Sports Nut

Philip Rivers 2012: Is the Chargers’ quarterback any good?

The Chargers have a Philip Rivers problem.

Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers reacts to his false start penalty against the Denver Broncos.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

Forget trying to evaluate rookies like Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck through just six games. Football, with so many moving parts, makes it incredibly difficult to isolate and evaluate a veteran player’s performance, even if they’re leading the offense. You can look at a quarterback’s numbers, and even watch him play, and still not know quite where he stands. The play-calling, the offensive line, the receivers, the pass rush, the DBs–all of these things collectively have a greater impact on a game’s outcome than the man under center. All of which leads me to the question of the day: Is Philip Rivers even a good quarterback?

The numbers are there, at least in volume. But you expect volume from Norv Turner’s bastardized, tight-end-heavy Air Coryell schemes, and you also expect turnovers–occasionally at very inopportune times, maybe even to second-string corners like Chris Harris and Tony Carter.

There’s the temptation to see last night’s game, a 35-24 Denver win in which the Chargers scored all of their points in the first half and the Broncos all of theirs in the second, as a microcosm of everything good and bad about Rivers, including his patented stunned sideline doofus-face. For a game billed as a quarterbacking showdown, it couldn’t have offered a better narrative: Rivers, effective early, hapless late, while grizzled vet Peyton Manning takes over when it matters. But that’s far too simplistic, and actually gives Rivers too much credit; he had very little to do with the Chargers’ blockbuster start.

Consider San Diego’s scoring drives. A muffed Denver punt led to a four-yard run and two incompletions, and San Diego kicked a field goal. A fumbled kickoff led to a two-play, 19-yard drive for a touchdown. A pick-six of Manning. Only on the Chargers’$2 66-yard drive to end the half did Rivers look anything like a competent quarterback–and that in a hurry-up, with the exhausted Denver D in prevent mode, opening up the underneath for a series of short dunks to Antonio Gates. This is how a team goes up 24-0, and sets up a lot of misleading and premature “Rivers outplayed Manning!” storylines.

The turnover slate would even out in the second half, and not solely because of Rivers. Elvis Dumervil blew by OT Jeromey Clary and stripped Rivers on what probably should have been ruled an incompletion. Eddie Royal pulled up short on his route, and Rivers pegged the ball directly to Chris Harris. But these things happen, and don’t excuse the underthrown balls and blind tosses, like the backbreaking Harris pick six with two minutes left. In all, the Chargers’ second-half drives ended: fumble, three-and-out, INT, INT, INT, fumble.

Football Outsiders has a stat called DYAR, which attempts to calculate a passer’s value over a replacement QB. By quarter, Rivers’s DYAR was 50, 29, -40, -120. In English, that’s “OK, meh, ouch, and KILL IT WITH FIRE.” (Rivers’s DYAR on the season is 33, putting him between Jake Locker and Ryan Fitzpatrick.)

So, I ask again: is Philip Rivers a good quarterback? Well, you can win games with him, often enough games to keep the season from becoming a total failure. Good: San Diego is 3-3 and tied for first in the AFC West, after playing one of the league’s toughest schedules through six games. Bad: They’ve beaten Oakland, Tennessee, and Kansas City, while losing to Atlanta, New Orleans, and Denver. Good: The AFC is something of a mess right now, with, somehow, only two teams above .500, and 9-7 looks like it might be good enough for a playoff spot.

You never want to make outright predictions, but I feel pretty confident saying this Chargers team will either just miss the postseason, or squeak in and bow out early. In other words, they will be just like every other Norv Turner-Philip Rivers team. Rarely has an NFL team had such a clearly defined ceiling, and you get the feeling this might be the last go-round for the pair. Rivers is too old to suddenly discover another gear, and Turner is too stubborn to learn new tricks. Ideally, you’d want to see Rivers in another system, to get a better read on whether his stumbles are a San Diego problem or a Philip Rivers problem. Until then, he’s a mediocre-to-decent quarterback in a mediocre-to-decent conference, and that’s going to have to be good enough.