Rivers has spent his whole football life as an underrated, and oft-ignored, star. But he’s always gotten respect from those around him.
Philip Rivers covered his head with his parka when he watched the Denver Broncos convert a third down in the final minutes of a Divisional Round game in January 2014. A couple minutes later, he put on his helmet and watched the Broncos kneel the final seconds off the clock. Rivers jogged on to the field in Denver — helmet still on — to shake Peyton Manning’s hand.
It was the last time the San Diego Chargers appeared in the playoffs.
Rivers was excellent that day. He completed 18 of his 27 passes for 217 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions against the Broncos’ defense. But his 115.8 passer rating wasn’t enough in the 24-17 loss — even if it was better than Manning’s 93.5 rating.
Now 15 years into his NFL career, Rivers is eighth all-time in passing yards with 54,656, and sixth in touchdowns with 374. His streak 208 consecutive starts is the longest active run in the NFL and 11th-longest ever.
But every player above him on the passing leaderboards has played in a Super Bowl. Even Dan Marino — famous for a brilliant career, but no championship rings — made it to Super Bowl XIX. Rivers, though, has only made it as far as the AFC Championship.
That was back in January 2008, a 21-12 loss to the then-undefeated New England Patriots. The game is best remembered for Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson sitting on the bench due to a knee injury. He watched with his helmet on through a dark visor while Rivers struggled against the Patriots with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Now, at age 37, Rivers is getting another crack at the one thing that has eluded him during his NFL career: postseason success. If he finally finds it, maybe he’ll get the long-deserved recognition that has also proved evasive.
Even before his NFL career, Rivers was outside the spotlight
Rivers began his career as the consolation prize for the Chargers after Eli Manning demanded a trade during the 2004 NFL Draft. The New York Giants sent first-, third-, and fifth-round picks to the Chargers along with Rivers to get Manning.
It was a fitting precursor of the career to come for Rivers. He’s been mostly outshined and overlooked due to peers like five-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady, all-time passing touchdowns leader Peyton Manning, and all-time passing yards leader Drew Brees.
Eli Manning, who has 14 fewer touchdowns than Rivers but 61 more interceptions, is heralded for two Super Bowl victories over the Patriots. Ben Roethlisberger was selected 11th overall in 2004 — seven picks after Rivers — and also has two Super Bowl victories.
Even when Rivers had arguably the best season of his career in 2018, a young superstar in his division stole the spotlight with 50 touchdown passes. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes is likely the NFL’s MVP, but he and Rivers split their pair of regular meetings.
The most recent was a 29-28 win for the Chargers on the road in Kansas City. The Chiefs had a chance to clinch the AFC West with a win, but Rivers orchestrated back-to-back touchdown drives in the fourth quarter — capped by a two-point conversion with four seconds left to seal the deal.
“It shows you the type of quarterback he is,” former North Carolina State coach Chuck Amato told SB Nation of Rivers’ game against the Chiefs. “Who was the quarterback for the other team? That’s who everybody wants to be MVP, right? So he lost the game. How did Philip win the game? He had to score two touchdowns and a two-point play in the last less than four minutes of the game. Did he do it? Why couldn’t his competitor do it?”
Amato became the head coach at NC State in January 2000 — the same month that Rivers arrived on campus as a two-star recruit. Both Rivers’ agent Jimmy Sexton and Amato say the only SEC school that recruited the Alabama native was Auburn, but that then-head coach Tommy Tuberville wanted him to play tight end. Rivers’ father said it was the chance to play quickly that pushed his son to NC State.
No matter how Rivers wound up in Raleigh, it didn’t take him long to impress.
“There were two quarterbacks that returned — one had played and the other was a redshirt freshman — he was third-string behind these two guys,” Amato said. “The second day he was second-string. The third day he was first-string. In spring. Both these guys transferred because they saw they weren’t going to be able to beat him out.
“By the time spring was over, the offense knew he was the leader, and by the time the offseason was over, the whole team knew that he was going to lead the team. When he was a freshman. Philip is something special, he really is.”
He started in all 51 games over four seasons with the Wolfpack and finished his collegiate career as the ACC’s all-time passing leader with 13,484 yards. No player has even reached 12,000 since.
When Tramain Hall arrived in 2001, Rivers had already established himself as NC State’s star player. And when Hall first saw the field at running back and wide receiver as a redshirt sophomore in 2003, Rivers was a senior with the NFL on the horizon.
“He communicated with all of us really well, on and off the field,” Hall told SB Nation. “At times, as a quarterback, there are times when you can be like ‘it’s my way’ or whatever, and Philip was never like that.
“I ended up catching close to 70 balls and 800 yards from the guy. I don’t think I would’ve done that if I didn’t have a guy who relates to other guys on the team. That being kind of a father/leader really helped me as a young guy develop and understand the college football game. To the point where he’d say ‘Tramain, that’s not the right way to do it, I don’t want you to run the route that way.’ Those moments were a huge thing for me.”
But despite Rivers’ prolific career, NC State never finished in the top three in the ACC standings. The Wolfpack’s best season was an 11-3 year in 2002 that ended with a Gator Bowl victory and the No. 12 spot in the final AP Poll.
Rivers finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting as a senior and couldn’t convince the Chargers he was worth taking with the No. 1 pick — even if he eventually landed there.
Rivers isn’t hunting for recognition
No team landed more players in the Pro Bowl than the Chargers when the rosters were announced in December. That’s a little surprising considering they may be the least popular team in the NFL.
The Chargers play in front of only 27,000 fans in their tiny temporary home in Carson, California, and even that stadium is often packed with visiting fans. The team has played at the diminutive StubHub Center, now rechristened as Dignity Health Sports Park, since 2017 after relocating from San Diego to Los Angeles. They’ll eventually share a nearly $5 billion stadium with the Rams.
But so far the move has only cast the Chargers as the little brother team in their new market, far behind the Rams who spent nearly five decades in Southern California before moving to St. Louis.
Rivers is one of the Chargers’ seven Pro Bowlers, along with running back Melvin Gordon, who admitted that he too was a little surprised that the Chargers did so well in Pro Bowl voting. He said even playing in San Diego, it was easy for players — namely, Rivers — to be forgotten.
“I think it’s probably the market,” Gordon told SB Nation. “He spent his whole career in the San Diego market, and I think people are just now starting to realize how much he’s been overlooked. Is that because now we’re in the Los Angeles market? I don’t know.
“But I remember not too long ago I was talking to him like ‘Man, I can’t even complain about not getting recognition because it’s been like that for you forever.’ He really doesn’t care, though. He’s just like ‘I’m so blessed, I get to stay out of the spotlight and be with my family,’ so it doesn’t really bother him. He just does what he does.”
But even if Rivers hasn’t received the love from the national media throughout his career, he hasn’t been disregarded by his peers.
“It’s just the outside world that doesn’t really pay enough attention,” Gordon said. “Obviously, here, everybody has huge respect for him, because we see him every day. But I think I really started to realize how respected he is when I went to the Pro Bowl for the first time. Just being around other players and talking to them showed me how much the players around the league respect him.”
Ask NFL players to name the most overlooked players in the league and it usually doesn’t take long for Rivers to be mentioned. In December, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan was quick to bring up Rivers as a player who may deserve more prestige than Roethlisberger.
Rivers was Devin McCourty’s choice for the NFL’s most underrated when the Patriots safety was asked by MassLive a couple weeks ago:
“Since I’ve been in the league, he’s had multiple years where two of his starting receivers go on injured reserve like Week 3 or 4, and they pick up guys on Tuesday, and they go out there and play Sunday. And he gets ‘em right and they win games.
”Obviously everyone knows he’s a good player, but I don’t think he gets recognized for how good he is at what he does. I’ve always been a fan of his.”
Rivers may be playing for a chance to finally leave a lasting legacy and earn the media superlatives that have escaped him for a decade and a half in the NFL. But according to other players, he’s already earned those.
Rivers would like to play in the Chargers’ new stadium in Los Angeles — expected to open in 2020. But into his 40s? Don’t count on it.
“I laugh when I hear Drew [Brees], [Tom] Brady’s already 41, when I hear them say mid-40s, I go, ‘Y’all can have that. I have no desire to get there,’” Rivers told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer in August.
A ninth child is on the way for Rivers, who got married shortly after his freshman year of college. Family time is a top priority for Rivers.
“He always wants to be with us,” his 10-year-old son Gunner told Chargers.com last month. “Whenever he’s home, he plays with us and he’s with us all the time. Wherever we go out — we go all kinds of places — random people just come up and ask for his autograph and for pictures. It’s cool. But he’s always there for us. But when he’s home, we like to throw the football in the yard. We like to putt on the putting green, watch football, and do things like that.”
Rivers said he’s looking forward to coaching high school football one day, but it’s anyone’s guess how far off on the horizon that is. Either way, it’s no secret that Rivers won’t be around to lead the Chargers for much longer. So is the pressure on the team to get him that Super Bowl ring now?
“I wouldn’t say pressure,” Gordon said. “We want to get it for him, but we also want to get it for us. We want to be the first Chargers team to win [a Super Bowl]. So I think it’s just excitement. Pressure’s not the right word, it’s more excitement.”
And the team has a reason to be excited. The 12-4 season was the Chargers’ first with double-digit wins since Tomlinson’s last year with the team in 2009. Los Angeles is No. 6 in points scored and No. 8 in points allowed. The Chicago Bears and New England Patriots are the only other teams that finished the regular season top-10 in both categories.
The Chargers are a team with notoriously bad luck, but they’re finally get some breaks to go their way. That could mean the Chargers are primed to find some January success, especially because they’re good at just about everything:
The scary thing for the Chargers is that they’ll likely need three road victories to get to the Super Bowl. Los Angeles’ 12-4 record was tied for the best mark in the AFC, but because they’re in the same division as the other 12-4 team — the Chiefs — the Chargers were relegated to the No. 5 seed.
The first game on the docket is a rematch with the Baltimore Ravens, who traveled to Los Angeles in Week 16 and beat the Chargers, 22-10. Now the Chargers will have to avenge that loss after a cross-country flight to Baltimore.
And if they don’t, the Chargers are still well set up for the future with young stars like Gordon, Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, and Derwin James. But windows close fast in the NFL, and a division that now has Mahomes leading the Chiefs leaves little margin for error for the Chargers. So a loss to the Ravens leaves a real possibility that the Super Bowl door slams shut for good on Rivers.
“He’s a great either way,” Gordon said. “It’ll be something they have conversations about when it comes to the Hall of Fame — for the first ballot or whatever — but he’s getting in either way.”
And he is. Rivers is a surefire Hall of Famer. But his career may forever remain in the “most underrated” category instead of the “greatest” if it isn’t punctuated with a Lombardi Trophy.