Philip Rivers is the last gunslinger
Millions of Americans are preparing to watch this year's NFL Draft beginning on Thursday, including many tuning in for the first and likely the only time. For the third year in a row, the first overall pick will almost certainly be a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Joe Burrow of LSU. Last year in the course of winning a national championship Burrow had, statistically speaking, perhaps the greatest single season in the history of college football.
Does this mean that he is going to be a great professional quarterback? Not necessarily. If anything, recent evidence has suggested that quarterbacks who spend their college careers surrounded by the level of talent you find in playoff-caliber teams are at something of a disadvantage when they arrive in the NFL, where even the worst players are better than 95 percent of the competition they faced while in school. (This is why I was not remotely surprised when Washington State's Gardner Minshew, who won 11 games on a terrible college roster and was picked up by Jacksonville in the fifth round of the draft, had a better 2019 season than his fellow rookie and top overall pick Kyler Murray.)
There are two stories we tell ourselves about quarterbacks. One is that with each passing year, as old records are shattered only to be broken again and what once seemed extraordinary — a 4,000-yard passing season — becomes pedestrian, they are simply getting better. Somehow nature is just making them better than she used to. Another somewhat more plausible account suggests that the upward trends in passing yardage and touchdowns have more to do with rule changes that favor offenses (and quarterbacks in particular) than with the actual level of talent on the field.
Which of these is more likely? I think there is some truth in both. It really is the case that, questions about yardage and points aside, the standard of quarterback play is higher than it was even a decade ago and that this is simultaneously because defenses give quarterbacks and their receivers an easier time and because we have gotten better at training the former. Partly in response to rule changes that have favored more passing-oriented offenses, teams have adjusted how they play on that side of the ball. Quarterbacks who are asked to throw the ball 35 or 40 times a game will prepare differently than quarterbacks who throw mostly on third down and in other obvious passing situations. Sooner or later there is a kind of scaffolding effect that allows new generations of players to build upon the success of earlier ones being asked to accomplish similar tasks. This is just how human beings acquire and transmit skills.
I would never dream of saying that it is a bad thing when quarterbacks are good. But I do think it is somewhat regrettable that we have largely changed our minds about what it means to succeed at the position. Instead of lovable doofuses like Brett Favre or Terry Bradshaw we want game managers, guys like Drew Brees who are very accurate despite or perhaps even because of their limited strength, decision makers who are, above all, risk averse. Quarterbacks like this can win a lot of games (and Super Bowls). They could probably also do your taxes.
This is why I love Philip Rivers. He is not a cautious game manager. He could almost certainly not do your taxes. (He might argue with you about them though, without using any swear words.) His success in the league has not come in spite of limited arm strength, but precisely because for the better part of his 16-year career he appears to have had some kind of G.I. Joe bazooka appendage designed by the Air Force for launching what are technically football-shaped missiles down the field. A military origin for Rivers's right arm would, at any rate, explain his increasing propensity to launch these rockets at his on-field enemies rather than in the direction of his own receivers.
I cannot count the number of times last year that I watched a listless Aaron Rodgers, the ultimate bored accountant QB, mechanically check down to his running back for a two-yard gain before walking off the field for another punt. These throws kept Rogers' interception total down, but what else did they accomplish?
Rivers never does s***, I mean, shoot like this. He hates punting, which is why if his team has to punt it he prefers to handle it himself, on third down by tossing it deep in the direction of a guy who is double or even triple covered. So he threw 20 picks last year? Big deal. He also had one of the worst offensive lines in football. He didn't care about his total yards (even though he finished fourth in the league) or his yards per attempt or about his completion percentage (slightly higher than Patrick Mahomes') or his passer rating, even though these are all categories in which he has led the NFL in previous seasons.
He also definitely didn't care how many interceptions he threw (the third most, behind the unfairly maligned Jameis Winston and the unbelievably hyped Baker Mayfield, whose commercials were more memorable than his onfield performance). Rivers doesn't care about any numbers except the score at the end of the game, which is why he is the only person you can imagine throwing one, two, three, yes, even four picks in a totally meaningless season finale against the Kansas City Chiefs. Rivers plays every down like his team is down by two scores in the fourth quarter. Last year this was often literally the case.
I'm not saying Rivers doesn't make dumb plays. He makes tons of them. But what would you rather watch? A guy who calmly accepts the reality that given all the relevant probabilities on his iPad there is a vanishingly small chance that he can win this afternoon and massages his stats instead? Or a guy who does everything he can to try to pull off an upset in a late-season game against a vastly more talented opponent? I'll take the guy who just lets the ball rip because why the heck not?
Rivers is the greatest quarterback in my lifetime never to have played in a Super Bowl. He is also, with the possible exception of Frank Gore, the single most lovable player in the league, despite being hated by exactly the kind of Deadspin brocialists you would expect not to have anything good to say about a devout Catholic father of nine (and counting, naturally) and Rick Santorum supporter. Now that he has been traded to the Indianapolis Colts he will have a better offensive line and a coach who understands his strengths and weaknesses. He will also have one thing that is probably even more important to him: a chance to show his former team and the rest of the league that he is capable of finally winning a ring at the end of what is already a Hall of Fame career.
Does this mean Rivers is actually going to win a Super Bowl? No. But it would take a heart of stone not to root for him this or any year.