Resurrecting the career of a soon-to-be 32-year-old is going to be difficult, but that’s the job that Mike McCoy has been tasked with. The freshly hired San Diego Chargers head coach’s latest project will be working with Philip Rivers, a fallen star in desperate need of coaching.
Rivers has spent the majority of his career producing big numbers in one system, Air Coryell. But now he’s going to learning a different one late into his career. This could be problematic because quarterbacks can go back to their tendencies from previous systems, consequently straying away from what’s being asked of them in the new one (e.g. Drew Bledsoe). But right now, Rivers has even bigger concerns.
Over the course of the last two years, Rivers’ play has fallen off dramatically. His deep ball is not what it once was, although that’s not because of the arm strength that everyone seems to be pointing the finger at. His arm strength is fine. What’s hurt him is his questionable decision making, eroding fundamentals, and appalling offensive line.
Decision making is an underrated part of quarterbacking. While arm strength, accuracy, and others will get all of the attention, they’re not the only important aspects of the job; decision making is very important because if the passer doesn’t know where to go with the ball, the scheme and football game are in jeopardy. Rivers has struggled with this aspect, as indicated by his unusually high interception total the last couple of years.
Fundamentally, Rivers’ footwork has declined significantly. He hasn’t been throwing off of his back foot. He hasn’t been stepping through his throws, rotating his lower half, and driving the ball through the warm San Diego air like he once did. That, along with an offensive line that’s struggled to give him a clean pocket, has led to his trademark deep throws coming up short.
All of this can be fixed by Rivers and McCoy, however. They’ve already started that process by installing a new offense predicated on getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly and efficiently, as McCoy implied in an interview with NFL Network.
“We got to get him going back to the basics. Take what the defense gives you. Don’t be afraid to check it down. You don’t have to make that big play every play.”
This season, Rivers will have shorter dropbacks that result in him throwing shorter passes that horizontally stretch the field. This is a stark difference to the vertical bombs he threw in Norv Turner’s Air Coryell offense, which also had longer dropbacks.
The change in offense should lead to more effective play by Rivers, provided he makes the simple throws that McCoy is emphasizing. Those simple throws will likely be heavily targeted toward the running backs and tight ends, namely third-down specialist Danny Woodhead, and tight ends Antonio Gates and John Phillips. This showed up in the first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, when Rivers completed five of six passes, including a 20-yard strike to a crossing Gates.
It was 1st-and-10 nearly three minutes into the first quarter and the Chargers were at their own 41-yard line. Rivers was in a shotgun set with an empty backfield, and Gates was flexed out to his right. As part of a three-level crossing concept that stretches the width of the field and is designed to run away from man coverage, Gates was set to run a deep crossing route that saw him run underneath the near linebacker and over the top of a crashing safety.
When Rivers reached the top of his drop, he had operating room. This was a welcomed change for him, but it wouldn’t last long. The pocket started to crumble from the outside, as both tackles gave up outside pressure, which forced Rivers to climb the pocket and look for open receivers.
As usual, he looked to Gates, and as usual, Gates was open. When Rivers went to throw him the ball, he did it with better footwork than he had been throwing with the last couple of years. He squared his hips, pointed them at Gates, and threw a perfect pass for 20 yards.
He’ll have to make more plays like this to give the Chargers a chance to move the ball down the field. He can’t completely count on his revamped offensive line, which returns only two starters, and pass targets, which have started to dwindle because of injuries to Malcolm Floyd and Danario Alexander.
But a new offense that relies on getting the ball out of his hands quickly and to his running backs and tight ends could be exactly what Rivers needs to put himself back into the conversation of upper-echelon quarterbacks.