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A spotlight on Philip Rivers’ career

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A look at how Rivers rates among his peers, and among all-time QBs.

Rivers' "guts" & "heart" are among the best, but where do the tangible traits rank?
Rivers' "guts" & "heart" are among the best, but where do the tangible traits rank?
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

With all of the recent discussion of Rivers' place among the history of NFL passers recently, I decided to gather up various measures of performance, to put a spotlight on how good he has been at times.

This is not a direct argument for something like Hall of Fame induction -€” that involves too many subjective variables (most of all, the individual though processes of the voters, which may have nothing to do with evidence). Especially in an era where teams are able to find very talented players in every nook & cranny (& the Hall is not adjusting its induction rules), it's become harder to predict who stands a good chance of being a hall of famer.

(Note: various terms will be explained in a glossary after the presentation)

One argument or notion you see mentioned a lot when it comes to a player's "worthiness" of being inducted into the Hall of Fame, is that they had to have been the best at their position at some time. Personally, I believe this specific (strict) requirement is a little obtuse. In general, I don't believe it is fair to punish players who play in talent-rich eras -€” I think it could be argued that Peyton Manning & Tom Brady have been the best QBs (regardless of their statistical rankings each year) of the past 10 years, ie: sorry everyone else. You can give up your HoF hopes now. More specifically (in a statistical sense), what if one player's best season of a very good career (but one where they were never flat-out the best in any other year) was to occur in the same year as when some obscure player (who sees no future success) has an AMAZING season? Does it make sense to punish the former due to what is essentially bad luck? I don't believe so.

If we are to loosen this "requirement" and say that a player must among the best players at their position -€” "in the race" if you will, at some time in their career, I believe Rivers meets this requirement. Here is a sample of his high rankings in various passing metrics:

  • 2008: 1st in DVOA (3rd in DYAR), 1st in ANY/A (min 300 att), half yard (/att) above 2nd place
  • 2009: 1st in DVOA (2nd in DYAR), 2nd in ANY/A, but only by 0.01 to Brees (Arguably deserved the MVP this year, or 2008...if only the team had more national coverage)
  • 2010: 3rd in DVOA (2nd in DYAR), 2nd in ANY/A

He ranked ahead of Peyton Manning in both categories in 09 & 10, & DVOA in 08.

Rivers was 1st in ANY/A from 2008-2010 (min 1000 att) with 8.02 ( Brady at 2nd w/7.78, then Brees further back in 3rd 7.20. Manning (who had 2 MVPs in that span) was 7th with 6.93). Of the top 5 singles seasons (by ANY/A, min 300att) in that span, 3 belong to Rivers (with 2009 Brees, & 2010 Brady).

In 2013 (after "The Fall of Norv") Rivers was 2nd in DYAR and 3rd in DVOA

First in both metrics was Peyton Manning (in a "historic" season), and 2nd in DVOA was Nick Foles on only 60% of the passing attempts Rivers had (347 to 575), and the DVOA was only 35.6% to Rivers' 34.8%. He was also 3rd in ANY/A (behind the same 2 players, albeit in reverse order).

Note, in regards to Foles -€” PHI's rushing DVOA that year was 1st, 23.6%. 2nd (KC) was "only" 11.1%. From 1989-2015, of the 829 team-seasons, this was the 22nd best rushing performance, (top 3%). Based on the context & the rest of Foles' career, I think we can safely make the judgment that Rivers was 2nd only to Manning in 2013.

There was definitely a time when Rivers was at minimum the 2nd best-performing QB in the league. When he has (arguably) "legitimate" help around him, he's torn it up. Speaking of which, I think you would have a good case if you argued that Rivers has had the worst supporting casts of all the QBs that make up the top tier. (As well as the worst overall teams (D+ST) if we were to measure QBs by team success...but I personally wouldn't). Over the course of these discussions (in the comments of various articles) I  dug up an old spreadsheet I had with data from Pro Football Focus (back when they didn't hide their data) & Football Outsiders, which I think highlights how poor Rivers' supporting players have been, relative to his peers. The following are tables highlighting each QB's passing performance, OL pass protection, and team run-efficiency from 2008-2012, and then just 2008-2010 (both tables sorted by QB passing grade rank. NOTE: I do believe at the time there was some counting-aspect to these grades, so Rivers throwing fewer passes in Norv's offense could have an effect on his total.

2008-2012

2008-2010

I think the color-coding makes it quite clear that Ben Roethlisberger is the only QB whose lack of (offensive) supporting-cast rivaled that of Rivers over those years, and Rivers outperformed him over both time spans. Especially from 2008-2010 (before Norv & AJ's team started to fall apart), it is clear Rivers was an outstanding performing at a very elite level in spite of lacking the 2 things that make a QB's job much easier (pass protection, and a quality running game).

In fact, over those 5 years, the best Rivers' pass protection ranked was 19th. All 4 QBs above him (in the first table) had better protection on AVERAGE. (All of Brees' years ranked higher, and Brady's worst year was just 19th). Rivers' (team's) highest ranked year in rushing success rate was 12 -€” Brees & Peyton only had 1 season worse than 12, and Brady's worst was THIRD!

FINALLY, I would like briefly show a table comparing Rivers to other top post-merger passers. ProFootballReference lists in their database "advanced passing" numbers, which essentially are just standardized (era adjusted) versions of various passing stats, where a value of 100 = league average, and every 15 away represents one standard deviation above/below average. Here is a table showing every QB since 1969 who had at least 5 years of 115+ (decently above average) in ANY/A, as well as accompanying rates, sorted by % of years with 115+. (I chose 123+ as a second column, because that's halfway between 1 & 2 standard deviations above average, 115 & 130 (and not many have 130+ seasons)).

115+

Some HoF QBs who had less total 115+ seasons than Rivers include (Name, (#)):

Terry Bradshaw (4), Troy Aikman (4), Jim Kelly (2), Warren Moon (2)

Although Rivers ranks "low" on this table of 15, he ranks above notable QBs Favre & Elway, who played 90% & 50% (respectively) more seasons than he has so far (and as I said earlier, if the team puts non-terrible pieces around him, he'll continue to have success). But more importantly, he is among a group where 12 of 15 players have at minimum as "strong case" for the Hall of Fame. (A 13th should be green, IMO, but there's more subjective opinions working against him. A 14th should already be in by every objective/logical measure, and the last actually really surprised me. Esiason should be talked about more highly). If we sort by % of years with 123+. Rivers ranks higher, and if we look at the % of 115+ seasons that were 123 or better, he ranks higher still. A good player to contrast with Rivers is Dan Marino. He was decently above average in 2/3 of his qualifying seasons, but was only "highly" above average in 3 years -€” equal to Rivers who has played 2/3 the number of years so far. Rivers' production has been pretty good half of the time, and VERY good 60% of those years.

Bottom line: combine all this production with the (relatively) pitiful teams the organization has assembled around him, and Rivers should be considered one of the most dominant passers in what could be considered the golden age of quarterback talent.

Fun Fact: When putting together the 115+  data, I limited search to QBs who had at least 5 seasons (1969+) of at least 300 attempts, and the leader in years-without-a-single-115+season was Drew Bledsoe with a whopping 12 seasons without being 1 standard deviation above average. Next is Jay Cutler with 9, followed by Jon Kitna & Joe Flacco (8). Active players Alex Smith & Ryan Fitzpatrick (7 each) are still "in the race" for this sad crown. To rub it in, of the 97 QBs with 5+ seasons, 75 managed at least 1, 115+ season (76.3%).

GLOSSARY:

· ANY/A = Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt = (passing yards + (20*TD) – (45*INT) – sack yards)/(pass attempts + sacks)

· DVOA & DYAR are opponent-adjusted rate & counting stats found at Football Outsiders

· PBE (from PFF) = Pass Blocking Efficiency = 100 - (((sacks allowed + (0.75*(hits + hurries allowed))) / pass-snaps) * 100)