Rivers tried to get Austin Ekeler 1K 'every which way'

As changes aplenty are in store for the Chargers, the most noticeable will likely be the departure of longtime franchise face Philip Rivers.

Rivers' final outing for the Chargers before leaving Los Angeles will stand as a defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champions -- the rival Chiefs. It will also stand as a telling tale of the gunslinger's commitment to his teammates even in the face of a lost season.

"It was like the last two drives, I was like, 'Philip.' He was like, 'I know,'" Bolts back Austin Ekeler smiled in recollection on Tuesday afternoon. "I didn't even have to say anything, I just said his name, and he was like, 'I know.'"

What Rivers knew was Ekeler was agonizingly close to a milestone.

Catching and running, juking and shifting, Ekeler had his finest NFL season yet and joined the conversation as one of the NFL's most formidable running backs.

Nonetheless, a quick glance at his 2019 statistical tally offers up a number that's equal parts impressive and excruciating: 993 yards receiving. Or phrased differently, just seven yards shy of 1,000.

In the season finale, Ekeler did all he could to hit the milestone mark -- and so did Rivers.

Alas, the Chiefs did everything they could to prevent Ekeler from hitting quadruple digits.

"Oh man, oh man, don't talk about that. C'mon," Ekeler said of coming up short and oh so close of 1,000 yards receiving. "We were playing the Chiefs the last game and Philip is just trying to get me the ball every which way. They ended up taking out one of their D-linemen and bringing in another linebacker just to double-team me. They literally double-teamed me from the backfield. They would not let me get my seven yards."

Entering Week 17, Ekeler needed 50 yards receiving to become just the fifth running back in the Super Bowl era -- along with Lionel James, Roger Craig, Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey -- to hit 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Previously, he had hit 50 or more receiving yards 10 times on the season and for five consecutive contests. Rivers threw it Ekeler's way 11 times.

"At that point, shoot we already know we're not going to the playoffs," Ekeler said, "so, c'mon, give me seven yards."

The 11 targets were a game-high even among notables such as receiver and teammate Keenan Allen and Chiefs counterparts Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Still, it wasn't enough as he finished the game with nine grabs for 43 yards -- seven shy of the hallmark number.

"It came down to seven yards, but it is what it is," Ekeler said. "Still nothing to be ashamed of."

Nothing to be ashamed of indeed, as Ekeler's final tally of 1,550 yards from scrimmage was ninth in the NFL. Still, in a season full of individual statistical success, Ekeler's exploits didn't lead to team success overall as the Chargers finished a season of struggle at 5-11. It's an arduous task balancing individual accomplishment with team disappointment.

"It's an emotional roller coaster. That's sports for you," he said. "Coming off a year where we just went 12-4 and made it to the second round of the playoffs, so we're coming in like, 'Let's go.'"

But the Chargers didn't go back to the playoffs or anywhere within the vicinity of meeting expectations for the season.

Injuries and inconsistency marked a campaign of close losses and maintained disappointment.

"We're so close, but you can only be so close for so long before you're either out or make a difference and get over the hump," Ekeler said. "We didn't end up getting over the hump."

Perhaps it was fitting for Ekeler to come up just seven yards shy of 1,000 during such a tumultuous season.

Nevertheless, Rivers did everything he could to get Ekeler there.

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