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Worth the Wait
Tim Layden
November 13, 2006
The Chargers jumped through hoops to get quarterback Philip Rivers--then sat him for two seasons. Finally given command, he's playing with veteran poise
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November 13, 2006

Worth The Wait

The Chargers jumped through hoops to get quarterback Philip Rivers--then sat him for two seasons. Finally given command, he's playing with veteran poise

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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 quarterback 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 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 game day had been carved into Rivers's soul. He grew up in Decatur, Ala., the son of a football coach, a sideline ball boy from age six. He rode team buses to games all over northern Alabama, soaking up the singular vibe of the football team, listening to the players' fraternal jibes. "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 seasons 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 'em all 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."

Rivers's debut season as a starter is the latest bit of evidence in the endless debate over how best to grow a young 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."

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