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Why Philip Rivers stood well ahead of other high-interception QBs

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v San Diego Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s well trod territory both that the LA Chargers and Philip Rivers are parting ways and that Rivers is coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career. Having watched the 2019 season, I find it hard to disagree with the latter and the former makes sense. Rivers did cost the team a few wins — though a lesser QB may have not even had the team within a score of nine potential victories that fell short.

Rivers is likewise not satisfied with the outcome, but as the Chargers get ready to change the starting QB for the first time since before the premieres of Dexter, Friday Night Lights, and The Big Bang Theory, it is important to remember that there are lesser QBs. Ones who threw more interceptions than Rivers did — and who were less valuable overall — and ones who did not.

As I was reviewing some numbers on FootballOutsiders today, I noticed that despite the fact that Rivers threw 20 interceptions, he was 14th in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Average) and DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). His QBR ranking wasn’t as kind — he ranked 23rd, behind Jacoby Brissett and Joe Flacco — and why would that be?

Here’s the breakdown on QBR from FO:

Total QBR is based on the by the quarterback on each play, then adjusts the numbers to a scale of 0-100. There are five main differences between Total QBR and Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric (with further explanation here):

Total QBR incorporates information from game charting, such as passes dropped or thrown away on purpose.

Total QBR splits responsibility on plays between the quarterback, his receivers, and his blockers. Drops, for example, are more on the receiver, as are yards after the catch, and some sacks are more on the offensive line than others.

Total QBR has a clutch factor which adds (or subtracts) value for quarterbacks who perform best (or worst) in high-leverage situations.

Total QBR combines passing and rushing value into one number and differentiates between scrambles and planned runs.

Beginning in 2016, Total QBR is now adjusted for strength of opponent. Total QBR on other stats pages (pre-2016) has not yet been updated with opponent adjustment

We know that Rivers doesn’t have a rushing game whatsoever, which does bring down his QBR. Did he make mistakes at key times? Absolutely. Could slightly different outcomes have really improved his advanced metrics because the Chargers would have won? Definitely. Subtle differences create massive differences on a 16-game, 600-play sample size.

But Rivers also elevated his team perhaps better than Jameis Winston and Baker Mayfield did, the two quarterbacks who threw for more interceptions than he did.

Winston managed 30 interceptions on only 35 more attempts than Rivers. That wasn’t all. Winston completed 60.7% of his attempts (Rivers as at 66%, ranking 10th in the NFL) and was sacked 47 times (Rivers, 34 times). I know it is a relatively new concept to embrace, but I do believe there’s enough evidence to believe that sacks are mainly attributed to the decisions and style of the quarterback more so than on the offensive line. “Sacks are a QB stat” for short.

Because of his propensity for mistakes and other reasons, Winston finished 23rd in DYAR and 25th in DVOA. He was ahead of Rivers in QBR at 18th, one place ahead of Mayfield.

It would be 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions for Mayfield last season, averaging only 7.2 yards per attempt. Rivers averaged 7.8 Y/A — a stat he’s often been among the league leaders in — and Winston was actually at 8.2, which ranked fifth. Mayfield completed fewer than 60% of his pass attempts and was 24th in both DYAR and DVOA.

Interestingly, all three of these quarterbacks had a receiver who finished in the top 10 in receiving yards (Chris Godwin third, Keenan Allen sixth, Jarvis Landry 10th), and a second receiver who went over 1,000 (Mike Evans, Mike Williams, and Odell Beckham, Jr). Perhaps these top tier receiving options gave all three more confidence than they should have had? It’s only a theory at this point, a passing thought.

Other thoughts worth exploring including this one: If Philip Rivers was that bad, why was he basically tied with Deshaun Watson in DYAR, while ranking in front of Jared Goff, Tom Brady, and Carson Wentz?

If you don’t include Dak Prescott, the leader in DYAR last season, because he’s likely to at least be tagged, then Ryan Tannehill is the 2020 free agent who ranked highest in DYAR (9th) and DVOA (5th). Next is Rivers. Then Brady (16th), Teddy Bridgewater (20th), Winston (23rd), and Case Keenum (25th). If you include likelier cap casualties or QBs who I could reasonably see their teams being ready to trade, then you’ve got Derek Carr (6th), Kirk Cousins (7th), Ryan Fitzpatrick (18th), Jacoby Brissett (19th), Andy Dalton (26th), Mitchell Trubisky (28th), and Joe Flacco (29th).

Getting into quarterbacks who I think we’d all be somewhat shocked to see dealt and perhaps would require a team to making a surprising offer, you’ve got Dak, Matthew Stafford (10th), Jimmy Garoppolo (12th), and Jared Goff (15th). And in the category of QBs who may be available but didn’t play enough to qualify, you could include Cam Newton, Marcus Mariota, Nick Foles, and Josh Rosen, who finished with -409 DYAR on only 125 pass attempts; Dwayne Haskins was the only QB in the NFL who had less DYAR, finishing with -466 on 233 attempts.

The point I’m making is that in the world of 2020 free agent and trade candidate quarterbacks who may be involved in this upcoming rotation, perhaps none are a more solid bet than Rivers. Not only was he above average in one of his below average seasons, but Rivers ranked third in DYAR and DVOA just one season earlier, and was seventh in QBR. Goff was sixth, Brady was eighth, Cousins was 13th, but Tannehill was 31st and nobody is stunned by the reminder that he was let go by the Miami Dolphins less than a year from his appearance in the AFC Championship game.

Rosen had -1,145 DYAR on 439 attempts in 2019. More than “double” worse than the guy ranked one spot ahead of him, Josh Allen at -534.

Garoppolo barely played. Bridgewater barely played. Carr was 21st, Cam was 23rd, Foles was 26th, Mariota was 27th. Go back another year to 2017 and you’ll find Rivers ranked even higher than he would be the following year, as he was second in DYAR that season. He was fourth in DVOA and 13th in QBR. It may not be breaking news to say that Rivers may be the best quarterback switching teams this year but perhaps how good he’s been has gotten overlooked as fans and writers ponder “possibilities” with Bridgewater or Rosen or Trubisky, because of age or opportunity. Or they’ve thought way too long about the idea of Taysom Hill throwing more passes in one season than he has in his entire post-high school life.

Or that Tannehill, after a six-year career in which he averaged 7 yards per attempt and a rating of 87, is now a surefire bet to repeat his NFL-leading marks of 9.6 Y/A and a 117.5 rating with the Titans. In the six seasons previous to 2019, Rivers averaged 7.8 Y/A and had a rating of 96.7. He’ll be 39, but Brees has been 39 and 40 in the previous two seasons, and he’s doing just fine. Brady is turning 43. Peyton Manning had 39 touchdowns at age 38 and (somehow) won a Super Bowl at 39. Brett Favre was arguably his best at 40.

The conclusion I’m drawing here is that it will be near impossible for the Chargers to not have their play at quarterback fall off next season because we know Rivers isn’t returning. This isn’t being negative, it’s simply assessing the situation logically so that we can begin to narrow down the best path for the team to get back towards having the success that they want to have, which will likely be powered by good quarterback play. At least, eventually.

Assessing every free agent option short of Dak Prescott, it is probably unlikely that any upgrade is coming via the open market. Assessing every trade option outside of a humdinger led by Matthew Stafford (I think there could be juice in that tank), it is probably unlikely that any upgrade is coming via trade. Assessing any cap casualty, perhaps only Jimmy Garoppolo has enough of a combination of track record and mystery to justify believing he’s an upgrade. Assessing the top-10 of the draft, I would not at this time be in love with the idea of coming away with the third best QB prospect, as LA would likely be left with that.

If the team did intend to move forward with Tyrod Taylor, Easton Stick, and a veteran to push them like Mariota or Flacco (a veteran to push them, not a veteran that I think is going to take them to the Super Bowl), then I don’t think that would be “tanking.” That falls more in line with “being realistic.” It’s hard to believe that Winston, having been in a similar situation with two top-end receivers, a better offensive line, and well-regarded offensive coaching, would be an upgrade given that he was worse than Rivers last season.

If the Chargers are going to go 6-10 with Winston, why not just go 4-12 with Taylor? Especially since they might go 6-10 with Taylor, but saved money and focused resource allocations on other positions that are now upgraded for whatever QB they do bring in come 2021. Maybe they go 8-8 with Taylor because of the upgrades they made by not drafting a quarterback early or by not making a trade or by not signing a QB discarded by his previous team.

Philip Rivers was bad Philip Rivers last season, but perhaps he was not that bad overall. It will be difficult to upgrade and for that reason, I don’t think the Chargers should try to. Yet.


Should the Chargers

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Sign a vet to start
    (26 votes)
  • 27%
    Draft a rookie to start
    (104 votes)
  • 22%
    Both sign a vet + draft a QB early
    (84 votes)
  • 1%
    Trade for a starter
    (6 votes)
  • 33%
    Wait until next year
    (126 votes)
  • 7%
    Other (comments)
    (28 votes)
374 votes total Vote Now