Flash back to January of 2008, when Philip Rivers and the Chargers, winners of eight in a row and 12 of their last 14 games (including playoffs), were preparing to face the undefeated Patriots in the AFC championship game in Norv Turner’s first season as head coach. Rivers was 26 years old and owned a 25-7 record in two years as San Diego’s starter, LaDainian Tomlinson was a year removed from an MVP season and Shawne Merriman had racked up 39½ sacks in the first 42 games of his career.
As we all know, the Chargers couldn’t beat the Patriots, falling 21-12 thanks to red-zone woes. The team that would ultimately slay Bill Belichick’s juggernaut however, was led by Eli Manning, whose Draft Day trade from San Diego was ironically responsible for bringing Rivers and Merriman (in addition to PK Nate Kaeding) to the Chargers in the first place.
While the Giants’ Super Bowl victory left Rivers as the lone QB of the 2004 draft’s hyped trio (Manning, Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger) without a championship ring, many assumed Rivers and the Chargers would have their day in the sun sooner than later.
And yet, the Bolts haven’t even sniffed a Super Bowl appearance since, sandwiching three years of mediocrity around a 13-3 campaign that ended with an one-and-done playoff exit to the 9-7 Jets led by rookie QB Mark Sanchez in 2009. Suddenly, Tomlinson and Merriman are long gone, Rivers is 30 years old and mired in the worst stretch of his career, and the team is in a two-year playoff drought.
Despite beating the hapless Chiefs 31-13 Thursday night, fans seem to have given up on their team and their quarterback in San Diego, even as the 4-4 Chargers sit just half a game out of the AFC West lead. After a near-perfect first half in which Rivers completed his first 13 passes, it took only one bad decision to bring the ire of the home crowd down on him.
"That was about as good as I can play in a half and that's the loudest I have ever been booed," Rivers said of the jeers raining down after an interception in the endzone ended a Chargers drive in the half’s final minute and sent San Diego to the locker room up only 10-3.
Just a year and a half ago, he was perhaps the league’s best quarterback without a Super Bowl ring, owner of three consecutive seasons with a passer rating over 100, including a league-best 105.5 mark in 2008 when he threw for 4,009 yards with 34 TDs and only 11 interceptions. His career passer rating even flirted with the best in NFL history for a time (he sat fifth in this category entering 2012). So how did it happen that Rivers and his team fell so far from grace?
A decline in weapons might have factored in the two worst seasons of his career — he has an alarming 30 interceptions in his last 24 games — but that can’t tell the whole story. With Vincent Jackson sitting out all but five games in 2010, Rivers threw for a career-high 4,710 yards and had 30 TDs with 13 picks, and though Antonio Gates is aging, the Pro Bowl tight end gained 60 receiving yards per game and caught seven TDs last season.
Whatever the reason, Rivers never took one of several talented Chargers squads to the Super Bowl, and it’s hard not to blame him for either a lack of urgency then or his declining performance now, a feeling Chargers fans displayed for all to see last night.
In what feels like a blink of an eye, his prime appears to be long gone and the title-game loss to the Patriots in the 2007 season remains the peak of his career. Manning and Roethlisberger have now each claimed two Lombardi Trophies, leaving Rivers as the forgotten third fiddle from ’04.
Norv Turner and A.J. Smith very well might lose their jobs because of the Chargers’ woes, but in a league where teams have become increasingly dependent on their quarterbacks, Rivers has proven that he's not getting it done either.