It wouldn’t take much for Philip Rivers to vault higher in the public’s consciousness.
For instance, instead of quietly signing a six-year, $93 million deal in late August, he could have dragged the process out, negotiated in the press and demanded more guaranteed dough than Eli Manning.
Or he could resume his old habit of being captured on screen helmetless while screaming at A) fans (at Indy, 2007 playoffs); B) opposing players after playoff losses (“Ellis Hobbs is the sorriest corner in the league!”, circa 2006) and C) Jay Cutler.
The easiest way for a very good player to become a very prominent one as well is to nurture that divisive public persona. Rivers had that going once upon a time.
He’d scream and stomp, wave his arms at officials and upbraid defenders. To some, it looked whiny and out of control. To others, it showed passion and leadership.
But Rivers himself put a stop to that discussion. First, he went out in the 2007 AFC Championship against New England and earned league-wide respect by playing that game with a torn ACL. Whiner no more.
He then came back in 2008 dedicated to shutting up just a little bit (“I don’t want to be a distraction,” he told USA Today last summer).
And then he got it done on the field. Rivers — coming back from that torn ACL — put the Chargers on his back from Week One. Throwing an NFL-high 34 touchdown passes as the Bolts dealt with key injuries to star players all year, San Diego squeaked into the playoffs and Rivers added to his resume there, leading a win over the Colts, then playing valiantly in a Divisional Playoff loss to the Steelers.
Just like that, public perception changed. The public discussion isn’t about his manners, but whether or not he’s the best current quarterback without a Super Bowl win.
Rivers doesn’t apologize for having been noisy. But he does concede the “whiner” label was affixed to him for a reason.
“But as I’ve grown and matured and my career’s progressed, you understand there’s a fine line,” Rivers continued. “I don’t think I ever said, ‘Wait a minute, I have to change how I go about things.’ But there’s a fine line between what’s too much (talking) and what’s not.”
The public evaluation and labeling of an NFL quarterback is inevitable, Chargers head coach Norv Turner said.
“Once you start having success and people know you, then people will decide which you are,” said Turner. “And there is no guarantee (that overzealous behavior) is always competitiveness. Some guys are whiners and pains in the ass, and the public will figure that out too. But with Philip, when you look at the way his teammates look at him, it doesn’t take very long to realize (his acting out) is passion and energy. But he has learned to tone it down from a visual standpoint.”
What you see now is a quarterback on the cusp of superstardom. He’s helped San Diego to the playoffs three straight years. He’s 33-15 as a starter and has thrown 78 touchdowns and just 36 picks in his 48 games. Yet for all he’s done, the 27-year-old Rivers has been to just one Pro Bowl (2006).
When it comes to attention, Rivers — a father of four who’s been married since he was a star at NC State — gets far less love than guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and the man he was traded for in 2004, Eli Manning. Rivers allows that he’s noticed that.
“I strive to be one of the best in the league, but some of the guys mentioned right there won championships,” Rivers said. “Recognition comes with that territory. As a competitor, the ultimate goal we all have as quarterbacks is to have championships. I want to be right up there with the best in the league not from an attention standpoint, but just because it means we’re at a high level.”
San Diego can entertain thoughts of a title this season. In past years, they had a roster full of talent but seemed to come undone against the AFC elite like New England, Pittsburgh and Indy. Now the Chargers are battle-tested too.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Turner said that Rivers’ off-field work can be thanked for that.
“He really understands the game and understands his guys,” he said. “What he’s done over the last 18 months (in learning Turner’s schemes) has been critical. Now, he’s figured out what we were trying to do.”
The attention, Turner says, will come.
“When you have success in the playoffs and win a Super Bowl, people look at you different,” said Turner, offensive coordinator for the great Cowboys teams in the 1990s. “Doing it over and over and going out and having a great season as a team, that’s what brings it. Brady and Manning will always be guys that get talked about, and when Philip wins a Super Bowl, people will talk about him too.”
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