Source: <a target="_blank" href="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/preview/siexclusive/2006/pr/subs/siexclusive/11/07/nfl.rivers1113/index.html?url=http%253A%252F%252Fpremium.si.cnn.com%252Fpr%252Fsubs2%252Fsiexclusive%252F2006%252Fpr%252Fsubs%252Fsiexclusive%252F11%252F07%252Fnfl.rivers1113%252Findex.html">SI.com</a>
By Tim Layden
<img width="251" height="241" align="left" alt="Rivers is third in the AFC in passer rating and has the Chargers in the thick of the playoff chase." title="Rivers is third in the AFC in passer rating and has the Chargers in the thick of the playoff chase." src="http://i.a.cnn.net/si/pr/subs2/siexclusive/2006/pr/subs/siexclusive/11/07/nfl.rivers1113/t1_rivers.jpg" /> Game days were the worst. For the entirety of his first two seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Philip Rivers was an NFL quarterback's apprentice, which is almost like being an actual NFL quarterback. The fourth player selected in the 2004 draft, he was compensated well (a six-year, $40.5 million contract) and given all the rights and privileges of his status except the one that mattered most: playing time. Drew Brees took the snaps, while Rivers discovered longings that a starter never imagines.
"Sundays were tough," Says Rivers, whose game experience amounted to four spot appearances, mostly in garbage time. "I look back on those two years, and a lot of things were no fun. But Sundays were tougher than the other days."
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the customary day off for NFL players, Rivers has come to the Chargers' practice facility for recuperative physical therapy and to get a jump start on the week's video study. He sits in a lounge chair in an otherwise empty locker room, so preternaturally full of energy that he doesn't so much occupy the chair as guard it, fidgeting left and right, stretching sore muscles and pumping his legs as if moving around in some imaginary pocket. No wonder he didn't like the bench.
Things are different in Year 3. Brees injured his throwing shoulder in the last game of the 2005 season and became an unrestricted free agent. Lowballed by the Chargers, he signed a contract with the New Orleans Saints, bequeathing the San Diego starting job to Rivers. The North Carolina state product has responded by guiding the Chargers to a 6-2 record, tied with Denver for first in the AFC West, despite a rash of personnel losses on the defensive side that have forced the young QB not just to keep games close, but to affect them. Rivers had never practiced with the first team before this season; now he's third in the AFC in passer rating at 96.7-ahead of Carson Palmer and Tom Brady-with 10 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. "It's safe to say that he has exceeded expectations," says Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer. "And we have accelerated his progress every day because he's handled it."
Veteran wideout Keenan McCardell says, "I don't care how many games he's started, there is no way, no how, you can call him a rookie. He's been a part of this team."
It often didn't feel that way to Rivers. Before home games the last two years he would start his Sundays by attending 7:15 Mass, then have breakfast with his wife, Tiffany, and their two young daughters, Halle and Caroline. (A third, Grace, was born last June.) By 9:45 he was on I-15, headed for Qualcomm Stadium. And something was missing. "I didn't have that feeling you get before a game," Rivers says, "that nervousness you love to have. It just wasn't there. Then leaving the stadium, I wouldn't have a bump or a cut anywhere on my body. I just never felt like I was a part of the wins-or the losses."
The rhythm of the game day had been carved into River's soul He grew up in Decatur, Ala., the son of a football coach, a sideline ball boy from age 6. He rode team buses to games all over northern Alabama, soaking up the singular vibe of the football team, listening to the player's fraternal jokes. "I love that stuff," Rivers says. "It's what I've known since I could walk."
At N.C. State, Rivers was a four-year starter, playing in coordinator Norm Chow's pro-style system as a freshman and finishing second in NCAA history with 13,484 passing yards. Chargers general manager, A.J. Smith considered him the best quarterback in a draft class that included Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. And still he sat.
But he didn't sit back. During those two season Rivers willed himself into the Chargers' inner circle. On the practice field he'd show his competitiveness by barking at first-teamers like linebacker Donnie Edwards: "Y'all better be ready, I'm gonna hit â€˜em today. "In the locker room the 6'5", 228-pound Rivers made a point of bouncing from cubicle to cubicle, chatting up the veterans whom he might someday command in the huddle. "I tried to build relationships," says Rivers. "If I wound up being the starter, I didn't want to have to walk up to guys and say, "Hello, my name is Philip.'"
All-Pro tailback LaDainian Tomlinson howls at this revelation. "Is that what he was doing? You'd never know it. It was like he was another guy in the room having a conversation with his teammates."
River's debut season as a starter is the latest bit of evidence in the endless dbate over how best to grow a player at the toughest position in professional sports. Play him or sit him? Nature or nurture? Rivers chafed on the Chargers' bench but admits, "I learned a lot." Manning, who was drafted first in '04, started 11 weeks into his rookie year with the Giants. "I think it's important that you play that first year," says Eli, "and get that game experience and that game speed."
Troy Aikman played as a rookie for the Dallas Cowboys and took countless beatings but ultimately won three Super Bowls. David Carr has started from the first snap of his first year as a Houston Texan, and the jury remains out. Palmer sat behind Jon Kitna in his rookie year in Cincinnati and was brilliant by his third. "It depends on the teams' need," says Palmer. "We needed Jon to be the quarterback. There's no formula. If there was people would stick to it."
With apologies to Palmer, there is one formula: Money talks. Two of the three quarterbacks taken in the first round in 2006, Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans and the Arizona Cardinals' Matt Leinart (combined price tag: $109 million), are starting. "You have to pay attention to the economics," says Rod Graves, the Cardinals' vice president of football operations. "You take a quarterback high, those guys usually sign six- or seven-year deals before you're back at the bargaining table. The longer he's on the bench, the less benefit you get from that rookie contract."
River's arrival in San Diego involved a draft-day drama in which Smith ignored threats from Manning's representatives that Eli would never sign with the Chargers and drafted him, with no assurance that the Giants would make the trade. But the Giants did call after drafting Rivers, and Smith got the player he wanted, plus draft picks that landed San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman and kicker Nate Kaeding. Rivers then held out for 23 days of training camp, all but guaranteeing that Brees would keep the job-and likewise opening a divide between Smith and Schottenheimer that persists. "I thought [Rivers would win the starting job as a rookie] because of this talent," says Smith. "But that was up to the coach."
This off-season the Chargers had to decide once and for all between Brees, who despite shoulder surgery was likely to draw strong free-agent interest, and Rivers, who'd already collected $14.5 million in signing bonuses. "I was hopeful that we could keep both of them," Schottenheimer says. But Smith offered Brees only $2 million in guaranteed money; Brees took New Orleans's guarantee of $10 million.
As he was handed the job, Rivers was also handed the daunting prospect of leading a team that was bitter over losing a proved quarterback. " A lot of guys in the locker room were upset," says fullback Lorenzo Neal. "Drew was our leader. It was like having your girlfriend break up with you."
In early March, Rivers opened a notebook, and on top of the first page wrote, BE MYSELF. "I was reminding myself that I had to do things my own way." he explains. "I had to keep doing some of the things Drew started doing here, but I had to use my own personality. I couldn't try to be Drew."
In the summer Rivers worked with wideouts McCardell and Eric Parker and all-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, the catching machine with whom Brees had connected for 170 completions and 23 touchdowns over two seasons. "Drew and I had developed trust," says Gates. "He knew where I was going, and he would give m,e a chance to make a play. I had never caught a ball from Philip in a game and hardly andy in practice. We needed to find our own trust."
The same was true for the rest of the team. Yet Rivers swiftly put his imprint on the Chargers. In the season opener, a Monday-nighter in Oakland, McCardell was supposed to run a medium-deep curl but read blitz from the Raiders. Says McCardell, "I gave Philip the big, wide eyes, like, You see it, don't you? And he gave me the eyes back-and then hit me on a slant." In the same game Rivers hit Parker on a seam pattern despite being leveled by Warren Sapp as he released the ball. "A lot of guys would have tucked the ball and curled up for a sack," says Neal. "He stood tall and made the throw. That takes courage."
On a Sunday night in October the Chargers were holding a late lead against Pittsburgh. "Hey," Rivers yelled in the huddle, "people say we can't finish games. Let's get this one!" The response was silence. Rivers shouted louder: "Can you hear me?!" This time the offense broke up in laughter. "That was the perfect reaction," says Rivers. "You've got to be having fun out there."
His teammates are still learning, in big ways and small, that he's not Brees. "Funny thing," says Tomlinson. "Philip is tall, but he squats in the huddle; Drew was short, but he stood up. I looked up at Drew, and now I look down on Philip." The effect is reversed when Rivers drops back with the ball. "When Philip is in the pocket, I can actually see him," says Gates. "With Drew, I'd just look for the ball to come out."
The little kid in Rivers loves to hear that kind of talk, which cuts through to a team's soul. He still starts Sunday mornings with early Mass and breakfast with his girls, but now he climbs into his 2006 Ford King Ranch F-250 pickup and rolls down the freeway with butterflies alive in his belly. When he reaches the stadium parking lot, he blasts his horn twice, announcing his arrival. For the game. For his career, too. "The last two years, football wasn't complete," he says. "Now I feel like I'm back home again."