Here we go, hot off the presses, the second edition of my four part deep sea dive into the depths of confusion in San Diego. If you haven't read the opening segment on the offensive line then take a moment to do so now, or don’t. But seriously, I’ll be right here, so take your time.
If you were lazy enough to choose the latter, just bear in mind that we will be operating under the assumption that the line stands to improve slightly in 2013 and the rest of the offense will gather a small benefit by proxy. Also realize that offense isn’t exactly a cut-and-dried affair in San Diego, and I’ve set out to answer the myriad questions associated with the unit heading into 2013.
Today’s focal point is the man who makes the wheels turn, the one who only ended up in scenic Southern California because Eli Manning couldn’t stand to don the yellow and blue back in 2004. I broke down Philip Rivers to the core and then put him back together again, and boy was there a lot beneath the surface.
Bridging Philip Rivers
There are two factors that are crucial to evaluate when predicting the Chargers passing output in 2013. From there, we can branch out to every other component of the offense and witness their effect on the entire passing package. Those factors are actually a pair of names, and probably the ones that any idiot with a program could fathom; quarterback Philip Rivers and head coach Mike McCoy.
On the surface, it’s actually that simple. What are the capabilities of the man under center, and what is the composition of his playbook? The weapons at his disposal play their part, but only to the extent that they must create harmony with their quarterback to garner success. After evaluating the Chargers entire passing attack as a function of the quarterback, Rivers seems likely to bounce back from his extreme regression in 2012, perhaps not to his former Pro Bowl standard, but well enough to cement his status as a top 15 QB.
Half the battle starts with McCoy and, by proxy, offensive coordinator Ken Wisenhunt’s patient and adaptable attack style. Rivers may as well have cement blocks strapped to his feet and the front tire of a Mack truck across his back when moving in the pocket. Few signal callers can compare to that sort of immobility as well as a 36 year old post-surgery Peyton Manning, McCoy’s man under center in 2012. In order to avoid disaster, Manning was asked to operate from quick drops to ensure that he wasn’t burdened in the backfield, completing 55.3% of his throws in 2.5 seconds or less, good for 6th best in the NFL. When Manning displayed a visible decrease in arm strength, McCoy integrated a dearth of short and intermediate routes into passing packages.
McCoy is a man who went from the gunslinging Jay Cutler to the anemic Kyle Orton and turned him into a 3,500 yard, 20 touchdown per year starter. After that, Tim Tebow was forced into the fold and the Broncos offense morphed from a passing haven to the most formidable rushing attack in the league in 2011. The next season, and McCoy’s most recent to date, the offense via air came back into vogue as Manning commanded the league’s fifth best passing offense. If one word can describe the offensive philosophy of Mike McCoy, it would be adaptability, a trait that Turner may have lacked with more than two decades of playcalling success under his belt. It seems apparent that with any semblance of offensive talent at his disposal, Rivers and McCoy will mix the best cocktail possible to produce a top flight unit.
When it comes to analyzing Rivers as a product of his offensive personnel, one can derive an equation that accurately depicts the situation at large. Feel free to read this one over multiple times so that you can really wrap your head around it. Philip Rivers plus pressure does not equal touchdowns. Or, more accurately, Philip Rivers minus pressure is equal to more trips to the end zone. Save for 2010, an unreal year that saw every man and his mother pile up catches in San Diego, the protective abilities of the offensive line have directly correlated with the volume of interceptions and passing touchdowns since Rivers’ first 4,000 yard season in 2008. For future reference, our data will always start in 2008, or the start of the “Philip Rivers is a Franchise Quarterback” era.
Touchdown totals suffered and interceptions surged when the offensive line couldn’t hold its’ ground (except for 2010, an outlier that will be addressed as we continue). It’s also interesting to note that although the yardage numbers increase with a higher number of passing attempts, the touchdown-to-interception ratio also suffers on both ends. Rivers’ best scoring season in 2008 also marks his lowest number of passing attempts over the last five years. When given his largest taste of passing action in 2011, his touchdown total sat mired behind his three previous campaigns and his interception total skyrocketed. Alleviating pressure and excessive passing volume are both key in getting the ideal season from number 17.
Philip Rivers is not Drew Brees- he needs a running back that can shoulder some of the scoring burden, particularly in the red zone. When the backfield situation was in flux last season (Feel free to cringe, Ryan Mathews fans) Rivers’ red zone efficiency was harmed by proxy. Take a look at the Bolts red zone scoring efficiency (touchdowns only) as it relates to halfback productivity over the last five years. The metric only measures the percentage of red zone trips that result in a touchdown. It’s clear to see that the numbers fell off the end of the table when Mathews and Jackie Battle were utilized as the top two runners in 2012.
RZ Touchdown Efficiency
Top Two Running Backs
L. Tomlinson/ D. Sproles
L. Tomlinson/ D. Sproles
R. Mathews/ M. Tolbert
R. Mathews/ J. Battle
Touchdown Scoring Ratio of Top Two Backs (Rushing Only)
If you’re thinking that long gains would skew the data, think again- the season with the highest number of 20+ yard plays for the top two Chargers runners came in 2011, otherwise known as Rivers’ most interception laden season. Mike Tolbert, the best red zone back to don the yellow and blue during our window of importance, broke only fourteen plays of more than twenty yards in two years as one of the two primary rushers.
LaDainian Tomlinson only had ten such plays in passing and running combined in 2008, a year that saw him hang 1100 yards and 11 touchdowns on opposing defenses. For a frame of reference, six players outpaced that total on the ground alone, including one who rushed for less yardage (Brandon Jacobs with 1089).
So no, don’t get cute about the game-breaking plays when analyzing the numbers here.
Rivers secured his highest touchdown total when LaDanian Tomlinson put together a 1000/10 campaign and threw for the most yardage with battering ram Mike Tolbert in his back pocket. Neither remains in San Diego; the talented-but-injury-prone Ryan Mathews and a slew of complimentary backs sit in their wake.
2010 and, to a lesser extent, 2011 show that Mathews can present a respectable security blanket for a high volume passer when on the field. Which, of course, is a seismic when. The addition of Danny Woodhead will boost red zone running efficiency, but it’s also safe to assume that the Ryan Mathews requisite four game absence will once again create chaos and instability at halfback, torpedoing an otherwise formidable group. Chalk up the running game as a likely hindrance to a bounceback season for.
The final component of mighty Phil’s arsenal is, of course, the receiving corps. This piece of analysis is easily the most cut-and-dried (at least in terms of how it affects Rivers). Since 2008, Vincent Jackson and a healthy Antonio Gates have translated to numerical riches through the air. Subtract Jackson and spend most of a season patching Gates up in the training room and well... not so much. Take a gander at the raw receiving numbers for the two prominent targets of the Philip Rivers era, including how the team fared when they decided (or were forced) to go receiver-by-committee in 2010 and 2012. Remember, Rivers had his best passer rating (105.5) in 2008 and his most prolific yardage seasons in 2010 and 2011.
No. 1 WR Yards
No. 1 TE Yards
No. 1 WR Touchdowns
No. 1 TE Touchdowns
Combined Percentage of Passing Offense
Combined Percentage of Passing Touchdowns
Note that in 2010, when Vincent Jackson appeared in only five games due to a contract dispute, Rivers threw for a career high 4710 yards and distributed less than a third of that total to his top two targets. To loop back to a previous point, 2010 was also the year that a Tolbert/Matthews/Darren Sproles three-headed monster was busy gobbling up 20 all-purpose touchdowns, a luxury that seems a far cry from reality for the Chargers in 2013.
As a general rule, Rivers was at his most efficient with Jackson controlling the sideline and Gates grabbing intermediate balls over the middle (2008,2009), but that didn’t necessarily translate to his highest sheer volume of yardage (2010). With a fading Gates and no Jackson-caliber threat in the fold, look for the touchdown/interception ratio to float around the good-not-great arena. It would seem shocking for Rivers to attempt anything less than 500 passes next season on a squad with an average defense and highly volatile running game, so there is little reason to think that the passing yardage will suffer. Could Danario Alexander or Vincent Brown help fill the void? Yes, but that’s more of a question for the upcoming segment on wide receivers, and not nearly enough of a certainty to take to the bank in July. Minus a breakout season from one of San Diego’s crop of relative unknowns, the upcoming season looks eerily similar to the last in regards to wideouts.
Let’s run down our Philip Rivers success checklist one more time. New, more flexible scheme? Check. Stability and red zone prowess in the backfield? Somewhat, barring Ryan Mathews’ health. A safety blanket at tight end and a dominant number one receiver? Not really. Sorry folks, this just isn’t adding up to a bounceback campaign for the man under center.
Not to say that all is lost. This is an offense headed in the right direction, however slowly, and to call the 2012 numbers a reality rather than an anomaly is ludacris. The yardage is bound to rise, and the touchdown to interception ratio should improve a bit with an added familiarity to the offensive personnel and improvement up front. Mike McCoy’s addition as the mastermind behind it all cannot be underestimated either; it should bode well for a talented veteran like Rivers.
What To Make Of Philip Rivers: 3900 YDs, 28 TDs, 14 INTs
Previously: A Less Offensive Line
- He Who Must Not Be Named And The Ground Game
- The Wild World Of Wide Receivers And Tight Ends