He’s not even the oldest starting quarterback to change teams this offseason. But Philip Rivers is 38 years old and the tread on his tires appears to be worn by 224 consecutive regular-season starts over the last 14 seasons with the Chargers.
Rivers is coming off a 2019 campaign in which his 20 interceptions were third most in the NFL. It was only the third season in his career in which he was picked off that many times. His struggles and the Chargers’ 5-11 record prompted the team to part with its veteran quarterback.
What, then, are the Indianapolis Colts thinking in giving Rivers $25 million, even if for only one season, ostensibly to be the team’s starter for 2020? Is there enough left in Rivers’ tank and, more importantly, can he put last season’s struggles behind him? Some of the numbers suggest that he will.
A season ago, Rivers was sacked on 5.4% of his dropbacks, hardly an unsightly number. It was ninth lowest among passing qualifiers. But the deeper numbers tell a different story. He faced pressure on 44.5% of his dropbacks, ninth highest among the league’s 32 qualifiers, as the Chargers had one of the NFL’s worst pass-protecting offensive lines – primarily the fault of tackles Trent Scott and Sam Tevi and left guard Dan Feeney.
Stats Perform tracks QB pressures allowed by offensive linemen, and each member of that trio surrendered pressures at a rate much higher than the league average for his position.
|2019 Player, Position||Pressure% Allowed||NFL Avg. for Position|
|Scott at LT||16.3||11.6|
|Scott at RT||18.0||11.0|
|Tevi at RT||15.1||11.0|
|Feeney at LG||12.7||8.4|
The offensive line was so porous that opposing defenses didn’t need to blitz Rivers last year. The Chargers’ quarterback faced more than four rushers on just 15.8% of his dropbacks, lowest among qualifying QBs, yet he was under duress on the ninth-highest percentage of pass plays.
With defenses dropping back into coverage, Rivers was forced to dump the ball off quite frequently. He targeted running backs on 179 of his passes. Only Tom Brady, with 163, was within 45 of that total. Rivers threw an NFL-high 10 touchdown passes to running backs. His new team, the Colts, did not have a single TD catch by a back in 2019.
While the passes to running backs were effective – especially for fantasy owners with Austin Ekeler or Melvin Gordon III on their rosters – Rivers had a miserable season throwing to wide receivers. In 292 passes targeting wideouts, he threw eight touchdown passes and 17 interceptions, producing a 73.0 passer rating – second lowest in the league (minimum 100 such attempts; Baker Mayfield had a 70.0 mark). Poor protection forced Rivers into hurried throws, as evidenced by his average release time of 2.45 seconds, eighth quickest among qualifying QBs. Hurried, inaccurate passes intended for wide receivers, along with short tosses to backs – hardly a formula for individual or team success.
In contrast to Rivers, Colts QB Jacoby Brissett had considerably more time to hold the football. Brissett averaged 2.70 seconds from snap to release – fourth longest among qualifiers. The disparity in release time goes a long way in explaining the difference between Brissett’s interception rate of 1.3% (eighth lowest among qualifiers) and Rivers’ 3.4% (fourth highest). Brissett was intercepted only six times in total (447 attempts), while Rivers was picked off nine times when pressured (224 passes).
The move from Los Angeles to Indianapolis provides Rivers a far better offensive line. While the Chargers’ line ranked 31st in pass protection a season ago (only Miami’s was worse), Indy’s was the NFL’s sixth-best, and the difference between the left sides of those lines was stark. Compare the pressure percentages allowed by the primary left tackles and left guards of the two teams:
Additionally, there was a considerable difference between the teams’ rushing attack, specifically in yards gained prior to first contact. Here are the numbers for Gordon and Ekeler and Indianapolis’ leading rusher, Marlon Mack.
The Colts checked in fourth in Quality Rush Percentage at 53.1, while the Chargers were 16th at 47.3, and getting behind the chains was often disastrous for Rivers. He was intercepted six times on 2nd downs with 7+ yards to go (tied for second most in the NFL) and an additional five times on 3rd downs with 8+ yards to go (tied with two others for the most in the league).
More than likely, the Rivers of 2020 will benefit from having more time to throw, a better rushing attack and more favorable passing situations. He might not be capable of a 32-TD season as he posted two years ago, but signs point to a significant drop in his interceptions from the 20 he threw last season.