SAN DIEGO – The challenge was daunting: Defeat the best team in football, a green-and-gold-clad crew of talented, undefeated, still-hungry champions led by a nearly unstoppable quarterback.
Despite a valiant effort that included 385 passing yards and a near-comeback from a 21-point deficit with 10:27 remaining, the San Diego Chargers' struggling, overburdened quarterback face-planted near the finish line: With 33 seconds remaining in Sunday's 45-38 defeat to the Green Bay Packers at Qualcomm Stadium, Rivers dropped back and lofted a downfield duck that settled into the hands of a defender, an unnerving sensation he has experienced with greater frequency than any NFL passer in 2011.
After serving up a career-high three picks on Sunday, two of which were returned for first-quarter touchdowns, Rivers has thrown 14 interceptions – three more than any other NFL quarterback, and one more than he had in all of 2010. In fact, in five previous seasons as a starter, Rivers exceeded that total only once, getting picked off 15 times in 2007.
Relax, Chargers fans – that Leaf reference was just a joke. Rivers isn't close to that messed up, but he's absolutely going through the worst stretch of an otherwise stellar career.
"I'm not the first quarterback that's fought through this thing, and I certainly won't be the last," Rivers said shortly before leaving Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday evening. "You fight through a slump. A home-run hitter keeps swinging, and a 3-point shooter keeps shooting."
While the football world ponders the source of Rivers' rough patch – and it's a very valid question – I'm putting much of the culpability for the Chargers' continued descent into mediocrity on the organization's real heavy-hitter. Tell me this: Has anyone done more swinging and missing lately than general manager A.J. Smith, and isn't it time someone held him accountable for his declining batting average?
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Everyone seems to have a theory as to what's wrong with Rivers, from an unreported physical ailment (he swears he's perfectly healthy) to the sleep-disruption caused by the birth of his sixth child last month (zzzzzzz). And while it's always fashionable to blame Chargers coach Norv Turner for any of the team's failings, the truth is he's doing a commendable job under less-than-ideal conditions.
The same cannot be said of Turner's boss. Despite a three-game losing streak and zero impressive victories, San Diego (4-4) remains in a three-way tie with the Raiders and Chiefs for first place in the AFC West – but let's not confuse it with the elite team it used to be.
In terms of talent acquisition, and team-building in general, Smith is in as big a slump as his quarterback, perhaps even bigger.
Imagine you were the general manager of another NFL franchise, and you were given carte blanche to raid the Chargers' roster. How many of the 53 active players would you rush to put on your team?
Let me tell you how some of the GMs I've talked to recently would approach such a scenario: They'd grab Rivers, wideout Vincent Jackson(notes) (who had a monster game on Sunday, with seven receptions for 141 yards and three touchdowns), cornerback Quentin Jammer(notes), punter Mike Scifres(notes) and two players who didn't play against the Pack because of injuries, guard Kris Dielman(notes) and outside linebacker Shaun Phillips(notes).
No one else would likely generate more than lukewarm interest – not even perennial Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates(notes), who despite a good game against Green Bay's struggling secondary (eight catches, 96 yards, one TD) appears to be 31 going on 50, his ability to achieve separation curtailed by a persistent foot injury and some extra pounds.
"It's harsh to say, but he looks old and fat," one Chargers source said of Gates. "He's not beating people. We don't have any speed, we're soft on defense, and we put so much on our quarterback. When he was playing great, we could kind of get away with it. Now he's not playing very well, and it's all falling apart."
Smith's recent drafts have been alarmingly devoid of impact players, and if the idea has been to build a team around Rivers' skills (in conjunction with Turner's exceptional play-calling acumen), he's underperforming in that department as well.
The GM's ego hasn't helped: Jackson, a big-time receiver who should be a highly valued asset, has been jerked around, and it's not surprising that his play has been uneven in 2011. Smith has been more concerned with showing Jackson and his agents who's boss than either a) locking him up with a long-term deal or b) trading him and trying to find an equally potent target for Rivers.
As Gates' foot problems have become chronic, causing defenses to fear him less, Smith has yet to surround Rivers with at least a semi-legitimate replacement.
The running back situation is even more dubious. The Chargers held onto a declining LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) too long (in fairness to Smith, owner Dean Spanos deserves some of the blame for that), allowed future All-Pro Michael Turner(notes) to leave via free agency and ended up having to franchise diminutive scatback and return ace Darren Sproles(notes) before cutting him free after 2010, much to the delight of the Saints.
Smith tried to remedy the situation by trading up to select Jacob Hester(notes) in the third round of the 2008 draft. Viewed by Smith as a viable replacement for Turner, Hester wasn't remotely close. He remains on the roster as a fullback but is hardly a rushing threat.
Two years later Smith reached for Ryan Mathews, trading up 16 spots to select the former Fresno State runner with the 12th overall pick. Mathews has been oft-injured and fumble-prone; converted fullback Mike Tolbert(notes), an undrafted free agent in '08, is the team's top ballcarrier.
Meanwhile, a defense that once boasted studs like Shawne Merriman(notes), Steve Foley, Jamal Williams(notes) and Antonio Cromartie(notes) is bereft of playmakers and nastiness, putting even more pressure on Rivers to excel.
I'm not saying Smith doesn't know how to judge players – he has had his share of smart picks, most notably Rivers in '04 – and I do respect his strong principles and faith in his own methodology. That said, for all the criticism routinely thrown Norv Turner's way, why isn't Smith being scrutinized for his role in the team's decline?
Despite popular perception, San Diego is currently a middle-of-the-pack operation, nothing more. The Chargers went 9-7 last season and missed the playoffs, making them 13-11 in their past 24 games. If they didn't play in a division that has been among the league's least competitive over the past decade, their current predicament might seem a bit more dire.
Then again, this is San Diego, where the local paper serves as an enabler for mediocrity and thus helps facilitate the art of settling. Smith is rarely criticized and, at times, his faults are blatantly excused or rationalized. Though he has yet to build a team that has won even a conference championship, many locals probably believe he's the 21st century's answer to Bill Walsh, only more charming.
Imagine if Smith was in charge of a franchise in New York, or Philadelphia, or Dallas – do you think he'd possibly be getting a bit more heat, or might have to answer for his autocratic stubbornness once in awhile? I don't imagine he'd enjoy that hypothetical gig quite as much as his current one; in fact, there's a pretty good chance he'd have been forced to vacate it by now.
All of this brings us back to Rivers, whose normal standard of excellence covers up a lot of organizational warts, and who consequently has the weight of a dilapidated stadium on his shoulders.
What's the problem? Is it a physical issue? Rivers suffered a sternum injury in a Week 2 defeat to the Pats, and because he puts more of his body into throws than quarterbacks with stronger arms – which is to say most of them – some outsiders have speculated that this is the source of his problem. He swears his health is not a factor, however.
"It seems like everyone wants an answer," Rivers said. "I guess that's a compliment."
I tend to believe there's nothing physically or mechanically wrong, given that most of his passes on a high-volume afternoon (26-of-46, 385 yards, four TDs) seemed very well-thrown – though he did, admittedly, float the ball over the middle toward Jackson that Packers safety Charlie Peprah(notes) picked off at the Green Bay 18-yard line and returned 76 yards to the San Diego 6 with 14 seconds remaining.
That interception delighted about a third of the 68,908 paying customers at Qualcomm, as the large cheesehead contingent made itself heard throughout the game. There were jubilant cheers on back-to-back San Diego possessions late in the first quarter that ended with pick-6s: The first was a hard pass Rivers tried to force to Gates that bounced off the tight end's hands and into the arms of Peprah, who weaved 40 yards through a slew of half-hearted tackling efforts; two passes later, Rivers attempted an ill-advised sideline throw to Patrick Crayton(notes) that cornerback Tramon Williams(notes) jumped on and turned into a 43-yard score for a 21-7 lead.
Spotting the Packers (8-0) 14 points is like swinging through the In 'N' Out drive-through lane on the way to a hot-dog eating contest against Joey Chestnut. As Rivers is the first to attest, Aaron Rodgers(notes) is the current top dog among NFL passers. "I don't think it's even close," Rivers said.
It doesn't hurt that general manager Ted Thompson has surrounded Rodgers with a fresh-faced (the Packers had the Clay Matthews(notes), Greg Jennings(notes), Williams, B.J. Raji(notes)), underrated playmakers (Desmond Bishop(notes), Morgan Burnett(notes), Jordy Nelson(notes)) and meat-and-potatoes stalwarts (Scott Wells(notes), Jarius Wynn(notes), John Kuhn(notes)) everywhere Rodgers and defensive leader Charles Woodson(notes) turn.
Rivers should be jealous, not that he'd ever admit to that. He's too fierce of a competitor to put his problems on anyone else, and he's a relentless optimist, viewing Thursday night's showdown with the Raiders at Qualcomm as a slump-breaking opportunity that can launch the Chargers on yet another second-half, season-saving run.
As Rivers insisted in his postgame news conference, "I'm not frustrated one bit; I'm excited about the next challenge."
Turner, too, is keeping the faith. "I've never seen anything like this," the coach said. "We'll fight our way out of this. Philip will, because no one prepares any better. I can't express how he just fights back and competes. And it's not like he's being reckless. He's very much the same guy."
If so, Rivers is doing a pretty good imitation of a less precise, more mistake-prone guy – and it's clear that the Chargers aren't good enough to win with that dude.
My theory: Rivers knows this, and he's pressing, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that has 8-8 and 24 interceptions written all over it.
If Rivers is pressing, can you blame him?
Personally, I blame the guy who surrounded his quarterback with substandard talent, yet would have us believe it's all part of the plan.
If the Ravens sent a message in their season-opening 35-7 bludgeoning of the Steelers, their dramatic, 23-20 victory in Sunday night's rematch in Pittsburgh was more of an internal communiqué. Down four points in the closing minutes, fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco directed a 13-play, 92-yard touchdown drive that boosted his locker-room cred immensely, a not-insignificant development on a team where Ray Lewis(notes) and other big personalities on defense reign supreme. It seems Flacco finally has a viable deep threat in rookie wideout Torrey Smith(notes), who offset his unconscionable drop of a potential touchdown five plays earlier by beating cornerback William Gay(notes) down the right sideline for a 26-yard scoring grab with eight seconds remaining. The Ravens (6-2) are now tied with the Bengals atop the AFC North, half a game up on the Steelers (6-3). When Flacco plays like he did Sunday, Baltimore looks like the most well-rounded team in the conference. … Smith wasn't the only rookie who came up huge on Sunday. Falcons wideout Julio Jones(notes) finally had a breakout game, scoring prolific touchdowns of 50 and 80 yards in Atlanta's 31-7 thrashing of the winless Colts; halfback DeMarco Murray(notes) (22 carries, 139 yards; four catches, 47 yards) had another strong performance in Dallas' 23-13 victory over the Seahawks and looks like the Cowboys' most promising runner of the past several years; and Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson(notes) busted a 99-yard punt return against the Rams to give Arizona a 19-13 overtime victory. It was the second time a Peterson punt return has won a game for the Cards who, coincidentally, have won a grand total of two games in 2011 – with six defeats sandwiched between Peterson's heroics. "He's a beast, no question," says Arizona wideout Larry Fitzgerald(notes), who saw things like this coming from the moment Peterson was drafted fifth overall last April. … There's a huge game between NFC division leaders at Candlestick Park next Sunday, and I look forward to seeing the 49ers (7-1) and Giants (6-2) go at it the way they used to when Montana and L.T. and Simms and Lott were knocking heads and I was a young, fortunate beat writer who covered the Niners on a daily basis. While we all know Rodgers is headed for a runaway triumph in the MVP race, barring injury or a sudden spell of ineffectiveness, San Francisco and New York each has a guy who should at least be in the conversation: Niners halfback Frank Gore(notes) had his franchise-best fifth consecutive 100-yard rushing day in a 19-11 victory over the Redskins, and Giants quarterback Eli Manning(notes) (aka The Last Manning Standing) threw two touchdown passes in the final 3:03 to guide New York to a 24-20 road upset of the Patriots, his fifth fourth-quarter comeback triumph of the season. … The Dolphins are among the most dysfunctional franchises in football, a reality reinforced by a pair of eye-opening reports by NFL.com writer Jeff Darlington on Sunday. And yet: Miami (1-7) finally won a game, rolling to a 31-3 road victory over the Chiefs in which wideout Brandon Marshall(notes) – who earlier this week chucked a football into the face of apparently hungover teammate Vontae Davis(notes) – caught eight passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. … Finally, congratulations to Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow(notes) for bouncing back from last week's atrocious performance against the Lions in Denver's 38-24 upset of the Raiders – and for indirectly helping one of my columns get love from Bill Maher in the ever-incisive New Rules segment of Friday's "Real Time" episode on HBO.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The Penn State sexual abuse scandal. It's so reprehensible, on so many levels. And that's something that a certain legendary coach should have been able to see a long time ago, even without his Coke-bottle glasses.
2. The precipitous, ridiculous demise of Peyton Hillis' relationship with the Browns. As I wrote on Friday, and as the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot later detailed, Hillis has alienated teammates and management with his actions this season as he dwells on the organization's unwillingness to give him the big-money contract he believes he deserves. And it's quite possible Hillis – Cleveland's first sports star of the post-LeBron James era – has played his last game with the franchise. On Sunday, Hillis missed his third consecutive game with the hamstring injury he aggravated in practice Friday, a 30-12 road defeat to the Texans, and I believe that the Browns' powers that be (president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur) have already made a psychic break and have stopped planning for his return. Don't be surprised if Hillis is placed on injured reserve as early as this week and allowed to leave as a free agent after the 2011 season.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Losing is a lousy feeling. Confronting criticism of one of your children is even less appealing than losing. Yet if you are the vice chairman of an NFL franchise – and someone who has promoted his son to the position of general manager, and whose team has the worst record in football – you should probably develop an ability to absorb said criticism without sounding like a cross between Tony Soprano and Tommy DeVito from "Goodfellas." In that regard the Colts' accomplished talent guru Bill Polian has some serious work to do. After highly respected Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz examined the role of Polian's son, Chris, in creating 0-9 Indy's current predicament (with numerous unnamed sources describing the younger Polian as a "toxic force who has brought this franchise to its knees for reasons other than Peyton Manning's(notes) injury"), Daddy Polian classed it up in an interview with the team's radio announcer following Sunday's defeat to the Falcons. "Some people are just rats who lie about people," Polian said, in what I'd guess was a shot at Kravitz, his sources or all of the above. The team's job, Polian continued, is to "throw the rats in the sewer." Riiiiiiggggghhhhttt. Or, perhaps, the team's job is to avoid complete embarrassment in the wake of an injury to a single player, to draft and develop players more successfully than they have in recent years, and/or to be a little less Stalinist in its public presentation. Then again, maybe Kravitz and the ex-Colts employees who believe Chris Polian slid into his GM job because of his surname are getting off easy by being compared to rodents. When the elder Polian gets really mad, people have been known to become closely acquainted with stadium walls. My favorite Polian story: I'm told he once became angered by the presence of non-team employees in the dining hall at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, where the Colts held their training camp from 1999-2009, and demanded that they leave. He was informed that one of the offending intruders was the dean of the school. Polian was unmoved and had the dean booted. The dean! Speaking of deans, I wish owner Jimmy Irsay would put his vice chairman on double-secret probation, but I'm not holding my breath.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"You know it … what?"
– Text from Cal field hockey coach Shellie Onstead, quoting the opening words of the "Bear Territory" cheer, after her 16th-ranked team's 1-0 victory at No. 6 Stanford gave the Bears the NorPac conference title and the right to host Tuesday's play-in game against Richmond for an NCAA tournament berth.
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