When you think of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, what comes to mind? Winner? Nothing more than a guy who puts up good stats? Abrasive personality? If you answered yes to any of those,it would be hard to dispute them.
Though he hasn't won "The Big Game" yet, Rivers has led the Chargers to the postseason in four of his previous seven seasons as a starter (Drew Brees started for the team in 2004 and 2005). He has racked up 75 regular season wins (including 2013) against 48 losses, giving him a .640 winning percentage in the regular season. Most teams would take that from their starting quarterback, as that is basically averaging about ten wins per season.
A lack of postseason success has many labeling Rivers nothing more than skilled quarterback capable of racking up impressive statistics. That is true as well, as Rivers cracked 30,000 yards passing and 200 touchdown passes both this season. He's also a four-time Pro Bowler, with his last one coming in 2011.And, yes, the abrasive personality rings true as well. You can ask current Bears quarterback Jay Cutler about that from his time with the Broncos and their tumultuous relationship during that time.
All of that aside, Rivers has had a rough go of it in the two seasons preceding a massive coaching change in 2013. Rivers threw 35 interceptions combined in 2011 and 2012 and had a league-leading 15 fumbles last year alone. The team also hasn't been to the postseason since 2009 and that gave the talking heads much to gab about with Rivers. With a new coach, accumulated injuries and an early reliance on young players, the prospect of a good 2013 campaign looked bleak.
But, Rivers and new head coach Mike McCoy have gotten things back on track quicker than many expected. The offensive system is more suited to Rivers' strengths, whereas the one employed by Norv Turner became stale and predictable. Ken Whisenhunt being hired as the team's offensive coordinator has been a huge boost to everyone in the unit. The offensive line play has improved and given the immobile Rivers more confidence in the pocket to deliver big-time throws, while wide receiver Keenan Allen is beginning to emerge in Rookie of the Year talks and is becoming a solid NFL player at his position.
The result is a 5-6 record and in the hunt for an AFC Wild Card spot. But, that's not all. Rivers is playing some of the best football of his entire career this season. He is currently on pace for 32 touchdowns against 12 interceptions and nearly 5,000 yards passing. Additionally, he currently has a near 71 percent completion percentage and a rating of 106.6. Both would be career-highs if he keeps that pace.
Though there aren't any superstars in the supporting cast, per se, the talent level is better than it has been. Allen has exceeded expectations as a rookie third round pick, Antonio Gates is finally healthy and is playing at a near-Pro Bowl level, and Danny Woodhead does a little bit of everything. Instead of looking for that big play, as they often did in Turner's offense, Rivers and Co. want to move the chains and let the game progress for them that way.
"Flexible is the way we look at it," Whisenhunt said recently.
The simple explanation is that McCoy and Whisenhunt allowed Rivers to adjust plays based on his pre-snap read, checking out of the assigned play and into something he deemed more appropriate. Offensive huddles, if they exist at all, are now quick, giving Rivers a few extra seconds to study how the defense will attack him. If defenders appear to drop into coverage, Rivers opts for a short-yardage throw; if they blitz or take away underneath routes, he looks deep.
"All part of the system," McCoy told reporters. "Take what the defense gives you, is number one. He (Rivers) has the freedom to check plays whenever he wants. We have given him that freedom."
"As far as percentage-wise, this is as good as we’ve been by far," Rivers told reporters recently. "Maybe a piece of me thought I was prepared to handle maybe a few more bumps," he said, "but it has gone rather smoothly."
The Bengals defense needs to prepare for a no-huddle-like offense from the Chargers and keep things in front of them, as they did against Cleveland. Rivers will look for short and intermediate passes much more often than he has in years past, so Cincinnati's defense will need to adjust to that.
As is often the case in the NFL, pressuring the quarterback and getting off of the field on third down will be crucial. If the Bengals can achieve that, they will likely win. If they don't, they will get a first-hand look at just how reinvigorated Rivers actually is in this system.