INDIANAPOLIS – It was mid-March and each was searching for something.
Philip Rivers was looking for only his second NFL home after 16 prolific seasons on the West Coast, and an opportunity to prove the 16th season with the Chargers was an aberration and not an indication he should shuffle off into retirement.
The Indianapolis Colts were searching for an upgrade at quarterback. They loved everything about Jacoby Brissett – most notably his unique locker room/huddle presence and how he stepped in following Andrew Luck’s retirement two weeks before the 2019 season opener – but the 7-9 record and lack of play-making in the passing game were glaring.
They found each other. There was unanimity among the Colts’ decision-makers – owner Jim Irsay, general manager Chris Ballard, coach Frank Reich – that 38-year old Philip Rivers was worth a one-year, $25 million contract, and perhaps more. A return in 2021 always was the idea if ’20 went as planned.
Fast-forward to today.
We’re nine months into the Rivers era and it’s hard to imagine either Rivers or the Colts being in a better position – OK, the season-opening loss at Jacksonville still stings – as they head into Sunday’s rematch with the Houston Texans in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Indy is 9-4 and the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff picture.
Rivers? The now 39-year old QB1 became just the fifth player in NFL history to pass for at least 3,000 yards in 15 seasons (his 3,507 yards rank 9th). He’s completing 68.1% of his passes, which would be the 3rd-best of his career, with 20 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 97.4 passer rating.
Did we mention his new team is 9-4 and making a strong push for a playoff spot?
“I don’t know that I necessarily had an expectation of what it would be like Dec. 16,’’ Rivers said Wednesday on a Zoon conference call. “Certainly what you hoped going to a new place and having no idea how it was going to all pan out, and I think that’s still being determined.
“But to be in December and to have a chance to be playing meaningful football, I can definitely say – I don’t know if that was the expectation – that was certainly the hope and the desire to be in that position again, and here we are.
“Certainly excited about the opportunity ahead.’’
No one should place the Colts’ re-emergence as a viable playoff contender solely at the feet of Philip Rivers.
The defense is one of the NFL’s better units – 6th in fewest yards allowed, 5th against the run, 12th in scoring, 3rd in takeaways – and special teams is taking a backseat to no one. Rookie Rodrigo Blankenship ranks 3rd in scoring with a franchise-rookie record 116 points and backup safety George Odom is making a strong push for a Pro Bowl spot with a league-best 16 tackles.
But Rivers’ presence and impact are undeniable, and they’ve grown as the season has unfolded and each game has become more meaningful. Over the past eight games – the Colts are 6-2 – he’s thrown for 16 touchdowns with four interceptions and a 101.5 rating. And he’s dealt with a painful injury to his right big toe over the last three that routinely has limited his practice time.
Justin Houston’s relationship with Rivers began when he was the Kansas City Chiefs’ main pass-rush threat and Rivers was in his crosshairs twice a season.
No sooner had Rivers signed his free-agent deal with the Colts than Houston dispatched a text.
I believe in you. I believe you’ve got plenty left in the tank. Let’s go win.
Houston smiled when asked if Rivers has lived up to his expectations.
“Well, I think the record speaks for itself and I think his numbers speak for itself, so I don’t think I really need to say much about how he’s playing,’’ he said. “I think it shows.
“I think he’s playing great.’’
That’s always steered Rivers as the seasons have passed. It’s never been about piling up the years simply to see how high he could stack them.
“As long as you can contribute was probably more in my mind. As long as I woke up with a passion to do it,’’ he said. “I never wanted to just say, ‘Aw, I’m just going to play just to play and go to work,’ but not really enjoy the process. I enjoy the process.
“The other thought that I’ve had in the past five years – really knowing that I’m on the back-9 – is I don’t want to hang on. I don’t ever want to be the one who just plays and goes, ‘Well, maybe I can get another year. Maybe I can get another year.’ Just be hanging on.
“I don’t feel like I’m hanging on and I do feel like I still can contribute and I do wake up for the passion of the process.’’
That’s why if the Colts are able to complete their push for the playoffs and Rivers remains an offensive catalyst, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be back for 2021.
That was his stated intention, along with the team’s, back in March and “it really hasn’t changed,’’ Rivers said.
“Next year and those things will come when the time’s right.’’
One subplot to the successful Rivers/Indy connection that can’t be ignored is Reich’s role in it. More than anyone, he lobbied to bring a 38-year quarterback coming off a subpar season – 23 TDs, but 20 interceptions for a Chargers outfit that finished 5-11 – to Indy.
It’s not a stretch to insist his reputation was on the line. Does Reich feel a degree of validation?
“Has that thought gone through my mind? Yes, of course. I’m human,’’ he said. “I try not to think of that, and I really don’t think of it very much.
“I’m just happy for our team. I’m happy for Philip. Yeah, obviously he was the guy that I wanted, that Nick (Sirianni, offensive coordinator) wanted and that Chris wanted. We all looked at the options out there and Philip was the guy who all three of us wanted and, really, we just needed obviously.’’
Even when Rivers encountered a self-described hiccup at Cleveland – two interceptions, no touchdowns, a safety in a 32-23 loss – Reich’s confidence never wavered.
“I didn’t laugh, but there was never a doubt in my mind,’’ he said. “There has never been a doubt in my mind of the kind of football Philip Rivers is capable of playing and would play this year and has played. I had that much confidence in him, so it wasn’t a hard decision last year.
“Yeah, it’s putting your neck on the line for somebody, but OK, this is the kind of guy you want to put your neck on the line for.’’
“When he first came here I said Philip is more than capable, if he wants, has multiple years of good football in him,’’ Reich said. “I really believe that.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.