Rivers lands lead role in soap opera


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Jan 22, 2006
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Rivers lands lead role in soap opera

Some opposing coaches feel Chargers made right decision

By Kevin Acee

March 15, 2006

The defensive coordinator of a team the Chargers will play next season inquired at the Senior Bowl in January what the Chargers intended to do with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.
Then, with a slight smile, he offered this: “I hope they keep Brees.”

After a pause, he explained why he thought such a move would be in his team's interest.

“He's a fine quarterback in the system they have, but he doesn't make the players around him better,” the coordinator said. “The other guy, I think he's going to be great.”
Other defensive assistants, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, were less effusive in their praise of Rivers. But while no one disparaged Brees, they were unanimous in their assessment he was fortunate to direct an offense that had Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson as options.

It turns out, while he isn't saying it, Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith has similar thoughts.

Though Smith denounced the common belief that he prefers Rivers, his offer to Brees said loud and clear he is willing to go forward without him.

And now he will. Brees agreed yesterday to a six-year, $60 million deal with the New Orleans Saints.

Brees said he wanted to be a Charger, but not without a financial commitment from the team that signaled he was the starting quarterback.

“I think it's pretty obvious by the one offer they gave me and their reluctance to move beyond that point,” Brees said last weekend. “Maybe I'd have the opportunity to stay there and win my job back once again. But since I kind of know where everybody stands in the organization and the people who are making the decisions, I don't think so.”

No one can say for certain what type of NFL quarterback Rivers is. He has thrown just 30 passes in two years.

What has much of San Diego fretting is why Smith made a switch at this point.
Even with Brees recovering from shoulder surgery – for labrum and rotator cuff tears, the extent of which were a concern for the Chargers – the fact is he played in a Pro Bowl after the 2004 season, would have played in one last month if he weren't hurt and has been among the top five quarterbacks in the league over the past two seasons.

Rivers has yet to throw a meaningful pass as a professional.

With a team widely considered to be a Super Bowl contender, Smith is at the very least risking a temporary backward slide. Few dispute Rivers' potential, but even fewer think he won't at least endure a period of adjustment.

Unlike with Brees, who has proved he is a capable leader and has the unflagging respect of those he plays with, there is only uncertainty with Rivers.

Even Smith says, “How would anyone know? You can only look at what he did in college. He hasn't played in the NFL.”

But, while so many fans express their dismay and disgust with such a move, Smith is ready to assume the risk.

“I really like Philip Rivers,” he said recently. “The thing I always remind myself of, that I think the difference-maker is, (it's) not just the talent. But once I know someone has talent, and I focus on the character, work ethic, leadership abilities and production – what have they done and what kind of person are they? The two years that Philip has been in our program, I think if he was ever given an opportunity whenever that comes, I believe that he'll be very, very successful. We're not going to know that until he's under way.”

It isn't that Smith doesn't like Brees. It's just that he has something the Saints don't have: Rivers.

While Smith said that if Brees had signed with the Chargers he would expect Brees to be “penciled in as the starter” in 2006, that was a very large “if.”

Sure, the Chargers tried to sign Brees to a long-term contract.

The reality was that Smith tried to sign Brees at terms that suited the Chargers.

The terms offered – a $2 million guarantee plus incentives based on playing time for the first season and an option for another five years – indicate Brees was more an insurance policy than a potential starter.

Brees, who has led the Chargers to back-to-back winning seasons and put up numbers that rank among the best passers in the NFL, considers himself a starter and wanted starter money.

Certainly, this could have turned out better for the Chargers.

Brees could not have gotten hurt in the 2005 season's final game. Eventually, the Chargers could have traded one of their two quarterbacks – make no mistake, one of them eventually had to go – and perhaps everyone would have been happy.

But once Brees got hurt – and the Chargers got indications from medical experts that the injury could prevent him from playing until well into the season – Smith decided to bring the future into focus.

Whether he is correct about Rivers remains to be seen.

But the debate has permeated the locker room.

Brees is roundly considered the offense's leader. Rivers is an unknown.

There has been talk Rivers has struggled in practice. It must be pointed out he was running the scout team against the first-team defense, working not only with less-talented players but running plays the defense knows are coming.

Some players believe Rivers is going to develop into a top quarterback, some saying he can be better than Brees and others mentioning him as already superior to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Once offseason workouts begin, Rivers will have the support of his teammates. But the fact is, he will have to prove himself to them as well.

And that learning curve, well, it had better progress quickly.

“Philip has got to earn our trust, to show he can work as hard as Drew,” said one player. “You're drafted fourth overall, yeah, he better throw 20 touchdowns and less than 10 picks. He's not going to have the luxury of making mistakes. He's going to be under the microscope.”

Smith knows the perception is the Chargers are a Super Bowl-caliber team and people are asking, “How could you possibly entrust this team to this inexperienced guy?”

He says simply that time will tell.

Said Smith: “Maybe two years down the road somebody might say, 'Boy, this Philip Rivers is a talented guy.' Or they might say the opposite.”

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