Building Around Philip Rivers: How the Chargers can "fix" their Star Quarterback

Donald Miralle

Philip Rivers had an abysmal season last year. Several courses of action have been proposed on the best way to build around him, and give him the best chance to succeed. What will work, and what won't?

The main concern for the San Diego Chargers offense revolves around the play of Philip Rivers. When Rivers was playing well in 2008-2010, the Chargers offense was a force to be feared. The defense almost didn't matter, because the Bolts were able to come back from any deficit. No game was out of reach, and when the offense was clicking, no team would be able to withstand the onslaught.

Then 2011 happened, and Rivers saw a slip in his play. He wasn't playing quite horribly, but he was no longer able to carry the team to victory, either. We all awaited Rivers' return to dominance in 2012. Instead we fans were treated to a horror show, and Rivers could barely be recognized as the same quarterback. Bad throws, feeling pressure that may or may not be there, and lousy decision making left El Capitan on the lower half of NFL starting quarterbacks for the first time since 2007.

We as Chargers fans would love to return to the days of glory. And a number of theories have been tossed around on how to fix it. How will we get the old Rivers back? Can we get the old Rivers back? He is 30 years old now. He probably won't see a significant decline in physical skills for the next few years, a number of quarterbacks play at a consistent level with their earlier skills into their mid–to–late–30's.

Let's look through a number of suggestions and see if there is any merit to them.

Fix the Offensive Line

This has by far been the most popular suggestion. Rivers can't get comfortable in the pocket, and therefore is rushing his throws. A man with only one eye could see that Rivers had little trust for his Offensive Line.

To test this theory, we'll use some stats from the wonderful folks at Football Outsiders. We will use DVOA to measure Rivers per-play average, and Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR) to measure how well the line performed protecting its quarterback.

Year Rivers DVOA (Rank) Chargers ASR (Rank)
2006 17.4% (9) 6.3% (15)
2007 3.3% (20) 4.6% (8)
2008 30.3% (1) 6.1% (17)
2009 41.7% (1) 4.5% (5)
2010 27.9% (3) 6.8% (19)
2011 17.0% (8) 5.6% (9)
2012 -7.3% (22) 8.9% (32)

From 2007 to 2011, the Chargers Offensive Line seemed to bounce back–and–forth between "average" and "pretty good" before dropping to "horrid beyond all reason" in 2012. Before we get too excited about that, a few things need to be pointed out.

First, using simple linear regression there isn't a whole lot here with a correlation coefficient of -0.53. That isn't too terrible, so there is something here.

It should also be noted that the team that finished 31st in ASR was the Green Bay Packers. Despite having an Offensive Line nearly as terrible as the Chargers, Aaron Rodgers managed to have a DVOA of 22.3%, good for 4th in the league.

Still, Rivers has had good years behind a below–average line before. Improving the Offensive Line would probably help, but it isn't going to get Rivers back the way he was. There is more here.

Fix the Run Game

Rivers will do better if the running game can take some of the heat off. A solid running game will keep the opposing defense honest, and give Rivers more space downfield to find an open receiver.

To test this, we will again use Rivers' yearly DVOA, and compare to the Chargers rushing DVOA.

Year Rivers DVOA (Rank) Chargers Rush DVOA (Rank)
2006 17.4% (9) 27.2%
2007 3.3% (20) 5.0%
2008 30.3% (1) -1.0%
2009 41.7% (1) -13.3%
2010 27.9% (3) -5.4%
2011 17.0% (8) 1.6%

Wow, between the decline of LaDainian Tomlinson and Norv Turner being Norv Turner, the Chargers once–formidable rushing attacked has truly not been a threat. In fact, it has consistenly not been a threat, with a correlation with Rivers' DVOA of -0.04. There is no pattern there. The Bolts ability to run the ball has had nothing to do with how well or poor Rivers performs over the course of his career.

Although I'd buy that the theory might hold in regards specifically to 2007, which was the last of Tomlinson's exceptional years. Having help from a dominant player leads to the last of our theories…

Find a Dominant Receiver

Rivers' three best seasons came from Vincent Jackson's best two–year run with the Chargers (2008-2009) and the year Antonio Gates was absolutely beyond dominant for the first 10 games of the season. Perhaps having a dominant target (or targets) is just what is needed to get Rivers back to form.

Once again, we'll be using Philip Rivers' DVOA. This time instead of using a rate stat, we'll be looking at the DYAR total for the top Chargers receiver each season.

Year Rivers DVOA (Rank) Top Receiver DYAR
2006 17.4% (9) Antonio Gates 206
2007 3.3% (20) Antonio Gates 258
2008 30.3% (1) Vincent Jackson 378
2009 41.7% (1) Vincent Jackson 456
2010 27.9% (3) Antonio Gates 358
2011 17.0% (8) Malcom Floyd 351
2012 -7.3% (22) Malcom Floyd 322

This distribution gives the best correlation yet, with a correlation coefficient of 0.63, so there may be something here. But this variable could simply be dependent on Rivers' play. What we are really interested in is the distribution of yardage. Let's take a look to see if results continue to hold up.

In the table below, we will look at the percentage of Rivers passing yards the top 3 receivers hauled in over the course of the season, and compare that to Rivers' DVOA.

Year Rec 1 Yardage % Rec 2 Yardage % Rec 3 Yardage %
2006 27.3% 19.5% 15.0%
2007 31.2% 19.8% 17.6%
2008 27.4% 17.6% 11.6%
2009 27.4% 27.2% 18.2%
2010 16.6% 15.2% 11.0%
2011 23.9% 18.5% 16.8%
2012 22.6% 18.2% 14.9%
Correlation Coeff -0.06 0.39 -0.15

Well, that was unexpected. Perhaps the problem the Chargers have is not that they do not have a top guy, but that they don't have a 1-2 punch?

One problem with looking into this is that 2010 was a very odd year for pass distribution when looked at as a whole season. Vincent Jackson held out the first two thirds of the season, and there was a ridiculous number of injuries to the receiving corps. Seven data points is not a whole lot to go on, and football is rarely very clean statistically. One strange year can throw off the whole analysis when looking at an issue with this kind of focus.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that Vincent Jackson's departure left a hole in the offense. Antonio Gates cannot fill that role any longer, and the Chargers struggled last season to find someone to fill that role.

Conclusions

There seems to be something behind the Offensive Line being behind some of Philip Rivers' issues. However, I have trouble believing that it is the entire reason. There plenty of examples of quarterbacks playing well behind poor Offensive Lines. Do they play better behind good ones? Undoubtedly. But given the variation of the Offensive Line play over the years, it is hard to believe that Rivers' dropoff in play is simply due to a poor line.

The run game appears to not be a factor in the quality of Rivers' play. The quality of the receivers, however, is ambiguous. Results seem to indicate that having one or two solid receivers, rather than trying to replace one with a mediocre group of them (Vincent Jackson for Meachem and Royal) is the better way to go.

Finally, there is Philip himself. Perhaps these previous suggestions have helped or hindered him, but I believe that the drop in his play rests with him. Rivers needs to do better, period. I will admit that I am not optimistic about him returning to his once-dominant top 3 form. I do believe that he can return to being a serviceable top-10 quarterback. Improving the line and giving him better targets will help with that. But I believe that the bulk of the work on improving rests with him.

He is El Capitan. The boat sinks or floats with him.

* Please note: The offseason is largely complete, so the conclusions drawn in this article may not apply this year, or later can be retroactively reevaluated based on how Telesco approached this offseason.

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