Robert Beck/SI/The MMQB
Robert Beck/SI/The MMQB

The Next Best Thing

Working with a new head coach and throwing to a rookie wideout, Philip Rivers completed nearly 70% of his throws while boosting touchdowns and limiting interceptions in 2013. A decade into his career, it was all a matter of timing

By
Robert Klemko
· More from Robert·

SAN DIEGO — Jake Delhomme saw it coming.

Last summer, I had a phone conversation with the former NFL quarterback, who’s now training racehorses in Louisiana and raising his two daughters. We were talking football, and at one point in our conversation, crazy old Jake Delhomme became animated.

“I think Mike McCoy is a hidden gem,” he said of the then-new Chargers coach. “It was very evident in the one year that I didn’t have him as my QB coach in Carolina—2009—I sucked. There’s no other way to put it. He played the position; he understands it.”

I imagined Delhomme slamming down his cup of sweet tea as he said the words. “You just watch Philip Rivers this year,” he finished. “He’ll look brand new.”

Rivers? Philip Michael “Cry me a” Rivers? OK, Jake, I thought. Stick to horses.

Rivers was coming off a 2012 season in which the Chargers finished with a losing record (7-9) for the first time in his career as a starter and his middling 88.6 passer rating wasn’t helping things.

Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen, who had 71 receptions for 1,046 yards and eight TDs as a rookie in 2013. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Around the same time as my interview with Delhomme, three football men convened in an office at 4020 Murphy Canyon Rd. in San Diego and queued up a digital reel. There was first-time head coach Mike McCoy, the former Broncos and Panthers assistant; offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, fresh off six years as head coach in Arizona; and former Bills quarterback Frank Reich, previously an assistant with the Cards.

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They only watched 2012 tape of Rivers, and they saw a quarterback who had the highest completion percentage in football when he got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, and a 68.8 passer rating when he held onto it longer. They looked at former coach Norv Turner’s offense in motion and wondered aloud about what kind of first, second and third reads Rivers must have been trying to make.

McCoy cautioned his assistants: When we get Philip in the room, go easy.

“You’ve got to be careful, because we didn’t know his progressions in the other systems,” McCoy says now. “I said to the whole staff, lets not over-evaluate this. Lets sit down with him, watch this tape and ask him, ‘What’s your progression on this?’

“Why are you throwing the post instead of this underneath?”

Says Rivers: “It was very back and forth. It was a conversation, and I appreciated that. They didn’t come in and say, this is how we’re going to do it. Take it or leave it.”

The staff outlined a few things they wanted to impress upon the 31-year-old former Pro Bowler. Take what they give you. Do the next best thing.

“When we first talked to him about what we wanted to do, it was just, take what they give you,” McCoy says. “Throw the flat. Throw the flat. Throw the flat. And then throw the post.”

And by telling him to do the next best thing, McCoy was trying to work around Rivers’ predilection for crunch-time interceptions, epitomized by the game on Oct. 15, 2012, against Peyton Manning’s Broncos. Rivers threw four interceptions and Denver overcame a 24-0 deficit to win.

By telling him to do the next best thing, McCoy was trying to work around Rivers’ predilection for crunch-time interceptions.

“He had some interceptions that he forced,” McCoy says. “The competitor comes out and you try to squeeze a ball in there and it gets tipped up. Take the next best thing. Take the open man.”

The focal point of the new attack would be aging tight end Antonio Gates, as it had been since 2004, but they would use the big man in a new way. Gates was targeted 30 times in the short middle third of the field in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2013, that number jumped to 58.

But the tweaks made all the difference. Numbers like these tell the story of 2013 in San Diego:

  • Via PFF, just 2% of Rivers’ passes travelled at least 30 yards in the air, the lowest percentage in the league.
  • He threw 17% of his passes to running backs on non-screen plays, third most in the league.
  • He let go 315 passes in 2.5 seconds or less, up from 259 the year before.
  • He completed a career-high 69.5% of his passes with 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, all improvements on the previous three seasons.

Yet McCoy is careful not to describe 2013 as a revamp or a comeback for his quarterback. “He had a ton of success before,” McCoy says. The famously cocksure Rivers agrees.

“I have a lot of respect for Norv,” Rivers says. “He helped me get where I am. I could never throw away all that, and they knew that.

“With all due respect to Jake Delhomme,” he says, “I didn’t stink when I didn’t have Mike.”

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Rivers went into offseason film sessions with that same mentality. He was open to new suggestions, but he remains reverent toward Turner, the longtime mentor who helped him reach three consecutive Pro Bowls. McCoy, accordingly, fostered a discussion rather than laying down his philosophy in a take-it-or-leave-it manner one might use with a rookie quarterback.

“Some of the wrinkles they brought and some of the no-huddle stuff was great,” Rivers says, “and they meshed it with what we’ve done in the past.”

On some plays the progressions changed; the first and second reads became more conservative. But occasionally Rivers would let it fly like old times. In Week 6 he threw his third interception of the season on third down during the offense’s first drive. It was a deep ball intended for Eddie Royal, who had stopped running while facing double coverage. Standing not 10 yards in front of Rivers was Gates, without a defender within five yards of him.

Chargers coach Mike McCoy and QB Philip Rivers during a break in action against the Texans last September. (John W. McDonough/SI/The MMQB)
Then-Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and QB Philip Rivers during a break in action against the Texans last September. (John W. McDonough/SI/The MMQB)

In those moments, part of McCoy wants to explode. But he recalls being an assistant in Carolina under John Fox when Delhomme was quarterback, and watching Fox light into the 2005 Pro Bowler for a bad toss.

“John Fox was on him,” McCoy says, “And Jake said, ‘Hold on a minute. Last week I threw that pass for a touchdown, but this week it was six inches behind the guy so it was intercepted.’

“The point is,” McCoy adds, “a guy like Jake or Philip is going to make a whole lot more good decisions than bad, so you let it go.”

Plays like the Raiders’ interception eventually grew less frequent last season. He did not throw an interception in the playoffs and very nearly beat the eventual AFC champion Broncos in the divisional round, losing 24-17. That was with a rookie No. 1 wide receiver in Keenan Allen, one of the two most improved players in the 2014 training camp (along with Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick.)

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Rivers’ admiration of Allen began in Week 2 last season, when the Chargers were tied in Philadelphia with 1:30 to play and he ran to Allen to go over the hurry-up calls. Says Rivers, “He had a look on his face like, Are you really doing this right now? You don’t think I know what I’m doing right now?”

The Chargers marched down the field and kicked a game-winning field goal with 11 seconds remaining.

After posting 1,046 receiving yards last season with 71 catches, Allen showed up to Chargers camp last month with improved speed: “I’m a deep threat now,” he says.

Perhaps, but we’re less likely to find out as long as Rivers and McCoy keep chasing the next best thing.

* * *

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25 comments
TB23
TB23

Rivers due for a breakout year? Yeah, so is Romo.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

The biggest problem with Rivers is that he is (or at least was) a crybaby. How many times have we seen him stomp off the field like a 10 year old? That said, he lost some of the best years of his career to the Norv Turner debacle. He has always had gaudy stats. Like Tony Romo. Make of that what you will.

seamillguesthouse
seamillguesthouse

If Rivers can calm down in crunch time I think they have a good chance.

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

"Timing" is right, Bob, along with positive attitude.


Live-wire Rivers definitely painted one of his masterworks in 2013-14. Besides sweet C%, Phil got time (30sk) and had complimentary back in Mathews who finally stayed healthy and gave Ds something else to mull.


But to reach "(High) renaissance," Ryan must repeat and Phil's kindred spirit McCoy must tighten Bolts D that resided in lower half (yapg #23) and seemed to out-source manufacturing opportunities in few fumbles (15), sacks (34) and INTs (11). Weddle & Co. form a nice core. Given their hearty closing act last season, I've got Chargers as top ten contenders (#8) for 2014-15.

sunalsorises
sunalsorises

Rivers is a much better QB than Eli Manning yet Eli got those two Superbowls by being in the right place at the right time.  Eli's whiny move to force the trade paid off for him big time.

mavickers
mavickers

That is Whisenhunt in the last photo, not McCoy.

mgault86
mgault86

Great article! After seeing Rivers at the beginning of last season, I could see the coaching staff screaming 2 things at Rivers all off season. As you have noted; 'Get rid of the ball!" Which worked like a charm, he really took what they gave him all year. They also improved the tempo, getting to the line early (or going no huddle) to give him time to see the mismatch. 


Number 2; "don't run Phil". He thinks he is an athlete and wants to run when pressure comes. Last year he really kept his head up and found people after scrambling. 


He looks even more comfortable this year and has more weapons. If defense is stronger on the line, Chargers could really surprise people.

brr man
brr man

Kind of a hot piece on probably one of the top 20 QB's of all time when all is said and done.

Effjay
Effjay

@TB23 Rivers broke out last year, where ya been?

Effjay
Effjay

@Rickapolis I never saw him as a crybaby, just a trash talker. Not the same thing. I don't think you know what you're talking about.

mnico213
mnico213

@Rickapolis Having watched Rivers his whole career, I understand people saying this, but still think it is a bit unfair.  He is just extremely animated on the field.  He gets upset when a play doesn't work, but he does not show up other teammates unlike some other QBs.  He also just gets just as much up as he gets down and is extremely encouraging when teammates make good plays.  Off the field, he is confident, but he always takes the blame first and will never throw someone else under the bus.  If an OT whiffs on a block and he gets sacked, he will say he held on to the ball too long.


I guess long story short, he is extremely competitive and the type of guy you love when you root for his team and hate when he's on someone else's team.

GoPSULions
GoPSULions

@sunalsorises Big Ben was also drafted in that same year/round as Rivers and Eli, and has been to 3 and won 2 SBs.  Yes, a good QB can fail if placed on a bad team, but a very good QB can raise a team to excel as well.  Rivers is at a critical junction to show he belongs in the discussion with Eli/Big Ben.

magic mushroom
magic mushroom

@sunalsorises whiny or not he made those clutch throws, to Tyree in '07 and Manningham in '12, when it counted the most. Gotta give that to Eli.

Mark112
Mark112

@Effjay @Rickapolis 

Rivers is a crybaby AND a trashtalker, whereas Cutler is a crybaby and a coachkiller. Neither has won anything, yet Rivers' rep is more favorable while Cutler has more upside potential arguably. They both should make the playoffs at a minimum this season or their reps will take a collective beating.

JohnCampbell
JohnCampbell

@Effjay @JohnCampbell @brr man gotta have hardware to be in that conversation.  coming through in the clutch.  not whining on the sideline.  he MIGHT be a better QB than eli, but eli has those 2 rings.  bradshaw wasn't great, but he has 4 rings.  even joe namath, who i think is the most over-rated QB ever, got his ring.

GoPSULions
GoPSULions

@TeezBoltz What do the rest in that list have that Rivers does not?  Super Bowl wins and lots of playoff appearances/wins.  That defines a top QB.

JasonmGomez
JasonmGomez

@GoPSULions @TeezBoltz lol, a superbowl win defines a top qb?  So, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson are better than Dan Fouts or Marino?


What a maroon.


The Gnats had the best d-line of the past decade and you think that makes Eli better than Rivers?  


Enjoy the KoolAid.  Your Heaven's Gate friends await you on the Hale-Bopp comet....



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