On Thursday, the Kansas City Chiefs will play the Los Angeles Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium. The game has big implications for the postseason, but it will also feature a battle between 37-year-old Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and 23-year-old Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Chiefs fans don’t think much of Rivers. That’s to be expected since Rivers has been the starting quarterback of an AFC West rival for almost 13 seasons. While Rivers hasn’t been successful against the Chiefs in the Andy Reid era — the Chargers are 2-9 against the Chiefs since Reid’s arrival in 2013 — his career record against the Chiefs before then was 11-4.
That’s just not the kind of résumé that’s going to have Kansas Citians offering to buy you drinks in a Country Club Plaza restaurant on the Saturday night before a game.
It’s probably fair to say that Rivers doesn’t have a great reputation across the league, either. Just try Googling his name with words like diva, baby, crying or tantrum, and you’ll find plenty of evidence that whatever talent he brings to the field, many people see him as a... well, I just gave you the list of terms they’d use.
But after listening to Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton speak about Rivers in such glowing terms this week — and remembering that both did the same when the Chiefs played the Chargers in Week 1 — I started wondering: is Philip Rivers really that good?
if you’d asked me, I would have said no. But if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that I see Rivers through the prism of the nine straight losses he’s suffered at the hands of the Chiefs since 2013 — and my own personal view that he’s a... well, I already gave you the list, OK?
So it was time for a thought experiment.
Coming into this year, Rivers has started in 12 seasons for the Chargers. What other good quarterbacks have started over a period that long — and in careers that overlap his? For the sake of fairness, I would compare only their first 12 seasons as a starter, and try to keep the number of games pretty close to the 192 games Rivers has started for the Chargers. So in a couple of cases — where players missed games due to injury in a season or two — I included more seasons.
I came up with a list of five to put alongside Rivers.
Great NFL Quarterbacks alongside Philip Rivers
Brett Favre isn’t on this list because his 12 seasons ended before Rivers started his, so I decided their eras were too different. For the same reason, neither is Troy Aikman. I couldn’t get Kurt Warner anywhere close to 192 games, so he isn’t here, either. I did include Aaron Rodgers — even though he’s a season (and change) short of 192 games — simply because he’s one of the great quarterbacks that’s been playing alongside Rivers. How could I not include him on this list?
Sure... Rivers isn’t at the top of the list. Not even close, really. His contributions to the team are pretty much limited to passing — as shown by the last column, which is rushing touchdowns per game. His winning percentage is the lowest. (Cue the “QB Wins isn’t a statistic” argument). His postseason record (not shown in the table) is the worst of the lot — in fact, he’s the only quarterback on this list that didn’t get a Super Bowl ring during the period shown.
Still, there are two certain Hall of Famers on this list, plus at least one or two more — and Rivers compares pretty favorably to all of them. Rodgers is definitely the outlier here — which might not be fair. Who’s to say that the next couple of seasons under a new head coach won’t bring Rodgers’ stats down to a level closer to the rest when he gets closer to 192 games?
The plain fact is that it’s really hard to have a sustained level of success over such a long period. Head coaches and coordinators come and go. The supporting cast changes along the way. If you can be compared to others who are clearly the best at the game over such a long time — and I don’t think the rest of the quarterbacks on this list could be described any other way — then that’s saying something.
All of this isn’t to make a case that Philip Rivers belongs in the Hall of Fame. Instead, it is to point out that as Chiefs fans, it might be pretty easy for us to discount a quarterback who is actually pretty damned good.
Based on his remarks on Tuesday, Bob Sutton certainly thinks so.
“His numbers and his importance to his team is — to me — second-to-none,” said Sutton of Rivers. “One of the things you respect about the guy is that they’ve had a lot of injuries, and he doesn’t blink. He doesn’t change his expectations for himself or for the other players. He’s a tough customer.
“He’s a daring quarterback, too — he’s not going to shy away,” continued Sutton. “He’s got a lot of confidence in his ability, and he’s going to stick the ball in some tight windows — and sometimes, if you’re fortunate on defense, you can get them — but that’s also one of his great strengths. He gets them in there and you’re like, ‘How’d you get it in there?’ He gets them in there. He’s got that sidearm throw, and he can change the angle of his arm.”
Back before the Chargers game in September, Sutton made similar comments about Rivers.
“You can pull out any video you have of this guy and he is going to make some plays that really are hard to make,” he said. “As a defensive coach, [you say], “That was really covered well, but he got it in there’ or ‘I don’t understand how he did that.’ He can throw it from down here, over there, [or] looking over there and throwing here.”
As I was reviewing these remarks, another thought occurred to me: these are exactly the kind of comments that Chiefs coaches make about Patrick Mahomes. You tell me: is there anything Sutton said here that doesn’t apply to Mahomes?
Then there’s this from Andy Reid in September.
“He’s an amazing guy,” said Reid of Rivers. “I was lucky enough to coach him in the Pro Bowl. You can see why he’s been successful. He loves the game.
“He’s got talent,” Reid continued. “He grew up with it with his dad being a coach. He just kind of knows where everybody is at, and keeps himself in good shape and plays. He’s fearless in there.”
Again... what part of this does not also apply to Mahomes? Here’s Sutton again from Tuesday.
“He is one of those guys that is a great prep guy. He forgets nothing. He remembers every pressure you’ve ever run on him. He’s an amazing dude, I think. He studies the game really hard. You see him on the field, he’s got energy. He likes to jack jaw a little bit — but that’s one of the things you appreciate about him a little bit.”
This last part — about the jack jaw — is one thing that does not to apply to Mahomes. For what it’s worth, I’m fine with that. Although there are plenty who feel otherwise, I’m not in the camp that thinks it’s OK for quarterbacks to yell at their teammates when things go badly or throw temper tantrums on the sidelines. I personally think that competitiveness is fine. Energy is great. But respect for your teammates is what builds respect in return. That’s what leadership really is.
So what’s the big takeaway here? That Mahomes is just another, younger version of Philip Rivers? No... not at all. What this shows is that the Chiefs were looking for a quarterback that was a lot like — but not exactly like — Philip Rivers.
And they found one.
Mahomes has all of Rivers’ best qualities on the field — which for Rivers, has been enough to put him among the league’s best quarterbacks for a long time — but also brings much more to the table. He’s able to improvise when things go south, and make something out of nothing — which Rivers has never been good at doing. He can make plays with his legs — another thing at which Rivers has always been deficient. And finally, he’s just the kind of leader Reid wants — someone who shows his leadership in the same quiet, respectful way that Reid himself does.
With these additional attributes, it’s possible to look at Rivers’ continued success in the league, and then imagine a future — say, about 15 years from now — when Patrick Mahomes is still preparing like no one else, still keeping himself in top shape, still throwing sidearm passes no one can see coming, still remembering every blitz and coverage he’s seen over a long, successful career... and is also still doing all the things Rivers can’t do.
That’s a future worth getting excited about — and the first demonstration of what is to come is tonight at Arrowhead Stadium.