Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers tied for third in the NFL in interceptions in 2011, an out-of-character distinction for one of the league's most historically efficient passers. In-season rumors swirled that Rivers was hiding an injury, speculation both he and the Chargers' organization adamantly refuted. In late November, ESPN's Adam Schefter published a story stating that "numerous NFL executives and coaches around the league" believed something was wrong. "Based on the opinion of people around the league," wrote Schefter, "Rivers has to be playing hurt, no matter how much he denies it."
The rumors died down when Rivers finished statistically strong, posting a 12:3 TD-to-INT ratio in the Chargers' final six games. Having studied the game tape closely, NFL Films guru Greg Cosell has since attributed Rivers' career-high interception total to struggles with "accuracy and decision making." So perhaps Rivers wasn't hurt. He was just playing like it.
I want to feel confident about my own Philip Rivers evaluation heading into the 2012 season, so I took time out to review every interception he threw last year. A detailed breakdown of each pick can be found on the next page. Here were my takeaways after viewing those 20 throws, in addition to many others over the course of Rivers' 2011 season:
1. Vincent Jackson was by far the most oft-targeted receiver on Rivers' picks.
Jackson was the intended receiver on nine of Rivers' 2011 interceptions. Rivers looked for Antonio Gates four times among the 20. Patrick Crayton and Ryan Mathews tied for "third" at two targeted picks apiece, while Mike Tolbert and Malcom Floyd each had one. On the final Rivers interception, he had no one open downfield against the Bears and appeared to be trying to throw the ball away. CB Corey Graham aggressively closed on Rivers' carelessly thrown pass and dove to pick it off.
I watched every single one repeatedly, and I'm not sure the fact that so many interceptions were intended for Jackson means a whole lot. The majority of the Jackson picks came on relatively low-percentage, shot-play attempts downfield. The Chargers were gambling anyway. And they just lost. Many were underthrown or simply off the mark, meaning they were Rivers' fault -- not Jackson's.
2. A large majority of Rivers' INTs came on underthrown or errant passes.
I charted all 20 picks and assigned a descriptive word or phrase to each. Five were assigned "great play" by the defender. One was bad luck, as Jackson lost Rivers' pass in the lights on Thursday Night Football in Week 10. One was dropped by Patrick Crayton and tipped into Broncos CB Cassius Vaughn's hands. Each of the remaining 13 were either described as "errant," "floated," or "underthrown" passes. A healthy, heavy majority of Rivers' interceptions were on him.
I'm not sure Rivers could ever have been characterized as possessing a power arm. He throws with a sort of shot-putty style, pushing the football in a three-quarters motion and relying on torque from his lower body. But Rivers wasn't getting any zip on his passes last year, and I don't think that issue was resolved at any point in the season. His short and intermediate throws were sitting ducks, and his deep balls were dying.
When a quarterback fails to put necessary velocity on throws, defenders become more capable of getting their hands on the football. This is easy to understand. Defensive backs, linebackers, and even some defensive linemen are quick-twitch reactors, and they jump all over balls floating through the air. Interceptions result when defenders get good breaks on passes. They're even more common when the throws miss intended receivers.
3. Pressure from the defense rarely played a role in Rivers being intercepted.
Rivers was under heavy pressure just once when he was intercepted in 2011 -- on his first pick of the year. In Week 1, Vikings LE Brian Robison bent the edge on a speed move around Chargers RT Jeromey Clary and got his hand on Rivers' right arm, obstructing the quarterback's throwing motion. The ball popped into the air and was caught by CB Antoine Winfield. Rivers was most commonly intercepted when he had a clean pocket. Football Outsiders graded San Diego's offensive line as a top-nine unit in pass protection, and I don't think poor play from the front five was to blame.
4. People were talking about Rivers' struggles much more during the season than they are now.
I find this fascinating. ESPN's Ron Jaworski is a tape junky, and his recent ranking of Rivers as the seventh-best quarterback in football contained zero negative commentary on Jaws' SportsCenter presentation discussing the Chargers' ninth-year quarterback. Jaworski was singing an entirely different tune last year, attributing Rivers' struggles to inaccuracy and poor decision making. NFL Network's Mike Mayock, ESPN's Merril Hoge, and ESPN Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson were all outspoken about Rivers' struggles over the course of last season. No one talks about it anymore.
5. Rivers quieted questioners with a pick-free month late in the year.
Rivers was sitting on a league-high 17 interceptions through ten games. He then strung together four straight pick-less weeks in late November and December, before throwing three more INTs against Detroit and Oakland in Weeks 16 and 17.
During the interception-free stretch, Rivers played poorly against Denver, before lighting up Buffalo and a Jacksonville defense that had lost roughly half its starters to injured reserve, including both first-team cornerbacks. Rivers protected the ball well in a 34-14 Week 15 win over Baltimore, as Ryan Mathews piled up 109 total yards and two scores on Sunday Night Football. The Chargers got creamed by Detroit the following week -- Rivers was picked twice -- before closing out the year with a 38-26 win at The Black Hole.
I went back and watched every Rivers throw from the Ravens game, before publishing this column. I think Rivers is capable of delivering the football accurately to open receivers. I think his velocity was still a problem, late in the season. And I think the Chargers know it.
6. It's worth wondering whether we've seen the best of Philip Rivers.
That sound you heard coming out of Chargers Park all spring and summer was the organization pumping up third-year running back Ryan Mathews. The Chargers want Mathews to emerge as a true workhorse, and perhaps even to lead the NFL in rushing attempts, if coach Norv Turner's comparison to 2002-2003 Ricky Williams is to be believed. San Diego should want better play from Mathews, but is there more to it? Are the Chargers eyeing a new offensive centerpiece?
Rivers is going on age 31, and I think it's fair to wonder if we've seen the best he's got. I think it's a distinct possibility that Rivers has peaked, particularly if his velocity doesn't return this season. His pass attempts to the intermediate sections of the field floated throughout last year, lacking zip. His bomb tries were all too often underthrown, frequently dying at the end of their trajectory. Can Rivers still be a 25-plus touchdown quarterback, complete passes to open receivers, and lead San Diego to plenty of 2012 wins? I'd say so, absolutely. I'm just not sure if he's going to get any better.
Play-by-play breakdown of each Rivers interception on the next page.