TO UNDERSTAND WHY SAN DIEGO'S PHILIP RIVERS IS THIS YEAR'S MUST-HAVE QUARTERBACK, SIMPLY THINK ABOUT WHAT HE DID LAST SEASON. WAIT, CHECK THAT. DON'T THINK ABOUT WHAT HE DID. THINK ABOUT HOW HE DID IT. RIVERS THREW for a league-high 4,710 yards and ranked fifth with 30 touchdowns despite directing a Chargers offense that faced a decade's worth of adversity. Left tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson combined to miss 16 games (15 because of contract disputes, one due to a calf injury to Jackson). Running back Ryan Mathews, the rookie first-round choice whom San Diego selected 12th overall after trading up 16 spots, sat out four games with an ankle sprain that was as problematic as his five fumbles (three lost). Tight end Antonio Gates, who had nine touchdowns in the first eight games, missed six of the final eight weeks because of a foot injury. And Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee, the projected No. 2 and 3 receivers, combined to lose 11 games because of injuries.
If Rivers can thrive under those conditions, imagine the possibilities with a healthy lineup and a fifth year under coach Norv Turner, whose scheming and play calling have made the former N.C. State star a statistical monster the past four seasons. During that time Rivers ranks second in completions of at least 25 yards (130), third in passing yards (16,125) and fourth in touchdown passes (113). Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are the only other quarterbacks who rank in the top four in each of those categories.
With Jackson and Floyd—both free agents in the off-season—back in Chargers blue, San Diego and Rivers could be even more explosive because of the versatility of the base personnel. "When we play teams that are in a straight 3--4 defense, and we're in '21' [two backs, one tight end] personnel, we'll have so many options," says Rivers. "Having a fullback like Jacob Hester, who can catch it and run, and backs like Mike Tolbert and Mathews, who can catch it and run, allows you to do a lot of things from your base personnel. And obviously with Gates, he can line up at wide receiver. I think that's where we grew the most last year—our ability to run our whole offense from base personnel."
Here is the dilemma for fantasy owners: If the Chargers upgrade their defense (which could mean fewer fourth-quarter deficits) and continue to improve their running game (which climbed from 31st to 15th last year), will that mean a drop-off in production for Rivers?
"It's funny," he says. "When you think about leading the league in passing yards, I don't know if that's when we are at our best. At the same time, if you're getting a bunch of yards throwing it, it means you're moving the ball up and down the field, and it does take yards to score points. We were also right there at the top in scoring. I think it's a yes and no. We're better when there's balance, which we tried to achieve, but we got ourselves behind in games, and you can't be balanced when time is going to run out on you and you need a score."
Likely scenario: Rivers's passing yards decrease in 2011, but his touchdown totals climb. Much of that could depend on the running game, because if defenses have to drop a safety into the box, Rivers's play-action prowess and accuracy will make him unstoppable around the goal line.