We're in a golden age of quarterback play. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are likely Hall of Famers. Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning each have a pair of Super Bowl rings in their back pockets, and could reach the Hall with a few more productive seasons. Andrew Luck is the Chosen One, on the fast track to elite status. And there are seemingly countless other talents to watch, from rising youngsters like Russell Wilson and Cam Newton to skilled veterans like Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler. The best quarterbacks of 2014 are more accurate and efficient than ever before.
This will likely come as a surprise to some of you. Rivers has never been to a Super Bowl, and his team has been up and down over the years. As recently as 2012, many in San Diego were ready to run Rivers out of town, claiming he was over the hill and that he would cost coach Norv Turner his job. Rivers responded that season by completing 64.1 percent of his passes and tossing 26 touchdowns against 15 picks -- career numbers for some. The following season, under new coach Mike McCoy, Rivers led the NFL in completion percentage (69.5) while passing for 4,478 yards and 32 scores against just 11 picks en route to being named the Comeback Player of the Year. And this year, with his 4-1 Chargers sitting atop the AFC West, he's been better than ever -- arguably the best quarterback in the NFL.
Consider his ability to thrive without much in the way of ground support. Through five games, Rivers is on pace to rack up 4,600 passing yards and notch career bests as a starter in completion rate (70 percent), touchdowns (38) and picks (six), despite San Diego's complete lack of a running game. The Chargers -- whose running back corps has been decimated by injuries to Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown, leaving little-known backup Branden Oliver to step up -- rank 27th in rushing offense. They're averaging less than 90 yards per contest -- and the Bolts have still outscored their opponents this season by a whopping 70 points, easily the biggest margin in the NFL.
Though Rivers seems to be making better decisions over the past couple of years, he's essentially the same player he's been throughout his career. He's got a funky throwing motion, but age certainly hasn't taken much off the 32-year-old's fastball. He's a good athlete, but not particularly mobile. Like the best quarterbacks, he's deceptively elusive in the pocket and is legitimately tough. If any part of his game has significantly matured, it's his ability to pick apart defenses -- another area in which he's currently shining.
When the Chargers' opponents load up on one of Rivers' weapons, he finds others. In San Diego's Week 2 win against the Seattle Seahawks, Antonio Gates had seven receptions for 96 yards and three touchdowns. So the following week, Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had his defense focus on Gates, limiting the veteran tight end to one catch. And Rivers countered by finding Brown and backup tight end Ladarius Green for a combined nine receptions and 91 yards. The following week against Jacksonville, second-year pro Keenan Allen -- who had been shut out for most of the first three games -- had 10 receptions for 135 yards.
Last week against the Jets, Rivers spread the ball around to everyone, leaving Rex Ryan's defense feeling like it was playing a game of Whack-A-Mole at the arcade. Gates was back on point, with four receptions for 60 yards and two touchdowns. Malcom Floyd caught three balls for 72 yards, while Allen and Eddie Royal also had three receptions each. When they weren't open, Rivers found Oliver for four receptions, 68 yards and a touchdown.
In my time in the NFL, two players stand out as the ones I was the most wrong about. One is Brett Favre. When Favre came out of Southern Mississippi as a second-round pick in the 1991 NFL Draft, I didn't think he was long for the league. I assumed the torque he put on his shoulder with his throwing motion would lead to injury and a short career. Of course, an NFL-record 298 regular-season starts later, Favre had proven his durability.
The other is Rivers. Yes, in his senior year at North Carolina State, Rivers took the program to great heights, throwing for 4,491 yards and 34 touchdowns to cap his collegiate career as one of the most productive and durable quarterbacks in ACC history. But the 2004 first-round pick's unorthodox throwing action and hurried style of delivery seemed like they would prohibit him from realizing the level of efficiency needed to succeed as a pro.
Like Favre, however, Rivers went on to demonstrate his consistency and durability. He's started every game for the Chargers since 2006, and through 11 NFL seasons, he's completed 64.6 percent of his passes and thrown more than twice as many touchdown passes as he has interceptions (233 to 106). Simply put, he has endured. And this season, he's entered the early conversation about the MVP award.
Manning and Brady aren't done yet, and Luck is rapidly climbing -- but this might be Philip Rivers' time.