If Philip Rivers wanted to be done with football, 2020 would have been the perfect backdrop for a graceful exit.
In February, Rivers saw his largely successful, 16-year run with the Los Angeles Chargers come to a close. And for a man long synonymous with that organization, it was difficult to imagine the 38-year-old wearing another team’s jersey, especially after a 20-interception season in 2019 that led many pundits — but not Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard, who promptly signed him to a one-year deal — to openly ponder whether he still has it.
“You’re talking about a proven veteran, a possible Hall of Fame player here,” Ballard told Yahoo Sports in a recent interview. “So he’s got the credibility right when he walks in the door.”
Still, with the onset of COVID-19 it also would have been understandable if Rivers, a family man with nine children, sat out the season.
But when asked whether that was a serious consideration, he could not have been more emphatic that it was not.
“No, there really wasn’t,” Rivers told reporters during a conference call Wednesday, shaking his head. “No. That’s the shortest answer I can give the whole day. I don’t even know if I can ramble on that one.”
Rivers said his family’s health was a consideration, but he has confidence they’ll take all the precautions to remain safe. He also understands the implications that opting out could have had on his career.
“I think at this point, making that decision for me would have been making the decision to be done, period, and retiring,” Rivers said. “Which is nowhere on my mind.”
Which makes sense, because of all the older, extremely accomplished quarterbacks who remain on NFL rosters in 2020, you can make a case that none — I repeat, none — has as much to gain, historically, as Rivers this season.
Is Philip Rivers a Hall of Famer?
Other quarterbacks around Rivers’ age include Ben Roethlisberger (38), Aaron Rodgers (36), Drew Brees (41) and the incomparable Tom Brady (43), who we might as well start calling Benjamin Button at this point.
All of those guys are cinch Hall of Famers. They’ve all won at least one Super Bowl, and they’ve all had iconic moments in big games. Five years after they retire, they’re heading into Canton.
But Rivers? As Larry David would say, eh.
Looking at his stats, he has a strong case. He’s sixth all-time in passing yards and touchdowns, ahead of current Hall of Famers like Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Warren Moon, Johnny Unitas and yes, even the great Joe Montana in both categories, and he’s also ahead of Roethlisberger and Rodgers in both categories.
So why is Rivers’ candidacy still up in the air? Well, as a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter since 2016, I can tell you this — Super Bowls matter for quarterbacks, and so do Super Bowl appearances and All-Pro nods. Rivers has none.
Major individual season awards like MVP matter, too, and the only one of those Rivers has is the notable, but less prestigious, Comeback Player of the Year in 2013.
And in the absence of all those, big moments on big stages also matter, which is why Eli Manning will eventually get in.
And this last category is where Rivers — for all the stats he has racked up and all the Pro Bowls (eight) he has made — is still lacking.
I’m not saying he won’t get in one day even in the absence of a big 2020. He still might. Rivers is well-liked as an individual (and that probably helps with at least some of the 48 voters), and again, his statistical accomplishments are impressive. But by joining an extremely well-run organization like the Colts this offseason, Rivers has a unique opportunity to make his career.
Why Rivers can enjoy a renaissance with the Colts
Yes, the Colts went 7-9 last season. They did that without Andrew Luck, who retired out of nowhere last August after leading them to a 10-6 record and a wild-card playoff win over the Houston Texans the season before.
No one is lumping the Colts among the prohibitive favorites in the AFC, a realm widely reserved for teams like Kansas City and Baltimore. But the Colts are certainly in that next tier of teams that have a shot to win their division, and as such, a Super Bowl is entirely possible — especially if Rivers sticks it to all the haters this season and emerges as a dark horse MVP candidate.
It’s not entirely crazy.
His MVP odds, per BetMGM, are +4000, tied for the 13th best in football along with the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Matt Ryan.
And in Indianapolis, Rivers will play behind the best young offensive line in football. It’s a still-ascending group led by a generational guard in the monstrous Quenton Nelson, one that will keep Rivers cleaner than the Chargers’ perpetually injured line did a year ago and clear the way for an impressive group of backs led by the slippery Marlon Mack (in a contract year, no less). That should take loads of pressure off the interception-prone Rivers.
“I mean look, we’re gonna run the football,” Ballard told me during our recent conversation. “We think we’ve got a very good offensive line, we think that’s gonna help Philip.”
About those interceptions — after watching Rivers’ 2019 tape, are there some that Ballard is sure Rivers would like to have back? Yes. But ...
“We didn’t put any interception completely on him, even though the quarterback’s got to take the blame,” Ballard told me. “Do we think we can help him? Yes, absolutely we do.”
That job will fall on head coach Frank Reich, who coached Rivers for three years in San Diego and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, who coached Rivers for five years in the Chargers’ former home.
“It’s a scheme he’s been in, and he’s been very productive,” Ballard added.
The Colts still need a little good fortune
There’s internal hope the offense finds a way to hit the ground running, even with star receiver T.Y. Hilton opening camp on the PUP list, but doing that will require a few things to fall into place.
First, Rivers must develop chemistry with second-year slot man Parris Campbell, an explosive athlete with upside. If he blossoms, he could give the offense an additional playmaking element it lacks.
Additionally, Rivers will need to utilize his competent tight ends, while Reich will have to get a pair of rookie second-round weapons in receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor — who he called “two physically dominant looking athletes” on Wednesday — up to speed quickly.
If they get all that there’s a chance we’ll see the best version of late-stage Rivers, which is essentially the Rivers we saw in 2018, when he took some chances, completed some outrageous throws and won 12 games by not having to do everything himself.
“Look, Philip’s always going to be a guy that’s gonna try to make a play,” Ballard reminded me. “When [his team is] down and he has to make a play, he’s not going to protect his stats, he’s going to try to bring the team back.”
That’s something the Colts, whose issues closing out games after a 5-2 start last season contributed to their sub-.500 record, certainly value.
And if Reich and Sirianni can help their aging gunslinger turn back the clock a couple years — and the Colts avoid bad COVID luck, of course — it’s not outrageous to imagine Rivers having the type of season he needs to solidify a Hall of Fame legacy.
“You [may] say Year 17, you’re still growing?” Rivers said. “I go, ‘Heck yeah, I hope so. I hope I’m still improving and I can get better.’”
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