D.A.: Is Philip Rivers' Dwindling Career Hall Of Fame Worthy? 

Rivers has had a good career, D.A. says, but that doesn't mean he belongs in Canton

Damon Amendolara
November 22, 2019 - 1:17 pm
Philip Rivers Chargers

USA Today Images

The career of Philip Rivers is the NFL's Rorschach test. What you see in the inkblot of his career tells the researcher plenty about you. Do you view longevity and sustained success as the definition of greatness? Or do you look for higher peaks, moments where the subject climbs the ultimate mountaintop? Rivers' career is coming to a close soon, and it seems as though no can can quite agree on whether he belongs in Canton. 

The Chargers quarterback picked a hell of a month to throw his team directly into the abyss. Los Angeles' 12-4 record in '18 landed them in late-season prime-time matchups this year, and Rivers has been a mess in them. Three weeks ago, the Bolts visited the Black Hole for one final time. Rivers had played 15 times in Oakland over the course of his career, and his send-off was a doozy. Trailing 26-24 with just over a minute to go, he got the ball at the 25-yard line with all three timeouts left. Rivers only needed a field goal, yet began chucking balls as far as he could see like Uncle Rico trying to hit those mountains over there. He tossed three consecutive incompletions, and on 4th-and-10 missed one more time. He was bailed out by defensive holding on the Raiders giving him a fresh set of downs. Three consecutive incompletions later (sound familiar?), Rivers set up on 4th-and-10. He tossed one indiscriminately downfield where it was intercepted for the third time. Game over. Seven plays, seven incompletions, five yards, no timeouts taken. This is called the "Inverse Tom Brady." See ya, Oakland Coliseum.

Monday night Rivers was back at his old tricks. The Chargers desperately needed a win over the Chiefs in Mexico City to keep their hopes alive for a playoff spot. At 4-6 a loss would extinguish any postseason dreams before Thanksgiving. L.A. trailed 24-17 to begin the fourth quarter, needing a touchdown drive to save the season. Four plays, 15 yards later the Chargers punted. This same scenario played out three more times as the Chargers defense valiantly held the Chiefs from going up two scores. With 8:00 to play, Rivers went three-and-out, needing to punt away again. With 4:00 to go, Rivers again went three-and-out with an interception on third down. The Chargers got the ball back yet again, this time with just :90 to play. Rivers actually completed a 50-yard prayer as the Chiefs defense fell down and Mike Williams made an extraordinary play. But with :18 to go and just 14 yards from paydirt, Rivers underthrew his open receiver in the end zone. The potential tying touchdown was intercepted, his fourth pick of the night, and the season was over. 

It's unfair to judge a quarterback's career based on two games at 37 years old, but unfortunately these reek of Rivers' resume as a whole. He has been named to eight Pro Bowls, led the league in passing yards and touchdowns, and has been the face of the franchise for a decade. But he has never played in a Super Bowl, with poorly timed interceptions and underwhelming performances in critical situations popping up far too often. After his disastrous final series against the Chiefs, I cited three terrible plays as a symbol of why he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. This has been Rivers' career, jittery and flailing in big spots, his emotion and indiscretion bubbling over into terrible decisions. It was mostly a jab at the announcers who like to tag anyone in the zip code of Canton to help hype their game. But I didn't realize how many people consider him a Hall of Famer, or tried to use Eli Manning's debatable resume to support Rivers. 

I got into a good argument with my friend, Will Brinson, NFL senior writer for CBSSports.com, on my show. Why does he believe Rivers is a Hall of Fame player if he's never led his team to the Super Bowl, and played in only one AFC Championship Game? Brinson pointed to the misfortune of playing in the same conference as Brady and Peyton Manning for all of these years. That's fair to a certain degree. In Rivers' six trips to the playoffs, he was eliminated by Brady or Manning's teams four times (three by the Pats, one by the Broncos). But he also had some stinkers in the playoffs where his team carried him to a win, like Wild Card weekend against Peyton's Colts in '09 when Rivers threw for 217 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Peyton never touched the ball in OT. There was his brutal effort in '14 against the Bengals, a 12-16 for 128 yards clunker. Rivers had a 160-yard, zero touchdown output against the Ravens last January. Those clunkers account for three of his five playoff victories. 

Rivers had a really good career, and anyone would be thankful to have enjoyed his success. He's been a starting quarterback for a playoff-caliber team for most of his 15 years. He's been one of the top signal-callers in the AFC. He's been a fiery leader who most of his teammates wanted to play for. But I often wonder how that emotional personality swayed how people thought of him. Football fans gripe at players bouncing around the league via free agency, pocketing tens of millions of dollars to play for whoever opens up the wallet. Cynics see players that lack the outward burning desire to win at all costs. Rivers seems like he really, really cares. He's also been with one team for a decade-and-a-half, a reality that's extremely rare now. Fans and media love the comfort of one-team guys, something that harkens back to a time before free agency. If Rivers played five years with the Chargers, another five with the Texans, and his final five with the Bears, would people remember him as fondly? 

The fact is Rivers is no better than the sixth-best QB of his generation. And isn't the Hall of Fame to distinguish the good from the great? Canton establishes the very best ever to do it, drawing the line between successful and immortal. If we look at Rivers’ tenure (’04-’19), here are the quarterbacks who played the bulk of their career during that span and were objectively better: Brady, Peyton, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger. You may argue that Big Ben had a better organization and supporting cast than Rivers, but he also has two rings and three Super Bowl appearances. He did far more with that cast than Rivers did with his. Also, it wasn't like Rivers was left shaking a Salvation Army bell outside the huddle. He will have played with two offensive Hall of Famers in their prime, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. 

Eli seems to be a flashpoint for the Rivers debate. Many people who consider Rivers to be a Hall of Famer believe it's because he was far better than Eli. But Rivers has thrown for only 1,200 more yards than Eli. He's thrown for 25 more touchdowns. He's gone to eight Pro Bowls compared to Eli's four. But Eli has eight playoff wins to Rivers' five. Oh, and there's those two Super Bowl runs where Eli played his best football in the most important games of his life. For those arguing Rivers would have won those championships (and more) with the Giants, I'd disagree. Rivers' hotheadedness, and "just-keep-chucking" mentality wouldn't have played well in the fishbowl of New York. His shtick would've been torn apart by fans and media. Eli's humdrum, even-keel, "nothing-fazes-me" attitude was the greatest tool in his survival kit in the Big Apple. 

I'd be fine if neither Eli nor Rivers gets into the Hall of Fame. It's difficult for me to think there were seven Hall of Fame quarterbacks playing at their peak about a decade ago. That's almost a quarter of the league. And if we're looking at the career yardage and touchdown stats (Rivers, Ben and Eli are already in the top 10), watch out for Matt Ryan and Matt Stafford. They're both closing in on the same benchmarks and you'd be laughed out of the room if you called them Hall of Famers. The rules have all been manipulated to help the offenses and the quarterbacks, so passing numbers need to be contextualized. Are we arguing Rivers into Canton because he put up good stats? Because we could count on him starting under center every Sunday for the same team? Because he was a really good quarterback who had the misfortune of playing during the brilliance of his peers? Or are we considering him truly one of the greatest ever, which is what the Hall of Fame symbolizes? Rivers has thrown the Chargers out of the playoffs, yet this does not define his career. It merely reminds us what so much of his career has already been defined by. 

Damon Amendolara, known by his fans as D.A., hosts “The D.A. Show,” from 9:00AM-12:00PM, ET, across the country on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. “The D.A. Show” is known for its unique perspective on sports, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, colorful listener interaction, and candid interviews with athletes and coaches. Amendolara also appears regularly on NFL Network as part of the “NFL Top 10” documentary film series, CBS television and SNY TV. He is a Syracuse University grad and native of Warwick, N.Y.