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WHILE HE was interviewing to become the San Diego Chargers' coach last February, Norv Turner stressed the need to develop quarterback Philip Rivers. In 2006, Rivers's first year as the starter, the San Diego coaching staff had basically asked him to stay out of the way while running back LaDainian Tomlinson produced a season for the ages. To say that Rivers was an afterthought would be an exaggeration, but not by much.
Turner, respected for his work with young quarterbacks, told general manager A.J. Smith that Rivers would have to shoulder more responsibility if the Chargers were to be Super Bowl contenders. Handing off to Tomlinson or locking in on All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates would not be enough. Rivers would have to win games by making plays.
That vision proved prophetic on Sunday on a gray, rainy afternoon in Qualcomm Stadium as Rivers, with his quirky delivery and his never-back-down attitude, carried the Chargers to a 17--6 opening-round victory over the Tennessee Titans and a trip to Indianapolis for Sunday's AFC divisional playoff. Determined to keep Tomlinson from beating them, the Titans stacked their defense against the run. Rivers responded by throwing for 194 yards in the second half, when the Chargers scored on their first three possessions to erase a 6--0 halftime deficit.
The performance was sweet vindication for Turner, who at times appeared overly sensitive to criticism of his quarterback. Not that the charges were entirely unjustified—San Diego stumbled to a 5--5 start, during which Rivers had seven games with more turnovers than touchdowns—but the attacks on him were sometimes harsh. Rivers was booed in his home stadium and ripped by fans in letters to the local newspaper. Even the Titans joined in. During the week Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth said the Chargers were just "average" without Tomlinson. Quarterback Vince Young smiled and shook his head when asked about San Diego's offensive personnel. "I'm not talking down on Rivers," Young said, "but [there should] be no way he's not undefeated with all that talent he has around him. LaDainian Tomlinson? Oh, my goodness. Antonio Gates? Oh, my goodness. [Wideout] Chris Chambers? Oh, my goodness."
On the eve of the Tennessee game, The San Diego Union-Tribune identified Rivers as the "X factor." Turner was not amused. More than an hour after the win, for which he awarded Rivers the game ball, he stood in a parking lot outside the stadium and defended his quarterback. "They said he was the X factor," Turner said. "Well, [the Titans] were not going to let us run the ball, and he stepped up and played his ass off. He made the plays we needed him to make."
Rivers was more philosophical. "One thing I've learned is that all the quarterbacks in this league can throw," he said. "It's the guys who can handle a little adversity, handle the NFL Primetime guys analyzing them or the fans saying things, that last. If you let [critics] beat you up, it'll run you out of the league. You can't worry about it."
On Sunday, Rivers could not fall back on Tomlinson or Gates. The Titans' eight-man fronts kept Tomlinson in check (21 carries, 42 yards), and a first-half toe injury forced Gates from the game. Rivers didn't blink. He found Chambers six times for 121 yards and completed five passes to wide receiver Vincent Jackson for 114 yards and the touchdown that put the Chargers ahead 10--6 late in the third quarter. So much for forcing the quarterback to win the game.
"I don't think that strategy is going to change as long as [ Tomlinson] is playing here," said Rivers, who's 26--8 as a starter, including the playoffs. Probably not, and that's fine with Turner. He likes what he sees in his young quarterback, even if others don't.