps Rivers wasn't hurt. He was just playing like it.
I want to feel confident about my own Philip Rivers evaluation heading into the 2012 season, so I took time out to review every interception he threw last year. A detailed breakdown of each pick can be found on the next page. Here were my takeaways after viewing those 20 throws, in addition to many others over the course of Rivers' 2011 season:
1. Vincent Jackson was by far the most oft-targeted receiver on Rivers' picks.
Jackson was the intended receiver on nine of Rivers' 2011 interceptions. Rivers looked for Antonio Gates four times among the 20. Patrick Crayton and Ryan Mathews tied for "third" at two targeted picks apiece, while Mike Tolbert and Malcom Floyd each had one. On the final Rivers interception, he had no one open downfield against the Bears and appeared to be trying to throw the ball away. CB Corey Graham aggressively closed on Rivers' carelessly thrown pass and dove to pick it off.
I watched every single one repeatedly, and I'm not sure the fact that so many interceptions were intended for Jackson means a whole lot. The majority of the Jackson picks came on relatively low-percentage, shot-play attempts downfield. The Chargers were gambling anyway. And they just lost. Many were underthrown or simply off the mark, meaning they were Rivers' fault -- not Jackson's.
2. A large majority of Rivers' INTs came on underthrown or errant passes.
I charted all 20 picks and assigned a descriptive word or phrase to each. Five were assigned "great play" by the defender. One was bad luck, as Jackson lost Rivers' pass in the lights on Thursday Night Football in Week 10. One was dropped by Patrick Crayton and tipped into Broncos CB Cassius Vaughn's hands. Each of the remaining 13 were either described as "errant," "floated," or "underthrown" passes. A healthy, heavy majority of Rivers' interceptions were on him.
I'm not sure Rivers could ever have been characterized as possessing a power arm. He throws with a sort of shot-putty style, pushing the football in a three-quarters motion and relying on torque from his lower body. But Rivers wasn't getting any zip on his passes last year, and I don't think that issue was resolved at any point in the season. His short and intermediate throws were sitting ducks, and his deep balls were dying.
When a quarterback fails to put necessary velocity on throws, defenders become more capable of getting their hands on the football. This is easy to understand. Defensive backs, linebackers, and even some defensive linemen are quick-twitch reactors, and they jump all over balls floating through the air. Interceptions result when defenders get good breaks on passes. They're even more common when the throws miss intended receivers.
3. Pressure from the defense rarely played a role in Rivers being intercepted.
Rivers was under heavy pressure just once when he was intercepted in 2011 -- on his first pick of the year. In Week 1, Vikings LE Brian Robison bent the edge on a speed move around Chargers RT Jeromey Clary and got his hand on Rivers' right arm, obstructing the quarterback's throwing motion. The ball popped into the air and was caught by CB Antoine Winfield. Rivers was most commonly intercepted when he had a clean pocket. Football Outsiders graded San Diego's offensive line as a top-nine unit in pass protection, and I don't think poor play from the front five was to blame.
4. People were talking about Rivers' struggles much more during the season than they are now.
I find this fascinating. ESPN's Ron Jaworski is a tape junky, and his recent ranking of Rivers as the seventh-best quarterback in football contained zero negative commentary on Jaws' SportsCenter presentation discussing the Chargers' ninth-year quarterback. Jaworski was singing an entirely different tune last year, attributing Rivers' struggles to inaccuracy and poor decision making. NFL Network's Mike Mayock, ESPN's Merril Hoge, and ESPN Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson were all outspoken about Rivers' struggles over the course of last season. No one talks about it anymore.
5. Rivers quieted questioners with a pick-free month late in the year.
Rivers was sitting on a league-high 17 interceptions through ten games. He then strung together four straight pick-less weeks in late November and December, before throwing three more INTs against Detroit and Oakland in Weeks 16 and 17.
During the interception-free stretch, Rivers played poorly against Denver, before lighting up Buffalo and a Jacksonville defense that had lost roughly half its starters to injured reserve, including both first-team cornerbacks. Rivers protected the ball well in a 34-14 Week 15 win over Baltimore, as Ryan Mathews piled up 109 total yards and two scores on Sunday Night Football. The Chargers got creamed by Detroit the following week -- Rivers was picked twice -- before closing out the year with a 38-26 win at The Black Hole.
I went back and watched every Rivers throw from the Ravens game, before publishing this column. I think Rivers is capable of delivering the football accurately to open receivers. I think his velocity was still a problem, late in the season. And I think the Chargers know it.
6. It's worth wondering whether we've seen the best of Philip Rivers.
That sound you heard coming out of Chargers Park all spring and summer was the organization pumping up third-year running back Ryan Mathews. The Chargers want Mathews to emerge as a true workhorse, and perhaps even to lead the NFL in rushing attempts, if coach Norv Turner's comparison to 2002-2003 Ricky Williams is to be believed. San Diego should want better play from Mathews, but is there more to it? Are the Chargers eyeing a new offensive centerpiece?
Rivers is going on age 31, and I think it's fair to wonder if we've seen the best he's got. I think it's a distinct possibility that Rivers has peaked, particularly if his velocity doesn't return this season. His pass attempts to the intermediate sections of the field floated throughout last year, lacking zip. His bomb tries were all too often underthrown, frequently dying at the end of their trajectory. Can Rivers still be a 25-plus touchdown quarterback, complete passes to open receivers, and lead San Diego to plenty of 2012 wins? I'd say so, absolutely. I'm just not sure if he's going to get any better.
Has Philip Rivers Peaked?
Breakdown of Rivers' Interceptions:
Week 1 versus Minnesota (2)
2nd Q (:10) -- Attempting to connect with Antonio Gates on a hitch route, Rivers' arm was obstructed as he threw by Vikings LE Brian Robison, who beat Chargers RT Jeromey Clary around the edge on a speed move. The football rainbowed into the hands of Vikings CB Antoine Winfield.
3rd Q (2:43) -- Rivers took C Nick Hardwick's shotgun snap and stared down RB Ryan Mathews, who was running a flat route out of the backfield. Vikings RE Jared Allen had Mathews covered and read the play all the way. Allen caught the interception cleanly, and returned it 14 yards downfield.
Week 2 at New England (2)
2nd Q (:19) -- Rivers took a quick three-step drop out of the shotgun and targeted RB Mike Tolbert on a flat route down the right hashmark. Pats NT Vince Wilfork read Rivers' eyes and jumped the route, tipping the pass into the air and to himself before returning it 36 yards to the Chargers' 30.
3rd Q (4:42) -- With his first read (Vincent Jackson) covered, Rivers forced a pass down the seam to Gates on a crossing route. Patriots S Sergio Brown picked up Gates in zone coverage and picked off Rivers' pass. Notably, CBS commentator Phil Simms remarked afterwards that Rivers appeared to "take something off the football. I thought (Gates) was open. But it took too long to get there."
Week 3 versus Kansas City (2)
1st Q (7:23) -- On third-and-eight, Rivers threw off his back foot and into double coverage, targeting Jackson on a deep corner route. The obviously underthrown pass was easily picked by Chiefs FS Kendrick Lewis. Rivers complained to the referees that CB Javier Arenas interfered with Jackson.
2nd Q (5:59) -- Challenging the defense deep from a clean pocket, Rivers overthrew Malcom Floyd 60 yards downfield and Chiefs CB Brandon Flowers intercepted the pass over his left shoulder. Rivers did show plenty of vertical arm power on the pass, but that's different from sheer velocity.
Week 5 at Denver (1)
1st Q (6:10) -- Lined up in the shotgun, Rivers flinged a pass into the slot intended for Patrick Crayton. While Rivers' pass was a bit behind the slanting Crayton, the football bounced off his hands and into CB Cassius Vaughn's, who returned it to the house. This pick was on Crayton.
Week 7 at Jets (2)
4th Q (11:09) -- Rivers targeted Jackson on a shallow cross over the middle, but the pass was too far behind its intended receiver, deflecting off Jackson's right arm and into the hands of CB Darrelle Revis. Even though the football hit Jackson's body, Rivers' ball placement was poor on the play.
4th Q (5:34) -- Sitting in a squeaky clean pocket, Rivers forced a throw down the middle intended for Jackson. Rivers apparently thought CB Kyle Wilson would break off his slot coverage, because he gunned it on a beeline to the Jets' nickel back, who was stationed directly in front of V-Jax. Wilson had Jackson covered throughout his route, so this seemed like either a poor read or an errant throw.
Week 8 at Kansas City (2)
1st Q (9:04) -- Rivers took a five-step drop after taking the snap from center, and threw deep down the middle for Gates. The pass was badly overthrown and picked off by Chiefs FS Kendrick Lewis. "As I've watched Philip Rivers this year, his ball control has not been good," ESPN's Ron Jaworski stated immediately after the interception, examining the replay. "(Gates) is there, but the ball sails."
1st Q (5:00) -- On third-and-four in the shotgun, Rivers threw short for Jackson over the middle. The ball was deflected by DE Wallace Gilberry at the line, and ILB Derrick Johnson came down with the pass. While Rivers should have had better awareness, Gilberry simply made a big-time play. "That was unlucky," said Jaws. Jon Gruden praised Romeo Crennel for deceptive combination coverages.
Week 9 versus Green Bay (3)
1st Q (4:49) -- Lined up in the shotgun on third-and-seven, Rivers threw behind Antonio Gates deep down the seam. The pass was tipped by Packers ILB Desmond Bishop and into the hands of SS Charlie Peprah, who returned it 40 yards to the house. Poor placement was to blame for this one.
1st Q (2:02) -- Rivers floated an underneath throw to Patrick Crayton on a quick out. Packers CB Tramon Williams jumped the route and easily picked off Rivers, returning the pass 43 yards to pay dirt. FOX analyst Brian Billick credited Packers DC Dom Capers' "trap coverage" for the big play.
4th Q (:33) -- Rivers tried to power a pass into double coverage of Vincent Jackson, but his throw had an egg-beater rotation, lacking velocity. Peprah got a great jump on the ball and intercepted it to seal the win for Green Bay. "Underthrew it, double coverage over the top," Billick observed.
Week 10 versus Oakland (1)
4th Q (3:38) -- Rivers dialed up a 42-yard touchdown bomb attempt in the direction of Vincent Jackson. Jackson lost it in the lights on Thursday Night Football, and wasn't even looking as Rivers' pass was caught in the end zone by Raiders FS Matt Giordano. "You gotta go after the football," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said after the play. We'll chalk this one up to bad luck.
Week 11 at Chicago (2)
4th Q (9:39) -- On third-and-ten, Rivers stepped up in the pocket and wobbled a 16-yard attempt in the direction of Vincent Jackson in scoring position. The pass was underthrown and picked off by Bears S Major Wright five yards deep in the end zone. Chicago had three defenders in the vicinity.
4th Q (1:56) -- Rivers rolled to his right on first-and-ten, and his body language suggested he was trying to throw the ball away. Instead, CB Corey Graham made a diving interception 20 yards downfield. "I am convinced he was trying to throw it away," said Simms. "And he just hooks it."
Week 16 at Detroit (2)
4th Q (4:50) -- Rivers dropped back with strong pass protection, and looked to test deep with Vincent Jackson facing off coverage and a safety over the top. Launching 43 yards downfield, Rivers underthrew his bomb attempt and the pass was picked off by Lions LCB Chris Houston.
4th Q (2:33) -- Rivers wanted to hit Ryan Mathews in the flat, but Lions LE Cliff Avril pushed RT Jeromey Clary backwards and leaped flat-footed into the air, intercepting the short pass. San Diego was backed up toward its own end zone, so Avril walked in untouched for the ten-yard touchdown.
Week 17 at Oakland (1)
1st Q (13:17) -- Rivers made a five-step drop, stepped up in the pocket, and took a shot downfield targeting Jackson. Jackson was surrounded by CB Lito Sheppard and FS Matt Giordano, and Rivers' pass was way off, overthrown and off target to the right. Giordano came down with the pick.