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How much does Philip Rivers’ decline have to do with Philip Rivers?

For years, I was an unabashed Philip Rivers supporter. I had no preexisting affinity for the Chargers or Rivers, but in all the metrics I care about, Rivers was always one of the best. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, Philip Rivers led the league in yards per attempt. He finished first in ANY/A in ’08 and second in ’09 and ’10; he finished second in NY/A in ’08 and then first in NY/A in 2009 and 2010. Simply put, going into the 2011 season, no quarterback had been better over the last three years.

Rank Player Tm Gms Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Sk Y/A SkYds AY/A ANY/A Y/G
1 Philip Rivers SDG 48 986 1505 65.5% 12973 92 33 103.8 88 8.62 545 8.86 8.02 270.3
2 Tom Brady NWE 33 702 1068 65.7% 8374 64 17 102.9 41 7.84 261 8.32 7.78 253.8
3 Drew Brees NOR 47 1224 1807 67.7% 14077 101 50 98.1 58 7.79 412 7.66 7.20 299.5
4 Aaron Rodgers GNB 47 1003 1552 64.6% 12394 86 31 99.4 115 7.99 730 8.20 7.19 263.7
5 Tony Romo DAL 35 771 1213 63.6% 9536 63 30 94.8 61 7.86 360 7.79 7.13 272.5
6 Matt Schaub HTX 43 1012 1537 65.8% 12183 68 37 94.7 80 7.93 524 7.73 7.02 283.3
7 Peyton Manning CLT 48 1214 1805 67.3% 13202 93 45 95.4 40 7.31 251 7.22 6.93 275.0
8 Kurt Warner CRD 31 740 1111 66.6% 8336 56 28 95.2 50 7.50 354 7.38 6.75 268.9
9 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 43 858 1364 62.9% 10829 60 32 92.5 128 7.94 852 7.76 6.53 251.8
10 Eli Manning NYG 48 945 1527 61.9% 11261 79 49 88.3 73 7.37 507 6.97 6.33 234.6
11 Donovan McNabb TOT 43 887 1486 59.7% 10846 59 36 85.4 95 7.30 684 7.00 6.15 252.2
12 Matt Ryan ATL 46 885 1456 60.8% 10061 66 34 86.9 59 6.91 354 6.77 6.27 218.7
13 Kyle Orton TOT 43 901 1504 59.9% 10427 59 33 84.8 90 6.93 562 6.73 6.00 237.0
14 Joe Flacco RAV 48 878 1416 62.0% 10206 60 34 87.9 108 7.21 788 6.97 5.96 212.6
15 Brett Favre TOT 45 923 1411 65.4% 10183 66 48 88.1 86 7.22 599 6.62 5.84 226.3
16 Jay Cutler TOT 47 981 1603 61.2% 11466 75 60 82.9 98 7.15 625 6.40 5.67 244.0
17 Matt Cassel TOT 45 860 1459 58.9% 9733 64 34 83.9 115 6.67 644 6.50 5.62 211.6
18 David Garrard JAX 46 885 1417 62.5% 9951 53 38 84.7 117 7.02 777 6.56 5.56 216.3
19 Jason Campbell TOT 44 836 1342 62.3% 9250 46 29 85.1 114 6.89 759 6.61 5.57 205.6
20 Carson Palmer CIN 36 719 1181 60.9% 7795 50 37 81.4 63 6.60 481 6.04 5.34 216.5
21 Ryan Fitzpatrick TOT 33 603 1040 58.0% 6327 40 34 74.9 83 6.08 465 5.38 4.57 175.8
22 Matt Hasselbeck SEA 35 668 1141 58.5% 7246 34 44 71.2 80 6.35 503 5.21 4.46 207.0


But Rivers regressed badly last year. Technically, his year-end numbers weren’t bad, thanks to a top-five finish in the final month, but Rivers ranked 17th in AY/A over the first 12 weeks of the season and clearly was a different player than the star he was the last three years.

This year, the bottom has fallen off. Before this weekend’s games, Rivers ranked 24th in NY/A and an unfathomable 29th in ANY/A; he also ranked 28th in yards per completion, particularly noteworthy for Rivers, who ranked in the top three in that metric in each year from ’08 to ’10.

So why Rivers is struggling?

In 2007, the Chargers did not draft an offensive lineman. They spent a 7th round pick on a tackle in ’08 and then drafted two guards in the third and fourth rounds in 2009. San Diego ignored the line entirely in 2010 and 2011, before selecting two interior lineman from the Big 10 in the 5th and 7th rounds of the 2012 Draft.

That’s a very long time to basically ignore five positions on your offense. All draft picks are not created equally, so I came up with a draft pick value chart based on the expected amount of Approximate Value for each pick. The table below shows how much draft equity each team has invested in their offensive line from 2007 to 2012:

tm
#OL
Pick Val
MIA9215
SFO9187
DEN10183
BAL10181
PIT11179
CLE6158
KAN8153
STL7152
ATL9152
CIN8146
SEA6144
GNB10142
IND9140
BUF9135
WAS8124
DAL7123
NWE10123
HOU9121
MIN6113
CAR8112
PHI10108
DET6108
JAX5107
CHI8106
ARI7100
OAK591
NOR781
NYG671
TAM461
SDG656
NYJ549
TEN543

Three weeks ago, Bill Barnwell wrote about how the Titans have completely ignored their offensive line the last several years; no argument from me here. The Jets are an interesting case because they selected Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson in the first round of the 2006 draft, so it’s understandable why New York chose to ignore the position for awhile. In addition, the Jets gave away a lot of draft picks during that time, so they haven’t had that many picks in general. From 2007 to 2012, New York made only 31 draft selections, the fewest in the league. But entering the 2007-2012 period, the Jets were set with two young lineman and Brandon Moore at right guard, limiting the need to spend additional picks on the line. On the other hand, some of the Jets’ offensive struggles the past two years are due to the fact that the team ignored the right tackle position and missed when drafting Vladimir Ducasse in the second round of 2010.

After the Jets and the Titans, no team has ignored the offensive line in the draft like San Diego. As a result, we shouldn’t be too surprised that the offensive line has deteriorated significantly over the years. Take a look at San Diego’s starting offensive linemen each year from 2006 to 2011 (with age in parentheses):

Pos
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011
LTMarcus McNeill (23)Marcus McNeill (24)Marcus McNeill (25)Marcus McNeill (26)Marcus McNeill (27)Marcus McNeill (28)
LGKris Dielman (25)Kris Dielman (26)Kris Dielman (27)Kris Dielman (28)Kris Dielman (29)Tyronne Green (25)
CNick Hardwick (25)Nick Hardwick (26)Nick Hardwick (27)Scott Mruczkowski (27)Nick Hardwick (29)Nick Hardwick (30)
RGMike Goff (30)Mike Goff (31)Mike Goff (32)Louis Vasquez (22)Louis Vasquez (23)Louis Vasquez (24)
RTShane Olivea (25)Shane Olivea (26)Jeromey Clary (25)Jeromey Clary (26)Jeromey Clary (27)Jeromey Clary (28)

At left tackle, Marcus McNeill had a promising start to his career but retired due to injuries in August. San Diego struggled whenever McNeill wasn’t healthy, and added Jared Gaither off waivers late in the 2011 season. Unfortunately for San Diego, Gaither has missed much of the 2012 season due to injuries. In his place, undrafted rookie Mike Harris has been horrible, allowing 17 hurries, 3 hits and 2 sacks on 164 pass plays in the first six weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. Gaither was back against the Browns, although it didn’t appear to make much of a difference.

Kris Dielman was a mainstay at left guard until a concussion essentially ended his career in week 7 of the 2011 season. Remember the two mid-round picks used on guards in the 2009 draft? Tyronne Green, the fourth round selection from Auburn, has replaced Dielman at left guard while third rounder Louis Vasquez has played at right guard for the last four seasons. The Chargers should be happy to have drafted multiple year starters with those draft picks, but neither have otherwise outperformed their draft spot. Surrounded by strong tackles and centers, both guards would be capable members of a solid line, but the Chargers are not fortunate enough to be in that position.

Like the left tackle spot, the center position looked secure for a long time with Nick Hardwick after he made the Pro Bowl in 2006. But that was his only such honor, and he has steadily regressed since then. So far in 2012, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 22nd best pass-blocking center. Right tackle has been an abomination for San Diego. Jeromey Clary was one of the worst starting tackles in the NFL last year, and the Chargers brought him back with similar results in 2012.

When healthy and at their best, Gaither and Dielman could help form a solid line, and Greene and Vasquez are not line killers. But unfortunately, San Diego has been without capable linemen for much of the last two years, and Rivers’ game has declined because of it. San Diego tried the penny-pinching approach to building an offensive line, and it hasn’t worked.

Breaking down Rivers’ passing stats

How could a man with such a perfect throwing motion fail?

I believe that a quarterback can make his offensive line, as great quarterbacks can make pre-snap adjustments and post-snap reads to minimize the risk of a sack. However, Rivers was one of the more unique quarterbacks in the NFL from ’08 to ’10. According to target data from Footballguys.com, Rivers targeted his running backs far more than other quarterbacks during this period. He led the league in percentage of passes towards his running backs in 2008, and ranked in the top four in that category in 2009 and 2010.

Rivers may have targeted his running backs frequently, but he went down the field when he targeted his receivers. In 2008 and 2010, he led the league in yards per target when throwing at receivers, and ranked 2nd behind Drew Brees in that metric in 2009. Rivers also led the league in yards per target when throwing to his tight ends in 2009 and 2010. And he ranked in the top three in yards per target towards his running backs in ’08 and ’09.

Let’s not forget, in 2008 and 2009, he was throwing to LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, and Sproles was still there in 2010. So his passes to running backs those years often went for big plays because of the talent around him, which no longer exists. His downfield throwing in ’08, ’09 and ’10 often went to Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd; the former is now in Tampa Bay, while the latter can’t make the passing game go by himself. Antonio Gates averaged 14.6 yards per catch in 2009 and 15.6 yards per catch in 2010; the last two years, he’s averaging just 12 yards per reception.

And while the talent has faded away, Rivers has had to adjust. While he threw a significant amount to his running backs from ’08 to ’10 – 27.5 % of his targets — that number was at 32% through seven weeks this year, and throwing to Ryan Mathews and Ronnie Brown aren’t making people forget about Tomlinson and Sproles. Against Cleveland, half of his completions were to running backs. He’s checking down more often partially due to a weak offensive line, and partially due to the lack of talent at wide receiver. Antonio Gates is struggling to get separation, catching just 21 of the 39 passes thrown his way, while Eddie Royal is soaking up passes and averaging just 4.3 yards per target. Of course, short passes to Royal are preferable to sacks, another way Rivers has had to adjust due to the lack of solid line play. And ex-Saint Robert Meachem has had little impact so far.

Rivers looks a lot worse now than he did two years ago, but it’s always difficult to separate the quarterback from the offense. He’s playing for a team that’s tried to build an offensive line in the cheapest way possible, and it’s starting to show. He’s lost two great running backs and watched his team replace them with a guy who can’t stay on the field and a guy who shouldn’t be on the field. His star tight end is showing the effects of age and numerous injuries over the last five years. And the receiver group is probably the least talented bunch he’s ever played with. I won’t rule out a Ken Anderson-like career rebound for Rivers in a couple of seasons, but from where I stand, San Diego needs upgrades on the offensive line, at wide receiver, and if Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews can’t stay healthy, just about everywhere else.

Of course, despite being a Rivers supporter, I’m not blind the other side of the coin. He was an extremely fortunate quarterback to play with Tomlinson, Sproles, Gates, and Jackson, along with a solid offensive line. But when he had that, he was a dominant quarterback, which is exactly what a great quarterback should be when surrounded with good weapons.

{ 14 comments… add one }

  • Travis October 29, 2012, 10:29 am

    I totally agree. I remember having a conversation with my buddy before the 2011 season where I loudly proclaimed Phillip Rivers as the best QB in the league, better than Brady, Brees, Rodgers, etc. While Rodgers has skyrocketed since then, Rivers fall off has met with an equal amount of bafflement on my side. I like this breakdown, perhaps you are right in your assertions. A QB is often only as good as the talent around him, this is no news. It’s funny how much people forget this, or remember it when it’s convenient to fit the subjective storyline that gets attached (often inaccurate and unfairly, good and bad), to certain QB’s.

    I think you could make a similar argumentas to why Romo is having such a down year after, no matter what anyone wants to say, having statistically one of the greatest careers in NFL history up to this point. With him, it’s O-line, receivers not knowing the plays/being hurt, and absolutely no running game. At least that’s what I see. So when everyone is up on Brees and Brady esp, go back and look what they had around them in previous years vs. what they have now – not to take anything away from them, as they are obviously future HOF QB’s, but both have improved, esp Brady, drastically in his case, because of better surrounding casts, better system (esp in Brees case, compare his numbers in San Diego to NO and you’ll see the difference a system can make), etc.

  • Travis October 29, 2012, 10:37 am

    Oh, one other point I’ve always wanted to make about Rivers that has had me completely miffed for years – did you know he didn’t even make the freakin’ Pro Bowl in ’08, when he led the league in literally virtually every passing statistic out there?? If there’s ever a condemnation of that system, there you have one. That was a joke – unfortunately it looks like he has passed his primed and was never really appreciated in the first place for that 3 year run of greatness to equal the likes of Manning’s 3-year run from ’04-’06, when he was in his prime.

    One more Rivers/Romo similarity – Romo didn’t make the pro bowl last year after throwing 31 td’s and 10 int’s. What?? Ridiculous.

    • Richie October 29, 2012, 2:19 pm

      Don’t forget, Pro Bowl voting is now open!

  • SFB October 29, 2012, 12:08 pm

    Travis – agree w/Rivers ProBowl snub in ’08… remember that was the year Jay Cutler was the NFL’s “anointed one”. And we can’t have a QB in the ProBowl that yelled ‘atta baby’ at the “anointed one”…

  • Richie October 29, 2012, 2:21 pm

    I haven’t watched a ton of Chargers football this year, but I did watch that Monday night game against Denver. Particularly in the second half, Rivers just looked bad. His throws were flubbing around and badly missing his targets. How much of that can we really blame on sub-par teammates?

    • JWL October 29, 2012, 6:45 pm

      Richie,

      The last really good QB with such an awful-looking throwing motion (Bernie Kosar) had about an 8-year run and that was pretty much it. This is Rivers’ 7th year as a starter. Maybe the shelf date is expiring. Maybe it is taking Rivers a half second longer to throw passes these days.

      • WRP October 29, 2012, 8:36 pm

        JWL,

        The last really good QB with such an awful-looking throwing motion (Brett Favre) had about a 20-year run.

        • Independent George October 30, 2012, 10:49 am

          Favre had beautiful throwing mechanics; you’re conflating his improvisations with his usual delivery.

          • DB October 30, 2012, 3:32 pm

            I agree with some of what has been said here – Kosar and Rivers had non-traditional throwing motions. I never saw anything wrong with Favre’s throwing motion. The biggest problem with Favre was his vacillating approach to retirement :)

  • JWL October 29, 2012, 11:23 pm

    Do not agree one bit about your Favre comment.

  • DB October 30, 2012, 11:41 am

    Chase – sorry about the late comment, I’ll blame it on the hurricane induced power outage in my house – in your second table about the amount of draft pick investment by team – the Saints and Giants have also invested very little in their offensive lines over that same period as the Chargers, but we haven’t seen a similar decline in QB productivity. The Saints and Giants haven’t seen a similar exodus of offensive talent like the Chargers. Any thoughts on this?

    • Chase Stuart October 30, 2012, 12:37 pm

      No doubt. One possible answer is that Brees and Manning are just better quarterbacks than Rivers.

      Brees may not be the best example, though, because he’s had two All-Pro guards for most of the last few years. And, of course, he’s not doing so well without Carl Nicks in 2012. And while the Saints haven’t invested as much, Jermon Bushrod was a 4th round pick who is now a Pro Bowl left tackle and they hit on Zach Strief, a 7th around pick (in ’06, tho, so outside the scope of the study). Before him, Jon Stinchcomb held down the right side for a bunch of years. So better health and better players have lowered the need to improve the OL. And, of course, he’s +1 in the Darren Sproles department, not -1. I also think Brees’ short-passing game is probably better suited to cover for a weak OL than Rivers’ style of play is.

      As for Manning, the Giants line has deteriorated. OTOH, they’ve adding Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, which seems to have more than made up for that. And they have significantly better coaching than San Diego.

  • Andy October 31, 2012, 1:11 am

    To play devil’s advocate, Louis Vasquez ranks as Pro Football Focus’s 6th best G (3rd best RG) through 7 games in 2012. And the 7th ranked G in pass-protection (if we’re isolating how he would affect Rivers) – so I’d say he’s playing pretty damn well, and “above” his draft spot (even if hit was his first real good year, and we don’t know if he will maintain this level of play over the last 9+ games). Granted, 1 man does not an offensive line make, but I thought he should get his due :) (and Ronnie Brown is actually 2nd in Football Outsider’s RB receiving DYAR, and while Mathews is doing poor so far in that respect this year, he was 4th last season. So both are capable of at least being efficient in the receiving game (if not explosive like Sproles was/is). LT actually never was that great in receiving DYAR, he just put up high reception & yardage totals).

  • Archer November 25, 2013, 7:24 pm

    Rebound :-)
    Maybe time for a post examining how he got back up again this season?

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