Where Must Philip Rivers Improve Most for 2013?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 16, 2013

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 23: Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers looks to pass against the New York Jets during the first half at MetLife Stadium on December 23, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Chargers defeated the Jets 27-17. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was once considered one of the elite quarterbacks in the National Football League. A contract that paid him around $15 million in 2012 is indicative of that fact.

However, the last two seasons Rivers' play has regressed, and unless the 31-year-old starts making better decisions with the football and learns to take what defenses give him, it's not out of the realm of reason that 2013 could be the end of the road for Rivers in San Diego.

The drop-off in play over the past couple of seasons has been significant, and at least one former Super Bowl quarterback has taken note.

ESPN's Ron Jaworski , as part of his annual review of the NFL's starting quarterbacks, ranked Rivers 17th according to Rotoworld, stating that Rivers' play has "deteriorated" and that he was "disappointed" after watching Rivers' 2012 game tape.

Jaws still loves the way Rivers "commands the offense" but was disappointed in his tendency to "force" things and attempt to become a "playmaker" when he's in nature a disciplined "pocket quarterback."

A look at Rivers' stats over the past several years simply confirms what we already knew. He's been sliding for some time.

His passer rating has dropped in each of the past five seasons. He's committed an eye-popping 47 turnovers the past two years. After four straight seasons ranking among the top five players at his position according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Rivers' ranking free-fell to 28th last year.

Granted, the problem isn't solely his own. San Diego's offensive line has been mostly awful over the past three seasons, allowing 117 sacks in that stretch.

After years of being able to lean on running back LaDainian Tomlinson and one of the NFL's best rushing attacks, the San Diego ground game has faltered in recent seasons.

Only once in the past four years (Ryan Mathews in 2011) has a Chargers back topped 1,000 yards. San Diego ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing last year.

Also, while he was one of the top players at his position for several years, tight end Antonio Gates has been a shell of his former self in recent seasons, costing Rivers his favorite underneath target and preferred "safety blanket."

Rivers' performance in last year's infamous Monday night loss to the Denver Broncos is a perfect microcosm for the last couple of seasons.

In the first half, when the Chargers raced to a 24-0 lead, Rivers was sharp. That included this scoring strike to Gates, a perfect laser over the middle of the field.

However, football games have two halves.

In the third quarter, San Diego's problems with protecting Rivers reared its ugly head, and Elvis Dumervil got to Rivers for a strip-sack that gave the ball back to the Broncos.

Then, in the fourth quarter, and with Denver now down just a field goal, Rivers made a boneheaded throw, forcing the ball into coverage and getting picked off.

Those three plays are Philip Rivers' last two years in a nutshell.

The reasons for Rivers' slide are good to know, but they're secondary to the real issue that's facing the team.

What do Rivers (and the Chargers) do now?

According to Kevin Patra of NFL.com, new San Diego head coach Mike McCoy has an idea, and it's a simple one.

"We got to get him going back to the basics," McCoy said Monday on NFL Network's "NFL Total Access." "Take what the defense gives you. Don't be afraid to check it down. You don't have to make that big play every play. We are going to do some different things in the passing game with him to raise the completion percentage, get the ball out of his hand a little bit quicker. Help the offensive line. Run the football better. That's the key. You have to run the football." 

McCoy's statements should be music to the ears of San Diego fans, because he's hit the nail on the head.

Rivers' biggest failing over the past couple of seasons is that he hasn't adapted to the changing dynamic of the San Diego offense.

The days where Rivers could stand tall in the pocket, survey the field, and then attack vertically are gone and the addition of offensive tackle D.J. Fluker isn't going to magically fix that.

So, Rivers needs to change how he does things. Stop relying on an arm that isn't as strong as it used to be. Stop trying to force a square peg into a round hole. If it means moving down the field eight or nine yards at a time instead of 20, so be it, but the turnovers have to stop.

Yes, the offensive line and running game are still questions, but it's not like the Bolts are bereft of weaponry in the passing game.

Danario Alexander was a revelation for the team in the second half of last season. Vincent Brown has shined in camp. Rookie Keenan Allen is a polished route-runner who could develop into an excellent underneath target.

It's not like Rivers is washed up. He may not be the gunslinger he once was, but his right arm is still above average at the very least.

In fact, NFL.com's Bucky Brooks recently wrote that given the choice between Rivers and Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys, Brooks would take Rivers.

Although Romo is more naturally gifted—and surrounded by a more dynamic supporting cast—Rivers wins this matchup, based on his outstanding performance in the clutch throughout his career. Turnover woes over the past two seasons certainly have tarnished Rivers' star, but he has been too good for too long to finish as the runner-up in this debate.

The thing is though, for Rivers' star to shine again, those turnovers (once again) have to stop. That means playing within himself more. Trying to win games by himself isn't winning anything, other than boos from fans.

If Rivers understands that, and he and McCoy implement what the coach is talking about, then there's no reason to think that Rivers can't rebound.

He remains a very talented quarterback, and at 31 he should still have several years of good football left in the tank.

However, if Rivers continues to force the issue, then all he's going to do is force his way out of San Diego.

Turnovers are the kiss of death in the NFL. If Philip Rivers isn't careful, they're going to be the death of his career with the Chargers as well.


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