There’s a special kind of pity reserved for great players that didn’t experience great success, and by success, naturally, I mean, win a championship. Barry Sanders, considered by many to be the greatest football player of all time, never sniffed a title. Dan Marino, one of the best quarterbacks of all time, never won a championship. The Buffalo Bills of the 1990’s were littered with legends, and won four straight conference championships, but never grabbed a Super Bowl. We mourn the shortcomings of these icons, but alas, only one team can win a championship every season, and some of the all-time greats just never get lucky.
In today’s NFL, this is truest for players like Joe Thomas, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Adrian Peterson. Players that should end up with busts in Canton that claim empty trophy cases. Another player that fits this role? Philip Rivers, the starting quarterback of the Los Angeles Chargers.
Only… I’m not sure he’s actually all that great.
Philip Rivers: The Most Overrated Quarterback in NFL History?
Firstly, there’s no denying that Philip Rivers is a good quarterback. I’ve said it before, to be overrated isn’t to be bad, or even awful. In fact, in order to be considered overrated, enough people have to rate you pretty high. And Rivers has done his part to be rated among the best.
Since he took over from Drew Brees in 2006, he’s second in passing yards (57,677), third in passing touchdowns (388), fourth in wins (122), and the all-time leader in just about every passing record in franchise history. He’s led the team to the playoffs six times, winning the AFC West four times, and he’s even won five playoff games for the squad.
And it’s not just the Chargers, Rivers has climbed up the league’s record book as well. He’s sixth in NFL history in passing yards and touchdowns. He’s thrown for more touchdowns than Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Aaron Rodgers, and Jim Kelly. Statistically, he’s superior to his draftmates, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, averaging more yards and touchdowns per season than both of them.
Lord of No Rings
But do you know what those two have that Rivers doesn’t? Championship gold. Both quarterbacks have won two Super Bowls, and all Rivers has to show from his post-season career is one AFC Championship appearance, a 21-12 loss to the then-undefeated New England Patriots where Rivers barely completed 50% of his passes and threw two interceptions. And that’s where my issues with Rivers start.
Sadly, Rivers just hasn’t ever really won a game that mattered. He’s won five playoff games since he took over as the starter in 2006, including two against Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts. And that’s the heart of my argument. Peyton Manning’s biggest criticism, despite mediocre defenses and a non-existent run game throughout most of his career, was his inability to win the big one. How come Philip Rivers, who has had much better supporting casts, hasn’t had the same problem?
People pretend like Rivers’ empty trophy-case happened to him, and not because of him. Let’s take a look at just how well Rivers performs under the bright lights of the post-season.
Here’s a wild stat about Philip Rivers in the playoffs, are you ready? In playoff games where his Chargers have lost, his numbers were almost better than in games where he won. That doesn’t make any sense, right? Well, let’s take a closer look.
In Rivers’ five playoff wins, his average statline looks like this- 17 out of 27 for 212 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Not bad, but you wouldn’t be mistaken for calling it anymore more than pedestrian. In his six playoff wins, his average statline looks like this- 21 out of 32 for 266 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick.
Frankly, big numbers can be misleading. In his most recent playoff appearance, Rivers threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns. That looks like a good game on the surface, until you realize he threw the ball 51 times and only completed 25 of them. If anything, this pattern insinuates that the more involved in the game Rivers is, the less likely it is that the Chargers will be victorious.
In both of his most recent playoff wins, Rivers didn’t break 200 yards passing. In fact, Philip Rivers has never thrown for 300 yards in a playoff game that the Chargers won. He hasn’t broken 250 yards in the post-season since he did it twice back in 2007. He’s been more of a passenger during playoff wins than a driver.
Those kind of mediocre numbers in a winning effort are what gave Tom Brady the “system quarterback” label for the first half of his career, and I’m not sure how we’re supposed to look at Rivers, who has been a game manager in two of his five playoff wins, and call him a legend, while also insinuating he doesn’t have talent around him.
Hey, speaking of Tom Brady…
The Evil Empire
The biggest problem with Philip Rivers’ run in the NFL? It coincided with Tom Brady’s. On the career, Philip Rivers is 0-8 against the New England Patriots when Tom Brady is starting. Tom Brady’s Patriots have beaten Philip Rivers’ Chargers in the playoffs on three separate occasions, and they have no problem beating the Bolts in the regular season. The Patriots have played in the AFC Championship ten of Rivers’ 13 years in the league.
Only one AFC team has gone on to win the Super Bowl without beating Brady’s Patriots first, and that was the Steelers in 2008, when Brady missed the entire year with a torn ACL. Beating Brady’s Patriots is the only way anyone gets out of the AFC, and to date, Rivers has failed to do it every single time.
Over the last few years, the AFC West has been known as one of the more competitive divisions in pro football. The Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, the 2016 Oakland Raiders were the NFL’s sweethearts, and the rise of Patrick Mahomes has elevated the Kansas City Chiefs to the ranks of the elite. One would be forgiven for defending Rivers’ inability to win such a competitive division.
Only… it hasn’t always been that way. The four years where the San Diego Chargers dominated the AFC West, it was a pitiful division. The other three teams averaged six wins a season, with only two other teams scoring a winning season, both in 2006. Eight of the 12 AFC West competitors during San Diego’s reign had losing seasons. When LaDainian Tomlinson left, they couldn’t make the playoffs at all, and a season later, when two teams had .500 records, not winning records, .500 records for the first time since 2006, they couldn’t win the west with an 8-8 record.
Those are the best Charger teams. Those are the teams that gave Philip Rivers his best shot at a championship, and he got to the playoffs, where again, he fell apart, by beating up on the hapless Lane Kiffin-era Raiders and Matt Cassel’s Chiefs.
The “Dan Marino” of It All
You might say that I’m a hypocrite for saying Dan Marino is underrated and Philip Rivers is overrated when at the end of the day, the crux of the argument is a quarterback’s involvement in a team’s success. And that’s a fair point. But here’s my counter. His name is LaDainian Tomlinson.
LT was Rivers’ starting tailback for three seasons, in a passing era, I’ll add, between 2006 and his departure following the 2009 season, and over that time, he rushed for 5,129 yards and 66 touchdowns. That’s not including his passing or receiving stats, just as a rusher, he put up a little over 5,000 yards and 66 touchdowns over three years. The numbers from those three years alone would make him third all-time in Dolphins history in yards and first in touchdowns. And the two guys with more yards, Larry Csonka and Ricky Williams, never played with Marino.
Maybe it’s systemic? Marino put up great numbers because he threw the ball so much, maybe he’s the reason no rusher succeeded while he was with the Dolphins. Fine, fair point. Let’s look at receivers, or hey, what about a tight end? Because Antonio Gates would like a word.
Since Rivers became the starter in 2006, Antonio Gates has caught 761 passes for 9,387 yards, and 91 touchdowns. Guess what? All three of those would be all-time records for Miami. And it’s not just Gates and Tomlinson, Rivers has also played with Pro Bowl caliber players like Hunter Henry, Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon, Vincent Jackson, Michael Turner, Tyrell Williams, and others. It’s not like he’s ever had a shortage of talented teammates.
Dan Marino never played with weapons that were half as productive as Rivers’, and he didn’t play in an era where touching the quarterback was a fifteen yard penalty and a trip to prison. And that’s another huge issue I take with those that praise Rivers.
Sure, Rivers is crawling up the all-time passing record lists, but do you know who else is? Literally everyone else. If you look up the top 20 quarterbacks by passing in a career, you’ll also find Matthew Stafford, Carson Palmer, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady. What do those guys have in common? They’ve all played in the same era as Rivers.
I actually detailed this pretty clearly in another article (check it out, here!), but a lot has changed in the last 15 years or so. Rule changes have dramatically increased the number of pass attempts. Between Rivers’ rookie season (2005) to last season (2018), the average starting quarterback has increased their annual attempts by 53. Back then, a quarterback only threw the ball 27 times a game, but last season, so we’re talking about an additional two games of throws in just a 14 year span.
And it’s not like they’re bad throws. Even though attempts are way up, so is completion percentage, mostly in part to how rule changes have limited defenders. Average quarterbacks went from completing 61% of their passes to completing 65%. As a result, they’re throwing for more yards (average of 641 more), more touchdowns (average of six more), and fewer interceptions (average of two fewer). And this is just since 2005, when Rivers entered the league. This says nothing about the dramatic difference in statistical value that a Joe Montana, John Elway, or Dan Marino suffered from.
The Bottom Line
In all honesty, we need to stop calling Philip Rivers the best quarterback to never suit up for a Super Bowl. In my opinion, Warren Moon owns that title six ways from Sunday. Rivers is only barely the best Chargers quarterback to never play in a Super Bowl. In the passing era, he’s put up gaudy numbers with a Hall of Fame supporting cast, and beat up on an AFC West that hasn’t always been a competitive division, but at the end of the day, someone is probably going to end up in Canton, Ohio, never won a game that mattered.
It’s not too late for Rivers. The Chargers are still an incredibly talented team, and may still find themselves in the NFL’s biggest game before Rivers hangs up the cleats to spend time with all 459 of his children. But until then, his destiny remains to be a “very good quarterback that never won it all” instead of one of the all-time greats, or even underrated, as some have declared.