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Philip Rivers has Chargers OC Ken Whisenhunt thinking big

Ken Whisenhunt never had any doubt. This truth has existed in the NFL for years.

"It always starts with the quarterback," the San Diego Chargers' new offensive coordinator said this week -- and he would know. After all, the 2012 season cruelly proved his point.

Last year, his Arizona Cardinals never found an answer at the position, ultimately resulting in Whisenhunt's dismissal from the head-coaching post. And at the same time in San Diego, a season of inconsistency and struggles for Philip Rivers led to the same fate for the quarterback's longtime head coach, Norv Turner.

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Yes, it all starts under center.

Which is where the Chargers, with their new vision, find their mission. See, they have a quarterback, one who has earned four Pro Bowl nods, one who led the NFL in passing yards in one season and threw more touchdown passes than anyone else in the league in another, one who has been a star.

One who is trying to be himself again.

As Rivers fights to make his way to the top of the league once more, Whisenhunt, new Chargers head coach/offensive guru Mike McCoy and the rest of the staff are doing what they can to help engineer his comeback.

All coaching candidates for the Chargers knew the goal: Fix Rivers, fix the direction of the franchise. Find out why Rivers' performance has dipped -- after notching a career-high 20 interceptions in 2011, he gave up 15 in 2012 -- and reverse course for an offense that ranked 31st in the NFL in 2012.

Now, more than four months into his new job, and with the disappointment of the Cardinals' season behind him, Whisenhunt has found nothing but happiness in working to do exactly that.

"I've loved it," Whisenhunt told me from his office. "One of the most exciting things for me after a tough year in this offseason is working with Philip. His knowledge of the game is incredible. He has a very good football mind, and he loves football. He's very passionate about it. It's great to have input from him on what he likes, what he's seeing, what he's thinking. And in putting that together, it's been a great part of the process."

Thanks to a merry-go-round of woeful quarterbacks that included John Skelton and Kevin Kolb, the Cardinals had the worst combined passer rating of any team in the league in 2012. That led to Whisenhunt's ouster, to the hiring of Bruce Arians as his replacement, and to Arizona's trade for veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. It also might have led to bigger and better things for the Chargers.

McCoy, who once guided a Tim Tebow-driven offense to the playoffs with the Denver Broncos, was hired by San Diego in part because of his propensity for making offenses work, regardless of the circumstances. He hired Whisenhunt to call plays and lend a hand.

Rivers appears to be soaking it in. Whisenhunt described the excitable, passionate quarterback as a player who "just loves ball. You talk about the 'it' factor; he has it."

Which is why Whisenhunt already believes he knows which way Rivers will go under new management.

"I think he can be a Pro Bowl quarterback," Whisenhunt said. "I think he can play at that level again. That's certainly something I see from him, and hopefully we'll be able to achieve that this year.

"Let me say this, from the standpoint of having been in this league for a long time and having seen good quarterbacks: This guy is up there, as far as his ability to process things, his ability to make all the throws that he needs to make and his ability to be a leader and rally these guys around him."

Whisenhunt has seen some good ones -- Kurt Warner on the Cardinals' Super Bowl team, Ben Roethlisberger when he was the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. And he feels like the next quarterback he sees will be the Rivers of old.

To get Rivers there, McCoy and Whisenhunt have worked on constructing an offense for him. It will blend the styles of the coaches in the building, using elements from the Chargers, Broncos, Cardinals and (via concepts introduced to McCoy by Peyton Manning in Denver) the Indianapolis Colts. The new terminology will incorporate some of the old terminology; it will be a thorough compilation.

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Thus far, all reviews have been positive. McCoy has spoken of Rivers achieving a higher completion percentage by increasing the number of shorter and safer throws he attempts. He has also talked glowingly about Rivers' ability to pick up the new terminology.

"When he tells us to slow down," McCoy told *U-T San Diego* in mid-May, "we'll slow down."

No need yet. The hope is that the rest of the offensive personnel can catch up. Because as important as Rivers is -- like Tom Brady with the New England Patriots and Manning with the Broncos -- the supporting cast must be right.

Last year, thanks to several key injuries, the structure around Rivers fell apart. He lost his confidence as defenders began using him for tackling practice, and it all went haywire. Yet, for all of Rivers' mistakes, Whisenhunt is quick to note that the quarterback wasn't playing in a vacuum. Accordingly, the team spent a first-round pick this year on an offensive tackle, the mountainous D.J. Fluker from Alabama.

"I think it's unfair to really say the QB was at fault," Whisenhunt said. "I know he had some interceptions, but he didn't get a lot of protection, he didn't get a lot of help and that was difficult. So, I'm excited, just on my time with him, in talking with him and meeting with and being on the field with him. He's a good quarterback, and I expect him to have a good year."

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The goal is to be a multi-faceted offense, to be able to run out of four-wide and two-tight end sets. To have the element of surprise. To be efficient and move the chains rather than rely on the deep ball, as Turner had in the past. To find the backs out of the backfield when all else fails. To think on the fly.

"To me, Philip is a guy that can handle all those different facets," Whisenhunt said. "If it's checks, if it's getting us into the right plays, if it's executing the actual plays called, from a number of different platforms, he does a great job with that. That's what I've been most impressed about. So for him to be successful, he obviously has to operate the offense."

In Whisenhunt's mind, Rivers can make all the throws. He compared the quarterback's accuracy to that of Warner in his prime -- which is quite a compliment. In acknowledging Rivers' funky delivery, he called it "athletic."

"Philip has no ego," Whisenhunt concluded. "He's very competitive, he wants to win. He's all about the team and doing what it takes."

Safe to say, a couple of fortunes are looking up in San Diego.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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