We knew Peyton Manning was great, but so far his 2013 season has been ridiculous even by his standards. There isn't a quarterback who can even come close in comparison to Manning right now, but while he is grabbing all the headlines, there is one quarterback who has been playing great football and deserves some recognition.
Many people wrote off San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers due to his struggles in 2011 and 2012. This is the same player that led the league in passing yards in 2010 and looked like he was going to be an elite quarterback for years to come.
Despite three interceptions on Sunday night against the Oakland Raiders, Rivers is still arguably having one of the best years of his career after two very lackluster seasons. Unlike Manning, Rivers isn't working with a stacked deck, so in many ways his performance this season is more impressive.
Rivers doesn't have a Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker or Julius Thomas. Rivers' top two receivers are backups, because the two starters are out for the season. Even if they were healthy, they aren't nearly as good as Denver's weapons. All Rivers has is Antonio Gates—still good, but clearly not in his prime.
San Diego's offensive line has been a problem for the last two years, and though it has certainly improved this year, it's nowhere near as good as Denver's offensive line—even without left tackle Ryan Clady. San Diego's thin offensive line has also been plagued by injuries, with starters absent six times through five games.
Despite these handicaps, Rivers has been as good or better than every other quarterback in the league not named Peyton Manning. Better than quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. Notably, Rivers has also been significantly better than Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger—the two quarterbacks who were drafted in the same year and who also happen to have Super Bowl rings.
By The Numbers
There are tons of different ways to judge a quarterback with statistics. Every statistic is going to have its faults, so it's best to look at multiple ones and try to come to some consensus.
At the same time, some statistics should be avoided because they don't tell us much about how well a quarterback is or isn't playing. Things like total yards and quarterback ratings are too often skewed.
One that attempts to be a catch-all stat is ESPN's Total QBR. According to this metric, Rivers is second only to Manning this season at 78.5.
If the season ended today, Manning's season would be the best QBR in the history of the statistic (since 2006). Rivers' season would be the ninth-best, with only names like Brady, Brees, Rodgers and Manning ahead of him.
Rivers' 2009 season is currently 10th on the all-time list with a Total QBR of 78.2—just a hair below his 2013 performance so far. Judging from this statistic, Rivers is second only to Manning and having the best year of his career.
Football Outsiders has two other advanced quarterback statistics to account for situations and adjust for the strength of a defense. One is DYAR, or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, and the other is DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. Rivers ranks second in both DYAR and DVOA behind Manning.
Another statistic that attempts to measure a quarterback but uses a combination of more traditional statistics is called Adjusted Net Yards per pass Attempt or ANY/A. It's a statistic on Pro-Football-Reference that adjusts the normal yards-per-attempt statistic by adjusting it for sacks, sack yards, touchdowns and interceptions.
Manning has an insane 10.91 ANY/A so far in 2013, but Rivers is second with an ANY/A of 7.99. Manning was a first-team All-Pro last year with an ANY/A of 7.89.
There have only been 19 seasons ever to feature an ANY/A above 7.99, and Rivers has two of them already, but that was when he had a young Gates, Vincent Jackson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles on his team getting a lot of extra yards for him.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has Rivers as the fifth-best quarterback in their grades (+12.7), but the third-best passer (+14.8). According to their PFF QB Rating, which adjusts the normal quarterback rating for drops, throwaways, spikes and the work a receiver does after the catch, Rivers is second only to Manning with a 102.11 rating.
Rivers has been a great quarterback before, but he's struggled over the past two years. There are a lot of reasons for his struggles, from the talent around him to the offensive line to the design of the offense.
One of the things we don't necessarily realize is that great quarterbacks do need help from their supporting cast. The great ones make others around them a lot better, but even the great quarterbacks need their teammates.
Rivers' worst performance of the year came last week in Oakland, when he tossed three interceptions and just two touchdowns, but you have to consider the situation. Rivers was put in a terrible situation because San Diego's defense allowed two touchdowns on the Raiders' first two drives. The first drive was one play, a 44-yard touchdown pass, and the other a 14-play, 88-yard drive.
Even the good quarterbacks occasionally throw interceptions, but Rivers' worst of the year just happened to come early in the game. If San Diego's defense gets one stop, the game might have turned out differently.
Despite falling behind early, Rivers brought the Chargers within a touchdown in the fourth quarter. If the defense could have stopped the Raiders from converting on 3rd-and-14 with about seven minutes left, Rivers and the Chargers would have had all the momentum and the ball.
A good example of what has made Rivers so good in 2013 was his second touchdown—a quick slant pass to rookie receiver Keenan Allen. Rivers made a good read and good throw on a well-designed play and got some help from his teammates.
Rivers reads the blitz as the Raiders look to bring in three extra guys for a total of seven. To make sure Rivers gets enough time, Gates and running back Danny Woodhead are going to stay in to block. It's essentially a single-read, two-man route combination.
The blitzing slot cornerback gives away that the Raiders are probably in man coverage. If cornerback Mike Jenkins comes up immediately, Rivers will hit Eddie Royal on the corner route, but if the corner backpedals, he will hit Keenan Allen on the quick slant.
Jenkins drops back, so Rivers takes the quick slant. It was a quick drop, but notice how the Chargers picked up all seven rushers without a breakdown. Rivers got a pocket and a throwing window without a free rusher coming through to hit him.
Allen breaks a tackle, and all of the sudden the pressure shifted back to the Raiders with only a seven-point lead. For a moment it looked like the Chargers might have a chance to come from behind for a third time this season to win.
If the play looked simple, that's probably because it was. We tend to think good offenses have to be super-complicated, but really it's about getting in the right call against the right defense and then executing better than your opponents.
Rivers made this possible at the line of scrimmage, moving Woodhead into the backfield to block and communicating the protection to his offensive line. It was a good call against Oakland's seven-man pressure, and great execution from the entire offense made it possible.
Don't forget about Rivers just because he plays for a team that is 2-3 and not 5-0. Rivers might be overshadowed by Manning, but he has still been very good so far this season.
When you consider the fact that Rivers is supported by a poor defense and offensive weapons that are still a work in progress, you can't help but be impressed with him this season. In some ways, what Rivers has been able to do is even more impressive than Manning, when all things are considered.
San Diego's defense is going to continue to put Rivers into tough spots, but he's proven he can still play at a very high level. At times, Rivers will still try to do too much and get himself into trouble with a costly interception, but when that's not the case he's producing the yardage and touchdowns like an elite quarterback.