Cosell Talks: Chargers Philip Rivers is NFL’s Toughest Pocket Passer

Greg Cosell, San Diego Chargers

I’ve written many times about the attributes it takes to play quarterback consistently well in the NFL. Not many possess those traits as completely as Philip Rivers.

Rivers certainly did not have his best season for the San Diego Chargers in 2011. But based on his previous five-year track record, I strongly believe he will rebound and have an outstanding year in 2012.

From a public perception standpoint, Rivers is a fascinating case study. He has started for six years and has never missed a game. He’s led the NFL in touchdown passes (2008) and passing yards (2010). He’s eclipsed 4,000 yards passing in each of the past four seasons. He’s won playoff games with some outstanding performances. No one would dispute that Rivers is an excellent quarterback, one of the six or seven best in the league, depending on personal preferences.

Yet, he’s never won an AFC championship — losing to the New England Patriots the only time he got there; of course, he was playing with a torn ACL — and therefore has never played in a Super Bowl.

Rivers forces one to return to the age-old question: How important are Super Bowl appearances (and victories) when evaluating quarterbacks?

Let’s put that in context, with recent history as our guide: Is Eli Manning a better quarterback than Rivers, simply because he’s won two Super Bowls? Is the ranking of quarterbacks solely a mathematical equation: The more Super Bowls you’ve played in (and won), the higher you should be ranked?

I would strongly argue that quarterback evaluation is a little more subtle — and nuanced — than that. It doesn’t take much thought to say that a quarterback is ultimately judged by wins, but that reduces a complex, detailed set of parameters to a single, overly simplistic measurement. It ignores the process, and the factors, by which results are achieved. When you do that, you lose all objective analysis. It’s always easy to make judgments when you have access to the outcome, but that misses the point entirely.

I have studied Rivers very closely in his six seasons as the Chargers’ starting quarterback. I have reached this conclusion: He is the toughest pocket passer in the NFL.

To understand how to evaluate NFL quarterback play, you must begin with a basic premise: The position is played, first and foremost, from the pocket. Many characteristics, each of which can be tangibly identified and quantified, are necessary to do just that.

One critical measure can be summarized as pocket toughness. There are a number of factors that define it. In the NFL, you have to be able to throw the ball effectively when the pass protection, for any number of reasons, is not sturdy and secure. It could be a stunt in which a looping defensive lineman is not blocked. It could be a blitz scheme in which a rusher is not accounted for and gets in clean. In either scenario, the quarterback must look down the gun barrel and release the ball knowing he is going to get hit. More often than not, it’s a situation in which the pocket gradually closes in, and the functional space to deliver the football is significantly reduced. The overriding point is you must throw the ball in the eye of the storm. It’s a compulsory attribute to play the position at a high level.

Rivers does this better than any quarterback in the league. He plays in a Norv Turner offense that puts a premium on intermediate and downfield throws. That features a higher percentage of five- and seven-step drops. The ball, by design, does not necessarily come out quickly. The ideal timing of a five-step drop is 2.1 seconds; a seven-step drop is 2.6 seconds. (By contrast, the ball should come out on a three-step drop in 1.5 seconds.) More time in the pocket means more time for the pass rush to diminish space and minimize that comfortable cradle. Rivers does not flinch in the face of pressure. Even when it’s present, he still steps into his throws and delivers the ball with accuracy and velocity. And he has been doing this since 2006, his first year as a starter.

Another aspect of Rivers’ play I have always appreciated is his inherent comprehension of the delicate balance between game management and risk taking. Many folks think the term “game manager” is a negative, i.e., a quarterback who must be managed and controlled because he’s not quite good enough to play aggressively without making the kinds of mistakes that lose games. That’s not the correct explanation of game manager. It’s better classified as a quarterback who understands game situations, and what those situations demand of his decisions.

It’s third-and-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Chargers lead by more than one score and a pass play is called to attempt to get the first down. There is no clearly defined throw. The coverage won. Rivers intuitively knows that situation does not call for a stick throw into a tight window. You check it down, you throw an incompletion, you take a sack if it’s the best — or only — option.

Conversely, if the Chargers were down by more than one score in that same scenario, Rivers would pull the trigger on a tough throw. That’s game management.

In 2011, Rivers threw 20 interceptions, far more than he had thrown in any previous season. Interceptions don’t tell you much as an abstract number. You have to look at each one individually to evaluate it properly. As is always the case, the reasons were plentiful, but there’s no question Rivers struggled at times with both his accuracy and his decision making. It was especially apparent in a difficult five-game stretch in the middle of the season when he threw 10 interceptions. Over the last six games, Rivers was sharper, both with his ball location and his coverage recognition. That final month and a half trended more toward his career tendencies. Remember, Rivers is an intermediate and downfield thrower. Given that, his low career interception percentage (2.6) is remarkable.

Rivers has always been an excellent deep-ball thrower. That’s an attribute rarely talked about in today’s NFL, with the league-wide focus on the quick passing game. In addition, Rivers is a very good progression reader. He has a great understanding of the myriad concepts that define his offense, and the multiple defensive fronts and coverages that he sees each week. It’s what I refer to as instant recall and application. His ability to transfer classroom to field is as good as any quarterback in the NFL.

The word “elite” is often tossed around. Different people ascribe different meanings to it. We can debate whether it applies to Rivers. What I know is this: Rivers is an outstanding quarterback, by any measure. If it takes a Super Bowl win for some to see him that way, so be it. But a ring would not change what kind of player he is.

For more thoughts by Greg Cosell, follow him on Twitter.

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