Philip Rivers came into the 2008 season with a solid record and was looking to make the leap to the top tier of quarterbacks. Objective observers would have to admit he achieved that goal; and did it with a style and demeanor that reflected well, both on himself as well as the team. What happened to key the change? Two facets of his game were dramatically improved. One was his ability to hit the deep patterns. Last year he often struggled to hit Vincent Jackson when he had separation deep. Jackson would often have to hold up allowing defenders to tackle him or make a play on the ball. In at least one case he just couldn't come back enough far enough for the ball.
The second skill he dramatically improved was his ability to hit the outside patterns. Rivers was solid in the middle of the field but outside the numbers his rating was a disaster. Certainly some of that is going to be his receivers in 2007 at the beginning of the year were not as good. Even so his qb ratings to the outside were extremely low. Some of this is simply throwing the ball away to the sidelines, but not all. His QB rating wide left in 2007 was a mere 61.3 and wide right was 69.5. More telling his completion rate was 45 and 49% respectively.
So what changed in the 2008 season? To some extent for both the deep and outside pattern his arm is stronger now. With his knee rehabbing over the off season he dramatically strengthened his throwing arm. Kevin Acee of the UT noted the extra zip in preseason and you could absolutely see it in his game. Vincent Jackson often ended up laying himself out to grab a deep ball thrown a bit too far. Throwing to the sides of the field, the ball also has to travel farther, and if it isn't going to be picked off, it needs to have something on it.
What were the results? In 2008 Rivers' QB rating to the outside parts of the field went from 61 & 69 to 113 and 78, enormous improvements. His completion rates to the outside improved by about 7%. His touchdown production improved from 8 TDS to the sides in 2007 to 15 in 2008. Now there is no doubt that picking up Chris Chambers and the emergence of Vincent Jackson are part of that equation, but you couldn't watch the 2008 season without being impressed by the quantum leap in Rivers throwing arm. In 07 the Kissing Suzy Kolber guys were talking about his floaters, in 2008 they started referencing overfloaters, I'm awaiting the laserfloaters for '09. You can see the result in Yards/Attempt to which jumped from 6.9 to 8.4. The folks over at NFL Stats also came up with the concept of "Air Yards" by simply deducting all the YAC and then dividing that by attempts. On this scale Rivers came in as the number three quarterback averaging 4.5 air yards per attempt.
In terms of plays more than 40 yards you can see a big uptick too. In 2008 Rivers had 12 passes that went for more than 40 yards, in 2007 he had only 4. That's a tripling of his stretch passes, and he did that while improving accuracy from 60% to 65% completion ratings overall. Again, there is always a risk of giving all the credit to Rivers; these balls don't catch themselves. No doubt Jackson came on strong and, when healthy, Chambers was good. Floyd also picked up his game; sometimes it seemed there weren't enough balls to go around. It's also well to remember that Chambers went out with ankle problems and Gates played with a problem toe all year.
That said, if Rivers is floating them with too little distance, the best receivers in the world can't help. You can also argue that with the defense having a down year in 2008; Rivers had to throw deeper more often. There is truth to that, but that certainly wouldn't make him more accurate, in fact you would expect defenses to be able to key on the pass and make more PD's and interceptions. So what's the prediction for 2009? I've read where some experts are expecting a more run-heavy offense, but with Norv at the reins and an improved defense; I expect more deep plays next year.