On day 2 of the 2017 NFL draft the Chargers selected what will likely (eventually) be TWO starters along the offensive line – in Guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney. Prior to the draft, the team signed free agent Russell Okung to start at the Left Tackle. On paper, this looks to be a unit much improved from last season. If these investments pay off, this will be the first time in a long while that Philip Rivers has had a line that allows him to perform at an elite level. If they don’t, it’ll be business as usual along the front line, as we shall soon see.
What I want to highlight here is not only how poor Charger offensive lines have been (especially compared to those of other long-time starting QBs), but how Rivers’ performance in spite of them has been admirable. Below I have collected the results of Pro Football Focus’ (regular season) o-line rankings from 2009 (when they were first published) until 2016, for the teams of 16 quarterbacks with the most attempts and starts over the time period. The table contains the team’s overall OL rank as well as rank for pass-blocking and run-blocking (save for 2016, when PFF instead profiled the best & worst player on each line). The ranks are color coded to easily identify good (green) & bad (red) units, and the highlighted QBs are those who started for the same team from 2009-2016.
Before we get to the cumulative table, I want to highlight the fact that Rivers only had ONE season behind an above-average OL (two, if you want to quality it as “around average”) – with no units above average in pass-protection and only two in run-blocking. In Rivers’ three best OL-seasons (which were really mediocre units at best), he produced elite passing performances (but more on that later).
Now, let’s take a look at the average and median ranks across these eight seasons for each QB, as well as their passing efficiency over the span. If you are unfamiliar with any of the terms, I suggest checking out PFR’s glossary (specifically for the last column, scrolling down to “Explanation of the Advanced Passing table”). It’s sufficient to say, the final column (by which the table is sorted) are the number of great passing seasons for each QB (min 250 attempts).
I don’t think it is difficult to pick out Rivers’ dark red line of poor-rankings in this table. In four of the six ranking columns Rivers ranks last…and just second to last in the remaining two. Median is generally a more stable measure than average, and no QB had worse median OL-ranking than Rivers (with only Jay Cutler having worse median pass-protection). In spite of all of this, Rivers managed to put together three great passing seasons in this time (unfortunately PFF did not release a ranking after 2008, Rivers’ breakout year). This is tied for the fifth most among the 16 QBs, with the 4 QBs ranked ahead of him having on average top 10(ish) lines the entire time.
Rivers performed very well with not-garbage OLs – “But, wouldn’t that be expected?” you might ask. Well, I would agree it would be worthwhile to compare the performance of these passers only during years with bad OLs, but unfortunately during Rivers’ five non-elite years his highest ranked OL was 26th, and Jay Cutler was the only other QB with more than TWO such years. In fact, half the QBs had zero years behind a bottom of the barrel OL. For the 7 QBs with three or more great seasons, only Roethlisberger had worse (avg & med) OL during the great seasons. In seasons in which these QBs’ lines ranked between 14th and 22nd, only Rivers (3) and Rodgers (2) had great passing seasons every time.
We could continue to break down this data in more ways, but I think it’s clear enough that this team has not invested in the OL the way other teams with franchise QBs have, and that Rivers has proven he can perform at elite levels when given proper assistance. I know I am not alone in hoping that these recent additions to the lines will finally give the offense what it needs to stop dragging the entire team down.
I’ll leave you with a couple more (non-Charger) interesting observations: Brady and Brees have had the 1st (T) and 2nd best run-blocking units over these years - not something I’d bet many would have guessed. Also, Joe Flacco seems to be the anti-Rivers of this group; he’s tied for the 2nd best median ranking and the most years (5) with a top-10 unit, but has yet to deliver a great passing season.