Rivers crossing


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Jan 22, 2006
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Rivers crossing

By Charles Robinson, Yahoo! Sports
June 16, 2006
SAN DIEGO – Philip Rivers had to start with an apology.

"I'm sorry, but I don't really know how to put it," he said with the Georgia twang that makes him sound almost overly sincere. He rubbed a hand at the base of his neck as if he were hoping a massage would free up the words in his throat.

"I guess I really feel like I'm getting back to being myself," he said. "Doing what I'm doing now is the only way I've ever known football. That's the one thing that's been missing for me around here for the last two years. I'm just excited to be whole again."

So that's it. A Jerry Maguire epiphany – one of those "you complete me" moments.

Clearly, this is a sign of progress for Rivers, who spent the last two years awkwardly championing Drew Brees as the San Diego Chargers' starting quarterback. No more walking on eggshells or measuring words. No more speeches about the Chargers being "Drew's team." Finally, there is some relief in knowing exactly where he stands.

"It was a long time," he said, "but this is what I've been waiting for."

The statement contained a subtle tone of relief. But whether he can set the Chargers at ease in 2006 is anyone's guess. Will he follow in the footsteps of Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, the other highly acclaimed quarterbacks from the 2004 draft who have risen in league echelons? Or will he flounder like J.P. Losman, the fourth quarterback taken in that draft's first round?

Therein lies the question. And make no mistake, Rivers' ability to perform as an NFL starter will continue to be the talk when conversations turn to San Diego's postseason aspirations.

"With Philip, it's the same thing I tell people when they ask, 'How do you think you guys did in the draft?' " linebacker Steve Foley said. "My answer is, 'Hell, I'll tell you come Sunday.' Right now, we really don't know. Everybody looks good when we're in sweats and jerseys. But the real test is going to come when we start playing games."

Foley didn't mean any disrespect, just an honest look at reality. Because while the defense has the potential to be much improved, it's Rivers who holds the key to a playoff run.

Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has wagered the franchise's future on a quarterback who has thrown fewer pass attempts (30) in two years than Brees averaged per game in 2005 (31.3). Rarely does a team eschew a veteran Pro Bowler after he's passed for an average of 3,368 yards and 26 touchdowns (and completed 65 percent of his passes) in back-to-back seasons. While winning 21 games, no less.

Yet, that's what the Chargers have done. Brees – who had cemented himself as a team leader and established several deep friendships with stars such as LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates – will be plying his trade in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Rivers finally gets to do some handiwork in San Diego and remind the NFL why he was the fourth overall pick in 2004.

Rivers has already earned respect in the locker room – including a speech from wide receiver Keenan McCardell who stood up and declared at a recent team meeting that he had full confidence in the Chargers' new quarterback. Two years of saying the right thing and deferring to Brees earned that kind of admiration among teammates, who knew it was a quarterback controversy that could have been far uglier. The fact that it wasn't is just as much a testament to Rivers as it is to Brees.

"He's the perfect leader, and I think he'll be that in San Diego," said No. 1 draft pick Mario Williams, who spent his freshman season at North Carolina State awed by Rivers' perfection. "The one thing I remember about Philip, he was good at everything. I mean everything. He was a natural leader and all those things that you expect a senior quarterback to be. But everything he seemed to do, he was successful."

Replacing Brees will be a tough task. But the lone truth working in Rivers' favor is that, as much as Brees was loved by teammates, he did make his share of mistakes last season, particularly in the team's December crash. Despite his rapid development, Brees still wasn't able to carry the Chargers on his own.

"[In 2004] we made all of the right plays, and that didn't always happen last year," Foley said. "Last year, we came in and we just knew we were going to be in the playoffs. From the beginning, people were acting like the playoffs weren't even a question. Everything was the Super Bowl and that's it. But to get to the playoffs, you've got to win the games first. That was something that we didn't really take seriously enough, starting with our first game."

It's hard to argue that Smith (who also factored in Brees' shoulder injury) made the wrong decision by promoting Rivers. Two years on the bench is more than enough time for first-round draft picks to acclimate to a scheme, particularly for Rivers, who was a four-year starter in college and graduated with the tools to be a successful QB in the pros. He has one of the league's quickest releases, and the concerns about his "push" throwing motion – a side effect from using an oversized ball during his formative years – have mostly subsided.

"One thing is, he's not a rookie," said Gates, San Diego's All-Pro tight end. "I mean, he's been in this system for two years. He's had the same playbook for two years. He knows it. He just hasn't had the shot to apply himself in a game.

"I think people should look at the other veteran players around him, too. It's not like Drew, when he was stepping in a couple of years ago and there wasn't a lot of veteran talent to take the pressure off. Philip is going to have a lot of help on offense."

That might mean a short term return to "Martyball," with coach Marty Schottenheimer managing games by feeding a steady diet of carries to Tomlinson and Michael Turner. The development of Turner – who provides a more bruising force in the backfield – has prompted coaches to think of more ways to get him involved in the offense. That might mean anything from a two-back set to a formation where Tomlinson is used as a slot receiver.

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"We've talked about ways to include him in the game alongside LaDainian," Schottenheimer said of Turner. "We haven't finalized any of it, but it's been talked about. We're at a point now as a staff where we have absolutely no reservations about putting him into the game, and we'd like to try and create some matchup situations with LaDainian on some linebackers. But it's in the formula stage right now."

Schottenheimer is also acutely aware that the game plan must be tailored to opposing defenses. The staff expects to see eight and nine men in the box until Rivers forces different looks. Sorting out the coverages and making the right decisions has been an ongoing battle for Rivers, who, through last week's minicamp, still appeared to struggle at times with downfield throws into coverage.

"[There are] a lot of little mistakes," Rivers said. "It's knowing where the swing [man] is when he's your outlet. Don't force it up the field when there are four vertical [routes] – dump it to L.T. All those little things like that, where you make the mistake in the practice, [then] in the afternoon practice the same situation presents itself and you do it right."

Overall, Schottenheimer was pleased with Rivers' progress during the three-day minicamp and has continued to be complimentary with his assessments. But the coach was also quick to point out that there hasn't been a true measuring stick.

"From a technical standpoint and a fundamental standpoint there are things we'll be running that he will have plenty of repetition in," Schottenheimer said. "… [But] we know there will continue to be questions until he goes out and plays in the games."

Certainly, Schottenheimer's future is dependent on Rivers' success. Smith hasn't been bashful about making his view of this team known – that it's a roster with playoff talent and it's up to Schottenheimer to get the players to produce. And it isn't a secret that Schottenheimer favored keeping Brees and hasn't been thrilled about his lack of input in some personnel decisions (the Cleo Lemon trade being one of last season's boiling points).

One key defensive starter, when asked what he thought about the rift between Schottenheimer and Smith, shook his head. "All drama," he said rolling his eyes.

"We know the controversy and what goes on," Gates said. "But we have respect for both guys. Anything beyond that doesn't fall on our shoulders. I don't sit here and say to myself, 'Why aren't Marty and A.J. on the same page?' Whoever they draft and bring in, I just look at it as, they're part of this team. … All we know is Marty is our head coach and A.J. is the general manager. Marty Schottenheimer gives us the orders. I've never heard A.J. call a play. And A.J. does the contracts. I've never seen Marty do a contract. So you just deal with whoever you have to deal with."

At the very least, one of the big points of contention – Brees vs. Rivers – is over. The absence of that debate is sure to allow some of the offseason dust-up between Smith and Schottenheimer – in which club president Dean Spanos had to tell the two to cool it – to settle down.

Despite the inconvenient marriage, coach and general manager can at least agree on one thing: They both need Rivers to be successful. Schottenheimer, who has likened Rivers to Bernie Kosar, needs his new QB to keep him in San Diego beyond 2006, and Smith, who fashions Rivers as a Dan Marino type, needs his monumental gamble to pay off if he wants to be around past 2007.

In last week's workouts, you could see signs of improvement in Rivers. He finished stronger than he began, and he deftly handled an awkward moment on the first day when Brees showed up at the practice complex to gather some of his belongings and took a few minutes to watch practice. It wasn't long before McCardell was waving from the field and giving a wide smile and Tomlinson and fullback Lorenzo Neal were laughing and giving Brees a few "hang 10" hand gestures. Even the television cameras that were pointed to the practice field had suddenly swung around and focused on Brees.

"It's going to be good to talk to him," Rivers said afterward. "I haven't had a chance to see how he's doing and wish him luck in New Orleans."

Rivers smiled. As much as some things have changed for him, some haven't.

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