Philip Rivers Legacy
The Los Angeles/ San Diego Chargers have an illustrious history of great passing attacks launched by some of the finest arms the game has ever seen. Players such as John Hadl, Dan Fouts and Drew Brees headline a deep history with the position. Philip Rivers has led the Chargers offense since 2006 and is coming toward the end of his career.
Much has been discussed about his legacy and where he fits with the greatest Chargers quarterbacks of all time. Arguments can be made for and against him with the systems he has operated under. How he has won over the community and how he is talked about after his retirement is all a part of the legacy equation. To truly understand where Rivers stands in regards to the greatest of Chargers quarterbacks we must go back to the foundation of the franchise and go beyond the statistics in order to make a fair argument.
A common argument against great quarterbacks is the system they played in. For example, Joe Montana has been routinely called a “system quarterback” who was only great because of the West Coast Offense as well as the talent which surrounded him during the 49ers dynasty of the 1980s. However, those who make this argument have often overlooked the subtleties in his play such as his uncanny composure under intense pressure as well as his awareness of his surroundings.
The Chargers have had some of the finest offensive minds in NFL history and an argument could be made that the quarterbacks who were under their tutelage were only great because of their system. John Hadl played in a system which revolutionized the game and constantly caught unsuspecting defenses off guard. He played in Sid Gillman’s revolutionary wide-open attack which sought to stretch the field during a time when professional football was dominated by powerful running attacks. Gillman’s system introduced the route tree which gave routes specific numbers and made the Charger’s aerial assault much more fluid compared to the simplistic route combinations of the 1960s.
Dan Fouts was on his way out of the NFL when Bill Walsh arrived as the offensive coordinator in 1976. He tutored Fouts on the nuances of quarterback play and saved his career. While Walsh was only in San Diego for one season, Fouts used the knowledge he learned to propel himself to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Don Coryell arrived shortly after Walsh left and introduced his wide-open attack “Air Coryell” which had roots in the Gillman style of play. However, this system expanded on the principals of the past and unleashed a cutting edge scheme which revolved around the tight end. Kellen Winslow fit this system perfectly as he was able to use his athleticism to get open against anyone on the field. The defense was constantly befuddled about his whereabouts on the field.
Rivers has played for multiple coaches over his long career and has played at a Pro Bowl level for most of them. He began his career playing for Marty Schottenheimer whose offense was a smash-mouth style led by Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Rivers was fortunate to have Tomlinson leading the offense in his first few seasons as a starter because he was able to see how he acted as a leader.
After Schottenheimer was fired following the 2006 season Norv Turner was hired as his replacement. Turner’s style of offense was different due to his connection to Jimmy Johnson, the former coach of the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins. While he still relied on the running game he employed a more aggressive passing attack. Rivers led the Chargers to the AFC Championship Game in his first season under Turner but lost to the unbeaten New England Patriots.
As the years went by, Rivers led the Chargers to multiple playoff appearances only to lose in the early rounds. Turner was fired following the 2012 season and was replaced by Mike McCoy who hailed from the John Fox coaching tree. Rivers led the Chargers to the postseason in McCoy’s first year but failed to make the playoffs for the remainder of McCoy’s final years with the team.
McCoy was fired following the 2016 season and was replaced by Anthony Lynn who preferred a more modern approach to the game of football. With the help of running back Melvin Gordon and receiver Keenan Allen, the Chargers made playoffs in 2018. Throughout all of the change, the one constant for Rivers was tight end Antonio Gates who has been with the team since 2003. Together, Gates and Rivers formed one of the greatest quarterback-tight end tandems in NFL history. This connection is certainly a reason why Rivers career did not implode due to all of the change. Beyond this connection, Rivers showed tremendous poise and still performed at a high level.
The Chargers have historically enjoyed a diverse fan base. San Diego is a military city and has people from all areas of America. This means that there were games where the opposing team had more fans in the stands than the Chargers. Their quarterbacks have had to work very hard to win over their fans.
Hadl played the majority of his career in the AFL which was fighting for respect within the professional ranks. The AFL relied more on the passing game and the Chargers were at the forefront of that revolution. Hadl was a part of the revolution of football and gave the San Diego community a front row seat to the revitalization of the passing game.
They were particularly impressed with his connection with Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth who was the first AFL player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This change in the passing game can be seen in football today as teams are constantly looking toward the air for victory. The game has never been the same since the days of Sid Gillman and John Hadl.
Fouts played at a time when the Chargers were on the hunt for a Super Bowl. The crowd reveled in the journey and showed a lot of appreciation for the team. Fouts broke a league record for yards thrown in a season in both 1980 and 1981 but was exposed in the playoffs with multiple interceptions. The Chargers made the AFC Championship Game in both of those seasons but fell just short of the Super Bowl.
Rivers has had the opportunity to win over two communities in San Diego and Los Angeles. He was only able to play in one AFC Championship Game while in San Diego but won over the community with his heart and competitiveness. The Chargers have recently finished their second consecutive season in Los Angeles, having not played in that city since the franchise’s inaugural season in 1960. Crowds were sparse the first season but when the team made a late-season push for the playoffs the city got behind the team. The following year the expectations were greater and the team made the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
The Chargers have had some dynamic quarterbacks over the franchise’s history but few championships. Few talk about John Hadl despite his AFL Championship because it was won before the Super Bowl era and he threw a majority of his passes to a Hall of Fame receiver. Even fewer talk about Stan Humphries, even though he did lead the team to its only Super Bowl appearance. That 1994 squad was led by the defense which featured Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau. The defense overshadowed the offense and Humphries never led the Chargers to the playoffs again.
Fouts is in the NFL Hall of Fame because of the records he set but he retired as a noted choke artist in the playoffs. However, he is also remembered for his fiery leadership ability and his competitiveness. Drew Brees had a rough time in San Diego but did lead the team to the playoffs in 2004. He is better known for what could have been as he was traded after the 2005 season. Brees has since led the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl victory and is now the all-time leader in passing yards.
Philip Rivers has carved out a legacy all of his own. He played on a torn ACL in his lone AFC Championship Game appearance and his grit has been noted ever since. Rivers has had to deal with change from players, coaches, and cities but has never wavered in his undying loyalty to the Chargers. He may not yet be the greatest Chargers quarterback of all time but he will be remembered as one who never gave up despite the circumstances.