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FAB 1. Could Rivers Replace Winston?
Bucs fans have mixed opinions when it comes to whether or not they want to see Tampa Bay re-sign Jameis Winston – be it a multi-year extension or the franchise tag.
But there is more of a consensus about former Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers possibly replacing Winston. That’s not a popular idea.
Fans look at the fact that Rivers had the third-highest interception total in the NFL with 20 – to go along with just 23 touchdowns – and the fact that he is 38 years old. That, plus the Chargers finishing with an 5-11 record, doesn’t inspire much confidence that Rivers would be as good or better than Winston.
Because I have tunnel vision on the Buccaneers, I can’t speak about Rivers or the Chargers with any authority, outside of telling you that he has completed 4,908-of-7,591 passes (64.7 percent) for 59,271 yards with 397 touchdowns and 198 interceptions in his 16 years with the team. Rivers’ career TD percentage is a sterling 5.2 percent, along with a career INT percentage of 2.6.
Rivers completed 390-of-591 passes (66 percent) for 4,615 yards with 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 2019, and had eight 300-yard passing games last season.
Rivers hasn’t missed a start in 14 years, and he has thrown for 4,000 yards in seven straight seasons, and 11 times out of the last 12 years. He’s a big-time competitor who has a large family that just moved to Florida. That’s about it.
So I decided to look at every one of Rivers’ throws in three of his best games and three of his worst games from the 2019 season to evaluate if he’s lost any arm strength with his advancing age and if he’s in the same class as Winston when it comes to being a turnover machine. I wanted to find out if there was any merit to the criticism of Rivers.
Before getting into the results of my film study, keep one thing in mind – the clock is ticking for both general manager Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians. Licht has been at the helm of this team six seasons with one winning season and no playoff berths. He needs to win now.
Arians will be 68 this year and wants one more shot at a championship before he retires. He has four more years left on his contract, but I believe he’ll retire in the next two or three years. Time is of the essence, and he had success in Arizona with an aging, experienced quarterback in Carson Palmer, who helped take the Cardinals to three straight playoff appearances from 2013-15.
I’m not saying the Bucs won’t draft a quarterback in 2020 – they may do so even as high as the first round. But Tampa Bay won’t be starting a rookie QB this season. Not with Licht and Arians on the ticking clock. If the Bucs don’t re-sign Winston, Rivers or another veteran quarterback would be added to help get Tampa Bay to the playoffs instead.
Let’s go to Rivers’ tape.
Rivers’ 3 Best Games In 2019
Week 1: Chargers’ 30-24 OT win vs. Colts
25-of-34 (73.5 percent) for 333 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Sacked 4 times
Film Notes: Rivers threw lots of short passes, but he was forced into that due to Indy’s tight coverage downfield. Rivers showed nice touch and good zip on intermediate throws. His lone interception came when he didn’t step into a short throw in the end zone and Malik Hooker made a great play on the ball at the right time. That’s one flaw about Rivers that I saw on tape – an overreliance on his arm strength and not adhering to good QB form of stepping into throws. Yet Rivers showed good poise in engineering the game-winning touchdown drive in overtime. It was a solid, effective performance, but not necessarily a spectacular showing.
Week 9: Chargers’ 26-11 win vs. Packers
21-of-28 (75 percent) for 294 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
Sacked 2 times
Film Notes: Rivers made a lot of risk-averse throws to the backs and tight ends in this game. Was that the game plan or was Rivers taking what the defense gave him? It’s hard to say without knowing what the game plan was. Rivers was efficient in moving the ball into field goal range, but too often the Chargers had to settle for field goals in the red zone. That wasn’t just in this game, but in several games this past season, and that contributed to the team’s 5-11 record. Rivers showed plenty of zip on his short and intermediate throws, but just didn’t seem interested in taking many shots downfield other than a beautifully thrown 46-yard pass to Mike Williams, which was right on the money late in the third quarter.
Week 14: Chargers’ 45-10 win at Jaguars
16-of-22 (72.7 percent) for 314 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs
Sacked 1 time
Film Notes: Rivers fired two perfect deep balls that were right in the receivers’ hands but were dropped. He should have had a completion percentage of 81.8 percent. Rivers’ short throws were quick, decisive and on the money. A big part of the Chargers’ game plan was to have the receivers run clear outs and to throw to wide-open running backs in the flat. Rivers’ throws to the backs were on time and accurate. Rivers threw a great play-action 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry right before halftime. He also had a beautiful, 44-yard touchdown strike to Mike Williams in the end zone. With the game out of reach, Rivers was replaced by backup Tyrod Taylor in the fourth quarter.
Rivers’ 3 Worst Games In 2019
Week 10: Chargers’ 26-24 loss at Raiders
17-of-31 (54.8 percent) for 207 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs
Sacked 5 times
Film Notes: Rivers opened the game with a nice 23-yard strike down the middle to Williams, but the drive would end with Rivers’ first interception of the game when his pass to Keenan Allen sailed on him because he didn’t step into his throw and threw off his back foot. Later in the first quarter, Rivers threw a pick-six as he was being dragged down. It was a poor read and an ill-advised throw. Rivers had an awful short throw into the end zone that was intercepted as he stared down his receiver, but that play was nullified due to an offside call. Rivers’ best throw was a perfect 45-yard deep ball to Williams down the middle of the field. Rivers’ third pick of the game came with just 27 seconds left and the ball at the L.A. 30-yard line on a desperation pass.
Week 11: Chargers’ 24-17 loss vs. Chiefs
28-of-52 (53.8 percent) for 353 yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs
Sacked 2 times
Film Notes: Rivers completed a lot of short and intermediate passes before throwing his first interception as Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark hit his arm as he threw the ball, which floated into the arms of defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi in the second quarter. Rivers’ perfectly thrown deep ball to Mike Williams was dropped on the next series, and safety Tyrann Mathieu recorded a pick on the next play. Mathieu was playing Cover 2 and read Rivers’ eyes and stepped in front of the pass. Rivers threw a nice red zone TD to Allen, and was quick to find Henry in the end zone for the two-point conversion. On his third interception, Rivers didn’t put enough on a deep ball that was picked off. Was there some arm fatigue? Perhaps. Rivers had thrown the ball 40 times by that point and it was Week 11 of the season. Rivers drove the Chargers down to the red zone trailing by seven points with 24 seconds left, but his end zone pass to Austin Ekeler on a wheel route was very well defended by the Chiefs’ zone defense and the pass was intercepted. All of the other receivers were covered on the play. It’s weird to say, but despite throwing four interceptions, it really didn’t seem like Rivers had that bad of a day.
Week 15: Chargers’ 39-10 loss vs. Vikings
28-of-39 (71.8 percent) for 307 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs
Sacked 3 times
Film Notes: Rivers threw for 307 yards and completed nearly 72 percent of his passes, so how was this a bad game? Well, losing by 29 points while only putting up 10 points on offense, and throwing three interceptions isn’t good. And that’s what I wanted to investigate this performance. Rivers opened up the game with great throws of 19 and 39 yards to Williams. The Chargers took a 10-9 led in the first half when Rivers found Williams for a jump ball in the end zone for a touchdown. Trailing 12-10 before halftime, Rivers was hurried and didn’t step into a deep throw and it was picked off by Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith, who was playing Cover 2 and made a play on the fluttering pass. Down 12-10 with 23 seconds left, Rivers was sacked by Danielle Hunter and fumbled, and the Vikings scooped and scored to put Minnesota up 19-10 at halftime. That would be one of four – four! – Chargers fumbles on the day. Rivers made several clutch throws, including a 24-yarder to Henry on fourth-and-1 at the end of the third quarter, but he did make a bad read on his second interception, throwing into double coverage deep down the sidelines. The game was out of hand when Rivers tried to throw deep down the middle, but the Vikings were playing two deep and safety Anthony Harris undercut the throw and came away with the INT.
So what were my takeaways from watching Rivers for six games?
From the film I watched, Rivers – with his funky side-arm delivery – was a little risk averse in the red zone. The Chargers had to settle for a lot of field goals and that led to their 5-11 record due to the fact that L.A. averaged just 21.1 points per game, which ranked 21st in the league. Keep in mind that the Chargers were the sixth-highest scoring team in 2018, averaging 26.8 points per game while posting a 12-4 record.
Rivers is not particularly mobile – at all. He stands in the pocket no matter what – similar to the way Brad Johnson used to do in Tampa Bay. If Rivers replaces Winston he won’t be extending the play with his scrambling like there is with Winston.
Can the Bucs’ offensive line protect Rivers? That’s a good question. Will his ability to get rid of the ball quickly and not hang on to the ball assist Tampa Bay’s O-line’s efforts to protect him? Maybe.
While Rivers doesn’t have Winston’s mobility, he doesn’t have nearly as many bone-headed or head-scratching plays as Winston does, either, and doesn’t take nearly as many sacks because he will throw the ball away if no one is open. He has a good internal clock that he adheres to.
Rivers is not an older, more experienced version of Winston. He really isn’t a gunslinger. He is an accurate chain-mover and a game manager at this stage of his career – similar to what Johnson was for the Super Bowl Buccaneers in 2002.
Last year, Rivers had six games with no interceptions and four more games with one pick. He had three games with two picks, and three more games with more than three INTs.
Winston had four games without throwing a pick in 2019, and three games with just one interception. Yet he had four games with two interceptions and five games with three or more INTs.
After putting up with 30 interceptions and nine fumbles last year from Winston, does Arians want a little less risk it and a little less biscuit, especially to pair with what he believes is an improving defense on the rise?
A big concern at One Buccaneer Place this offseason is that the team knows it can’t win with 30 interceptions again. The evidence is that Tampa Bay went 7-9 last year.
Say what you want about the Bucs’ young secondary, the lack of a consistent running game or a few missed field goals, and a bad call here or there, but Winston’s league-leading and career-high 30 interceptions and NFL-record seven pick-sixes were just as much at fault for the team’s losing record.
What did a 5,000-yard season do for Winston and the Bucs last year outside of getting Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in the Pro Bowl? Not much outside of a 7-9 season.
Is Rivers a sure-fire upgrade over Winston? Not necessarily.
But I don’t think he’s on the same level or worse than Winston, either – even at age 38. I think Rivers could be slightly better because he has the experience that comes with being an eight-time Pro Bowler – most recently from 2016-18. And despite making the Pro Bowl in 2016 for throwing 33 TDs, Rivers also threw a career-high 21 interceptions, which raised some eyebrows because he was 35.
Was that the beginning of the end for Rivers?
No. He bounced back.
The following year in the 2017 season, Rivers completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 4,515 yards and threw 28 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. And in 2018, Rivers completed 68.3 percent of his passes – the second-highest completion percentage of his career – with 32 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions while leading the Chargers to the playoffs with a 12-4 record.
Arians was a commentator for CBS in 2018 and covered the Chargers’ win over the Raiders and gushed over Philips in the article I posted on Thursday on PewterReport.com, saying that Rivers was “a winner” and one of the Top 5 QBs currently playing the game.
“He is a classic, drop-back quarterback and, I mean, those are the guys I love coaching,” Arians said. “I mean – 40 (years old) – that number anymore, you can throw that out the window. All these guys, I think, are going to play to 40, 42 because they’re taking such great care of themselves.”
Does Rivers have another bounce back season in him in 2020 – perhaps one with a better group of wide receivers like Tampa Bay’s Evans and Godwin? Possibly.
I’m not necessarily advocating for Rivers or against Winston, but based on my film study his 2019 season was not nearly as bad as some Bucs fans think. Keep in mind too that he didn’t have his security blanket – future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, who retired following the 2018 season.
And I believe a lot of Rivers’ detractors in the Tampa Bay fan base didn’t watch a single Chargers game last year and just based their opinions about him on his age and his stats sheet from 2019.
I do think Rivers would turn the ball over at a lesser rate than Winston would in Tampa Bay. I think Rivers’ 20-interception season is a bit of anomaly because he didn’t make as many bad decisions with the football as one might assume – certainly fewer than Winston did – after watching the game film.
If the Bucs are looking for more of a risk-averse game manager that could maybe throw for 4,000 yards with 24 touchdowns and 14 interceptions rather than a guy that could throw for 5,000 yards with 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions, they really might be tempted to make the switch to Rivers to increase Tampa Bay’s chances of making the playoffs in 2020. Rivers reminds me of better version of Johnson, whom the team won a Super Bowl with – only with with a stronger arm.
Signing Rivers and then drafting a QB prospect to groom under him for a few years to replace Winston as the team’s long-term starter is one of the scenarios the Bucs have to be pondering this offseason. Then again, the Bucs’ brass might feel that one more year in Arians’ system can produce even better results for Winston (i.e. fewer interceptions) in 2020.
Can’t wait to see what ultimately happens under center in Tampa Bay this offseason.