During the 17-week NFL season, football fans sit together and often debate how the best players in the NFL should be ranked. One of the discussions that always seems to cause quite the stir is the top five quarterback rankings. Many know that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the top two quarterbacks in the NFL, regardless of the order, but it becomes a little trickier beyond that.

For the last four or five years, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has been labeled a top-five quarterback in many places, and he deserved it. Rivers has played lights-out for the Chargers since taking over as the starting signal caller, but this year he’s had some issues despite his impressive statistics. He’s completing nearly 65 percent of his passes this year even though he’s throwing over 30 times a game, and he has a 7.9 yards per attempt average. The quality YPA number is one of the most important statistics in all of football, and he ranks ninth in the NFL there.

However, despite these impressive statistics, there is one that stands out like a sore thumb: Rivers’ touchdown-to-interception ratio. Rivers has thrown only seven touchdowns in seven games compared to nine interceptions. His nine picks matches his total from 2009 already, and he’s only seven short of his total from last year. Rivers has always kept his turnovers low, which is why this is a surprising statistic. He’s typically been very protective of the ball in the fourth quarter, yet he helped squander a lead that the Chargers had against the New York Jets last week when he threw not one, but two late-game interceptions.

So what’s wrong with Philip Rivers?

As is often the case, Rivers’ turnovers can be narrowed down to four main factors:

  1. Poor decision making
  2. Incorrect ball placement
  3. Lack of a clean pocket
  4. Mistiming with pass catchers

The poor decision making is the one that grabs my attention first. The main reason is because it’s not something that Rivers is guilty of often, but it has been an issue at times this season, with Rivers trying to force passes and coming up short. One reason for this is because teams have done a better job of covering San Diego’s pass catchers, particularly against the deep ball. They’ve also figured out how to take away the underneath options for Rivers. This was evident against the Jets last week when Rivers forced an interception into the hands of nickelback Kyle Wilson.

As you can see below, Rivers threw it in area where there were two defenders that created a tight window to make a throw through. In the pre-snap phase of this formation, the Chargers motioned their wide receiver across the formation, which brought Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson along with him. This signaled that it was man coverage specifically by the cornerback, which Rivers should have known when the cornerback trailed the receiver when the motion was executed. At the snap of the ball, Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson ran a Dig route (deep in) and was open for a brief second, but Wilson got back in time to undercut the route underneath while he had help from teammate Antonio Cromartie in front of the wide receiver.

Rivers shouldn’t have made this throw, as there was no real window for him to make it safely.

This poor decision is one of a couple that come to mind from this season. Another was his first interception against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3. After being flushed out of the pocket by the Kansas City pressure Rivers forced a throw deep into coverage when he was off balance. This led to an interception on a very poor throw.

The second problem that Rivers has had this season is incorrect ball placement. His ball placement issues have been evident this season, but not all of them have resulted in interceptions. However, he wasn’t so lucky in Week 1 against Minnesota when he threw a pick into the hands of Jared Allen.

On this play the Chargers lined up in a Shotgun set with one running back, Ryan Mathews, in the backfield along with Rivers. At the snap of the ball, Mathews ran a swing route while Allen went up-field before peeling off and covering┬áthe back out of the backfield. Rivers watched Allen go out with his pass catcher and floated the ball in that direction. What it appeared Rivers was trying to do was to throw a touch pass that would land in front of his intended target. However, he ended up throwing it short and into Allen’s hands.

Rivers should have thrown it at the outside shoulder of his pass catcher, so that only Mathews could get it. There was plenty of space for Rivers to throw it outside, as can be seen below.

Rivers’ third issue isn’t his fault, but it has still played a role. He’s had to deal with pressure, which has given him little room to make throws, or has just flushed him out of the pocket altogether. He’s been victimized by missed blocks and accosted by blitzers quite often this year, and that’s where some of his poor throws have happened. In certain cases in which the pocket has crumbled, he’s had trouble stepping through throws.

This was evident against the New England Patriots earlier this season, when Rivers was unable to step up into the pocket and properly follow through on his pass, thus leading to a throw that lacked the required velocity to get to the intended target. As can be seen below, Rivers was able to lead the throw with his foot, but was unable to bring his shoulder over because his left tackle was being overpowered and moving into his space.

The fourth and final issue that we’ve seen with the Chargers quarterback this season is the lack of timing with his pass catchers. This one puzzles me quite a bit, as it should not be happening considering how well the two skilled positions know each other. However, it’s been an issue, and it must be ironed out quickly.
Rivers has not been on the same page as his wide receivers, and it’s mainly been their fault. The receivers have not done a good job of getting their eyes on the ball right out of their breaks, which has led to costly drops. The epitome of this was last week’s interception by Darelle Revis after a dropped pass by Jackson. The pass was well placed by Rivers, but it was bungled, leading to a pick. Another example of this came against the Broncos earlier this season when wide receiver Patrick Crayton dropped a pass, which resulted in an interception that was returned for a touchdown.

The issues in timing have also been noticeable on the deep ball. Against the Chiefs in Week 3, Rivers threw an interception on a deep pass that went right into the hands of Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers. One could argue that the pass itself was the biggest issue because it was over-thrown, but in my opinion, wide receiver Malcom Floyd jumped too early for the ball, coming up short in the process.

But what do these issues really mean? Are the Chargers going to fall apart rather than gain momentum, as they usually do this time of year? I don’t believe so.
Rivers is a veteran who should get this fixed. However, this weekend they go head-to-head with their rivals, the Chiefs, once again, and the Chargers must play better to win. The Chiefs are gaining momentum after an 0-3 start to the season, winning three straight to re-join the AFC West race. Last week, the Chiefs’ secondary made the most of their chances against the Raiders, intercepting six passes to spoil the unexpected debut of Raiders acquisition Carson Palmer.
Can the aggressive, ball-hawking Chiefs secondary take advantage of Rivers once again? If they do, the outcome may be different than the one in Week 3, when the Chargers squeaked out a 20-17 win.