In an Alabama twang that's as noticeable as his quirky shot-put throwing motion, Rivers points out that it took both Brees and Peyton Manning nine years to win a ring, and that John Elway didn't get his first until his 15th NFL season. But as much as he preaches patience and perseverance, he makes no secret that losing eats at him.
His parents, Steve and Joan, were both athletes growing up in Alabama, and Rivers inherited their fiery spirit. He treats practice with the same single-mindedness he does games, to the point where he gets upset with himself over incompletions during warmups. "You're throwing against air," he says. "You should complete every ball."
His competitiveness has occasionally taken the form of trash talk—Rivers famously got into it with Jay Cutler, then of the Broncos, in a 2007 game, and with fans in Indianapolis during a Chargers playoff win in January 2008. But those who know him well say his prickly reputation is inaccurate. He's a country kid who married his middle school sweetheart, a father of six who doesn't curse and who preaches the virtues of abstinence until marriage. Rivers himself has characterized his on-field yapping as good-natured and innocent.
But can a player driven by competitiveness really be O.K. with being two-upped by the QBs selected immediately before and after him in his draft class, and one-upped by the signal-caller whom he replaced? Can the journey really be as enriching as the destination?
"Let me tell you right now, he's going to say the politically correct things because that's what you have to do as a player," says retired fullback Lorenzo Neal, who teamed with Rivers for four seasons. "But Philip Rivers is burning inside. Ben Roethlisberger has gone to three Super Bowls and won two. Eli Manning has gone to two Super Bowls and won both. Philip hasn't been there—and the Giants didn't have half the talent the Chargers did [at one point]. So Philip Rivers as just a leader and a quarterback, if that's what he's selling, I'm not buying. He's a competitor. You see him on the field, how animated he is, how frustrated he gets. He wants to win a Super Bowl, trust me. This is his legacy."
"Philip knew when he came out of the draft there were going to be two guys he would be compared to, and that's Eli and Ben," says former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "He can say [their Super Bowl success] doesn't matter and he's not worrying about that. But it does. Obviously his career isn't over, but you can make the argument that it's been a disappointment so far."
When Norv Turner interviewed for the Chargers' head-coaching job in 2007, he stressed the importance of developing Rivers. Football was evolving at warp speed, and Rivers, according to Turner, would have to raise his game for the franchise to have a shot at a championship.
Upon getting the job, Turner began shifting the offense from a ground-based attack led by Tomlinson, the league MVP in 2006, to a vertical passing scheme. Over the next five years Rivers put up passing numbers unlike any the franchise had seen, even in the days of Dan Fouts—who, it's worth noting, did not play in a Super Bowl either—and the Air Coryell offense.
Rivers acknowledges a heightened sense of urgency. Last year he threw a career-high 20 interceptions, third most in the league, prompting questions as to whether he had an undisclosed injury. He didn't; Rivers was simply pressing to make plays, often throwing into double or triple coverage. This season he got off to his worst four-game stretch to open a season since 2007—his 897 yards passing were 127 fewer than his previous low since then. There were reasons for the drop-off: San Diego started an undrafted rookie, Mike Harris, at left tackle for three games because of a back injury to Jared Gaither; double-digit second-half leads against Oakland, Tennessee and Kansas City limited the need to throw; and Turner wanted his offense to become more balanced. But as the loss to the Saints showed, the Chargers need Rivers to be at his very best if they're to keep up with the game's high-powered offenses. He had his most productive outing of the year against the Saints—27 of 42 for 354 yards, two TDs and an interception—but Brees (29 of 45, 370 yards, four TDs, one pick) was just a bit better.
Rivers's signature playoff game to this point is the AFC title matchup with the Patriots in Foxborough in January 2008—the same week he had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his knee. Whether the Chargers would have beaten the Patriots that blustery afternoon had Rivers (and a hobbling Tomlinson) been at 100% is conjecture. What is not is his failure to put his team on his back and lead it to a memorable postseason victory.