Everyone wondered how Philip Rivers would respond to a new coach, Mike McCoy, coordinator and quarterback coach (Ken Whisenhunt and Frank Reich) this year, after spending his recent football life with a coach, Norv Turner, who basically served as all three at times for six of Rivers’ nine NFL seasons.
But there’s been quick bonding with the coaches, some underrated help from GM Tom Telesco, and smart play from a quarterback who knows he’s thrown too many interceptions over the years. Rivers is on his way to one of the best years of his NFL life—the best, if he keeps playing like he did in September. Through four weeks, Rivers is by far the most accurate he’s been in his career (his 73.9 completion rate is 8 percent better than his previous career best), and though he’s concentrating on making the safer throws this year, he’s also on pace for the most prolific passing season of his life: 4,796 yards, 44 touchdowns.
He’s done it while losing his No. 1 wideout, Malcom Floyd, for the season, and with his second-best wideout target, Eddie Royal, playing with less impact after a Week 2 battering at Philadelphia. There are three reasons why Rivers has found new life post-Norv:
1. The best low-cost free-agency signing of the NFL offseason: jack-of-all-trades offensive weapon Danny Woodhead. In the last three weeks, Rivers targeted his all-world tight end, Antonio Gates, 27 times, and Woodhead 24. Woodhead has basically replaced Darren Sproles, who former GM A.J. Smith decided not to pay and who has been missed terribly by Rivers. Woodhead in the backfield in the regular offense. Woodhead as third-down back. Woodhead in the slot. Woodhead in motion. Woodhead split wide. Sound familiar? Woodhead has 19 carries, 22 catches and two touchdowns, and an average touch of 6.1 yards. And Telesco stole him from New England for $1.75 million a year.
“I don’t want to hurt the feelings of any of the other guys we got in free agency,’’ Rivers told me this week. “But Danny was the guy I was most excited about. You remember that guy we used to have here, the guy who left and still is doing great things in New Orleans? Well, Danny’s just like [Sproles]. He does a lot of everything. He’s not just a third-down back. You can split him out, and we do. Plus, he just loves to play.’’
2. Rivers is getting rid of the ball faster. Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, Rivers got rid of the ball in 3.5 seconds or less just 45 percent of the time. Now he’s deciding faster and throwing quicker; 66 percent of his throws come out within 2.5 seconds of the snap. He’s the third-fastest in the league at getting rid of the football this year, and that’s never been his strong suit. “There’s no way to deny we’re throwing more high-percentage passes,’’ Rivers said. “Ten, 12, 15 yards … We still want the chunk plays, but we’re happy taking what we can get. Sometimes I have to make myself not be bored with the three-yard completion, but it’s good for us.’’
3. The number of open targets he’s seeing. There’s no way to quantify this, because stats aren’t kept for “open receivers.” But this goes hand in hand with 1 and 2. Watch the San Diego games, and you see Woodhead (“It’s just amazing how easy he gets open,’’ Rivers said) slithering away from coverage the way Wes Welker does. Rivers doesn’t feel the pressure to force the ball downfield now because he knows he’ll have either Woodhead or the hot receiver (sometimes the same) or maybe Gates open not far beyond the line of scrimmage. McCoy takes pride in his offense giving his quarterback more than one option on many throws, and Rivers has seized the openings and not been greedy. Sometimes, it’s best to hit the first open guy and just move the chains.
“You’re right,’’ he said, when I asked about missing Turner. “I love Norv. He was great for me.’’
But—and this is a big “but’’—it’s so obvious now Rivers needed a change to jump-start a flagging career. He’s gotten it. One of the underrated parts is how quickly he’s bonded with his new coaches. Can it last? If Woodhead and Gates stay upright, it surely can. If you can stay up Sunday night, you’ll see the new and improved Rivers in the nightcap (seriously) of the first-ever night-night Bay Area NFL doubleheader. Houston is at San Francisco at 5:30 p.m. Pacific Time on NBC, and San Diego at Oakland is set for 8:40 p.m. PT on NFL Network. Strange timing, considering West Coast night games always start 5:30 or 6 to optimize the prime-time East Coast crowd. “It’s going to be pretty weird starting a game that late out here, because we never do it,’’ said Rivers. “But [McCoy] said to us, and he’s right, ‘I don’t want to hear a word about starting this game so late.’ Really, it’s no big deal.”
Well, not unless you’re a Charger fan in Harrisburg handed a bonus chance to see the new and improved Rivers.
About Last Night …
Cleveland 37, Buffalo 24. I am now convinced more than ever after the events of Thursday night that every quarterback coach in the NFL needs to make sliding a part of the offseason training regimen. I am not kidding. It’s trite and funny to make fun of awkward sliders like Michael Vick, and most analyses of Vick sliding end up in a raucous laugh or a funny highlight. It’s not funny. Brian Hoyer is lost—maybe for the year—because he slid incorrectly and then got pile-driven into the turf by Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso. (Not a dirty play, by the way; Alonso dived to stop Hoyer after the quarterback began his awkward landing.) And what is E.J. Manuel doing barreling into tacklers trying to make one extra yard on the sideline? A quarterback’s job is not to slam into bodies trying to make an extra yard or two near the sideline. His job is to get out of bounds and get back to run the next play. Two lessons, painfully learned. But if I’m a smart head coach, I’m putting “sliding practice’’ on my quarterback to-do list at minicamp next spring … and sooner, if my quarterback is awful at it right now.
(Continue to Page 2 to find out more of what I’ll be watching this weekend)
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Eugene Monroe, left tackle, Baltimore (No. 60). “We’re bringing Eugene in here to play,’’ coach John Harbaugh said after the trade for Monroe (for 2014 fourth- and fifth-round picks) was made official this week. Monroe was brought in from Jacksonville to replace under-performing left tackle Bryant McKinnie, the 30th-rated left tackle in football by Pro Football Focus. Then again, Monroe’s the 27th-best left tackle, according to PFF, so don’t expect a Joe Thomas-type upgrade on the left edge. Monroe practiced sparingly Thursday and likely will have a full practice today, and it won’t be surprising to see him start Sunday, or at least play a lot, at Miami.
Sound Bite of the Week
“We’re by no means a finely tuned machine. We’re still working out kinks and correcting mistakes.”
—Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, who must have suppressed an urge to chuckle while he said this. The Broncos, through four games, are averaging 44.8 points a game, Manning’s completing 75 percent of his throws, and his passer rating of 138.0 is the best for any four-game stretch of his 228-game career.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Gronk. Still don’t know if New England tight end Rob Gronkowski will play Sunday against the Bengals in Cincinnati (for the third straight week, he has practiced freely, looking healthy enough to play, which has meant nothing in his previous two inactive weeks), but the strategy here is one I actually like: Gronkowski’s got X number of snaps left in his battered body, and wouldn’t you rather use up those snaps in January? By the way, the quietest cut of a player we all though could turn into a Tom Brady mainstay happened Thursday, and it was so under-the-radar you may have missed it: tight end Zach Sudfeld.
2. Josh. Who picks up discarded Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman? No one today, because no team is going to want to be liable for the $6.4 million salary left for 2013. But surely someone will have a look for the rest of the year and sign him for the minimum, to see if Freeman can regain the form of a rising-star quarterback that somehow got derailed in mid-2012.
3. Schaub. Referendum game for Matt Schaub Sunday night at San Francisco. Say whatever you want about Schaub, his decent stats and the fact that he’s certainly not solely to blame for the Texans’ 2-2 start. But you can’t make the kind of folly-floater blunder that Schaub did last week, handing the Seahawks the tying touchdown in an eventual loss with one of the dumbest interceptions man has ever seen. That’s three games in a row he’s thrown pick-6s, and whoever tells you Schaub has the full faith and confidence of everyone in his locker room right now is delusional. He’s got to play well, if not win, at Candlestick.
4. Peyton. Mr. Manning goes to Dallas, where the Cowboys have a 99.6 opponent passer rating. Uh-oh. Hide the women and the scoreboard bulbs.
5. Schneid. Last Detroit win at Lambeau Field: 1991, when Matthew Stafford was 3. If the Lions win, they will command the NFC North, with a 4-1 record and a lead plus tiebreaker over both Chicago and Green Bay.
6. Blackmon. The well-punished Jacksonville wideout, Justin Blackmon, returns after his four-game suspension for substance abuse when the Jags play an otherwise utterly meaningless game on the march to Teddy Bridgewater at St. Louis. Other than whether the Jags will keep any of the quarterbacks on their roster heading into 2014, the Blackmon story is about the only one worth watching in Jacksonville in the last three months of the season.
7. Chiefs. Kansas City and Tennessee meet in Nashville, and they’re a combined 7-1. Look for more terrorizing the quarterback by a KC pass rush that is contributing to winning more than any pass rush in football through four games.
8. Fainarus. The book about the NFL’s concussion story, League of Denial, by brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, comes out next week, as does the PBS Frontline show of the same name (Tuesday, 9-11 p.m., PBS). Roger Goodell already sent an email touting the NFL’s attention to player safety to the league’s vast email database this week, aiming to get a start on the publicity barrage begun with book excerpts in Sports Illustrated and ESPN this week that decried what it painted as the NFL’s diversionary tactics and flat denials that concussions were a serious problem until recently.
9. Airhawks. The Seahawks play their second straight morning game far from home, with Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck playing each other for the first time in their lives. This is why Pete Carroll started his summer practices at 10:15 a.m. local time, because of back-to-back weekends like this one (at Houston, at Indy).
10. Believeland. Great week for Cleveland, with the men of Francona playing a Wild Card baseball game and the Browns the Thursday-nighter down the street 24 hours later. Now that the Browns won their third game in 15 days, they’re becoming more than a little bothersome for the Bengals and Ravens in the land of AFC North mediocrity. Cleveland, 3-2, has a half-game lead on both entering Sunday’s games.