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Rivers' historic season obscured by Chargers' stormy start

by | Senior Writer

I don't care where blame is placed for San Diego's underwhelming start -- special teams, the running game, turnovers, injuries, coaching, holdouts, management, whatever -- but don't include quarterback Philip Rivers. The guy's game has been elevated to such a high level that he's on course to break virtually every single-season club passing record.

Yards, completions, attempts, you name it. Rivers is threatening to put his name to it.

In fact, he's already gotten started. With another 305 yards Sunday, Rivers passed Dan Fouts for the Chargers and league passing record through the first eight games. Fouts had 2,580 yards in 1982; Rivers has 2,649.

But he also has 21 straight games with a touchdown pass. That breaks Fouts' team record of 20. He threw for 455 yards against Seattle earlier this season, breaking Fouts' single-game record of 444. And he just produced his fifth 300-yard game of the year. He had five all of last season.

I guess what I'm saying is that when you look at everything that's wrong with San Diego you start by omitting what is right. And that's Philip Rivers. He's not only having another strong season; he's having a season worthy of league MVP consideration, and if the Chargers weren't 3-5 he'd be among the frontrunners.

But MVPs generally don't play for losing teams, and that's unfortunate because the Chargers rely more on Rivers than most teams rely on individuals.

Look at San Diego's total yardage. Rivers is responsible for 73.8 percent of it. Look at their touchdowns. Rivers is responsible for 60 percent of that, too. The Chargers throw 60.3 percent of the time, and part of that is because they trailed by 12 or more points in six of their eight games. But most of it is because their most reliable playmaker is their quarterback.

I was at the Oct. 24 loss to New England when San Diego fell behind by 17 in the fourth quarter, mostly because the Chargers couldn't hold on to the football. There was only one thing that could rescue the Bolts, and it was their passing game. So they turned to Rivers in the fourth quarter, and he responded by throwing for 143 yards and a touchdown, running twice for 8 yards and putting the Chargers in position to tie the score with a last-minute field goal.

Moreover, he was responsible for all of the team's fourth-quarter yardage except for one play.

So the Chargers lost. Don't blame Rivers. He carried the club to the finish line, only to watch a tying field goal ricochet off the right upright.

He threw for 336 yards that afternoon, and look how he got there: Without his top two wide receivers, Legedu Naanee and Malcom Floyd, and with tight end Antonio Gates hurt so badly he didn't have a catch until midway through the fourth quarter. Nothing changed a week later, except that the Chargers added veteran Buster Davis to the discard pile because of a rib injury.

That meant the wide receivers Rivers had as targets had a combined 21 catches with the club. No sweat, Rivers pushed on, playing so well in the second half that the Bolts converted five of eight third downs against a Tennessee Titans' defense that a week earlier suffocated Philadelphia.

Anyone who follows Rivers should not be surprised. He's one of the game's elite quarterbacks, and if you don't believe me you haven't paid attention the past couple of years. Rivers not only led the league in passer rating in 2008, he had the best combined passer rating the past two seasons (104.97) and more touchdown passes (62) the past two seasons than everyone except Drew Brees.

But that's not all. Since taking over for Brees he's four-for-four in division titles and 49-23 as a starter. He led the team to a 14-2 season in his first season as the club's quarterback. He rallied it from a 4-8 hole two years later to win the division championship. Then, he won his final 11 regular-season starts a year ago.

Now he's knocking down individual records because, well, because he must if the Chargers are going to climb to the top of the AFC West again. The Bolts were supposed to balance their attack around rookie running back Ryan Mathews, but Mathews has been hobbled by a high-ankle sprain, and the running game has fizzled.

So Rivers has been asked to step front and center again to put the Chargers back on the map, and Sunday's game was a start.

There were the usual signals of another loss waiting to happen -- special-teams gaffes, blown coverages and another 12-point deficit -- but Rivers wouldn't allow it. With the Chargers clinging to a two-point lead midway in the fourth quarter he led the team on an eight-play drive where he hit all four of his passes, including a clinching 13-yard TD to Darren Sproles.

Philip Rivers is special. In fact, he's so special that when I talked this summer to the team's general manager, A.J. Smith, I asked why his quarterback didn't gain more nationwide attention.

"I think it's championships or being in the championship game," he said. "I think that is what everybody is measured on, including organizations."

OK, so Rivers hasn't won a Super Bowl. He hasn't even been to one, and he played in one conference championship game. But so what? Peyton Manning didn't win a playoff game until his sixth pro season and didn't make it to a Super Bowl until his ninth. This is Rivers' fifth year as a starter and already he has three playoff wins, including two over Manning's Colts.

Philip Rivers is an outstanding quarterback, and he is in the middle of another superb season. Unfortunately, the San Diego Chargers are not. But don't confuse the two. There is plenty wrong with the Chargers. There is little wrong with their quarterback. Philip Rivers is one of the best in the business, and he just reminded us why.


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