Philip Rivers turns back time with MVP start to season
By PATRICK LEARY
College Contributor Network
Have a look at some gaudy numbers: 69 percent completion rate, 1,756 yards passing, 15 touchdown passes, just two interceptions and a league-leading 117.6 passer rating.
Surely, those MVP caliber statistics through six weeks have to belong to one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, right? Or maybe they belong to up-and-coming superstar Andrew Luck, who has been throwing the ball all over the field in 2014.
The name Philip Rivers doesn't immediately come to mind in a discussion of the very upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks, but based on the stats above, he really should. Not only that, but you can easily make the case that Rivers is the best quarterback in the league right now and the frontrunner for the MVP.
How did we get here?
For the first seven years of his career, Rivers operated in the shadow of Brees and Eli Manning. He backed up Brees for two years before San Diego let Brees walk to New Orleans in free agency. While Rivers improved steadily and the team went 14-2 in his first year as a starter, he failed to lead them to any playoff success. Meanwhile, during another boringly good 2009 campaign for Rivers (65.2 percent completion rate, 4,254 yards, 28 touchdowns to nine picks, 104.4 rating), Brees had a stellar campaign and led the Saints to their first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Manning was traded for Rivers and three picks on draft day in 2004. Inevitably, the head-to-head comparisons of the two have raged on in the successive years since that blockbuster deal. For years, Manning had the advantage by virtue of winning a Super Bowl against the best regular season team of all-time, the 2007 New England Patriots. Entering 2011, Rivers had amassed three consecutive seasons with a passer rating over 100, and with Manning only breaking 90 once, the Chargers star appeared to finally be closing the gap.
But the 2011 season cast more shade on Rivers' case. He threw a career-high 20 interceptions and had his second-worst season as a starter by passer rating. On the other hand, Manning had a career year, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards and winning his second Super Bowl. The next season didn't help Rivers either, as he posted a nearly identical passer rating and threw for under 4,000 yards for the first time since 2007. At that point, many had given up on Rivers as an elite quarterback, let alone one that could lead a team deep in the playoffs.
Then, 2013 happened. Rivers matched a career-high in passer rating (105.5) that he set in 2008. He threw 30 touchdown passes for the first time since 2010. His 11 interceptions marked his lowest total in four seasons. And he did it on a 9-7 team that needed him to carry them every step of the way to make the playoffs and reach the divisional round.
This season has been all that and more for Rivers and the Bolts thus far. San Diego is 5-1, with its only loss coming against Arizona on the road by one point. They dominated the defending champion Seahawks in Week 2 and have blowout wins over the Jets and Jaguars. Rivers is on pace to throw for more than 4,600 yards, something he's only done twice in his career and not since 2011. He's also on an absurd pace to throw 40 touchdowns and just five picks, both of which would be career-bests.
Perhaps Rivers' most underrated quality is his health. He has never missed a game as a starting quarterback. That kind of consistency, coupled with his resurgent accuracy and success, make him the unquestioned leader of the Chargers. His leadership plays a big role, especially since much of the personnel around him is average at best.
San Diego's starting center, Nick Hardwick, who played every game in front of Rivers since he took over in 2006, suffered a potentially career-ending neck injury early on, leaving the offensive line without its anchor. Branden Oliver, a rookie who began the year behind Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown on the depth chart, starts at running back next to Rivers. He's throwing to guys like Eddie Royal, Malcolm Floyd and a significantly aged Antonio Gates. San Diego does have a top ten defense, but much of that has to do with the lackluster offenses they have faced.
On Sunday, the Raiders hung 28 points on the Chargers' defense, and Rivers got the ball back with 10 minutes to go down by a score. Two drives later, the Chargers had racked up 10 points to win the game and Rivers capped off a 313-yard, three touchdown day where he amassed a quarterback rating of 123.8.
At 32, Philip Rivers is no longer an afterthought. The NFL MVP conversation cannot start without him, and when you consider where he was just over a season ago, that's pretty incredible.
Patrick Leary is a senior at Marquette University. He thinks Felix Hernandez is the best pitcher on God's green earth. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickkleary