SAN DIEGO – Chris Chambers was at fellow wideout and St. Louis Ram Torry Holt's charity banquet in North Carolina earlier this spring when the San Diego Chargers' key 2007 midseason acquisition suddenly found himself in press coverage. Confronting Chambers was Dré Bly, the veteran cornerback who plays for the Denver Broncos and does not have fond memories of his most recent encounter with the AFC West rival Chargers.
"Why is your quarterback always talking so much mess?" Bly asked Chambers. "Nobody in the league likes that guy."
Chambers smiled and replied, "That's y'all's prerogative. But we love him."
For all of the reasons to celebrate Philip Rivers – his emergence as a Pro Bowl passer in his first year as a starter, his impeccable off-the-field behavior, his exceptionally gutsy effort in last year's AFC Championship game after having torn his anterior cruciate ligament the week before – the fifth-year quarterback heads into the 2008 season as a 6-foot-5, 228-pound target. His well-documented fits of yapping at opposing players and fans has incurred the ire of countless others besides Bly. One veteran defensive back calls Rivers "the most obnoxious dude in the NFL."
Simply put, Rivers' mouth gets more attention than his arm. And thanks to the magic of 24-hour NFL television coverage and readily accessible Internet video, some of his more conspicuous displays of verbal instigation are there for public consumption in a way that, say, infamous Chargers washout Ryan Leaf never experienced.
"When you see it on TV, I'll be the first one to agree, it doesn't look that good," Rivers said Wednesday from the Chargers' training facility. "But there's nothing I say out there that I couldn't tell my six-year-old daughter. I don't curse, and I'm not saying anything out of line at all."
Rivers shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and waited for the inevitable follow-up question. An accessible and engaging interview subject, he typically becomes frustrated when asked to explain his penchant for talking smack, especially when the subject starts to dwarf the elements of his game he holds dearest. There he was on Wednesday, having fully participated in the Chargers' second-to-last offseason coaching session before training camp less than five months after having undergone major reconstructive knee surgery, a recovery that so far has been stunningly smooth and rapid.
"If I had to play a game this Sunday," he insisted, "I could."
That, of course, was the real story. But do a word-association game with the typical NFL fan – or player – outside of San Diego County, and Rivers is likely to provoke a far less complimentary response than courageous or heroic.
Both words applied last January in frigid Foxborough, Mass., where Rivers summoned what seemed to be a medical miracle. Having torn the ACL in his right knee in the Chargers' divisional playoff upset of the defending champion Colts in Indy, Rivers had an arthroscopic procedure to clean out the area the following day and set his sights on playing in the AFC Championship game six days later. With the knee heavily taped underneath a stabilizing brace, Rivers braved the 23-degree temperature (and a wind chill of nine degrees) at Gillette Stadium and hung tough against the undefeated Patriots, completing 19 of 37 passes for 211 yards in a 21-12 defeat.
That effort elevated Rivers in the eyes of his teammates, who already appreciated him for his intelligence and cool under fire. "That he played at all was amazing," Chambers says. "He really proved a lot."
It was a defining moment for Rivers, the No. 4 overall pick in the '04 draft who sat for two seasons as Drew Brees' understudy before taking over as the starter. He played well enough in '06 to make the Pro Bowl but wilted down the stretch as the top-seeded Chargers flopped in their playoff opener against the Pats. Last season, conversely, Rivers was shaky early on as he tried to adjust to new coach Norv Turner's offensive system. But in leading the Chargers to victories in their final six regular season games and first two playoff contests, Rivers completed 133 of 214 passes (62.1 percent) for 1,656 yards, throwing 14 touchdowns and only five interceptions for a cumulative passer rating of 98.2.
Clearly, he had the hot hand. But, as his critics are quick to point out, Rivers tends to come off like a hothead. Some examples:
• After the home playoff defeat to the Pats in January of '07, Rivers, angered by what he felt were taunting celebrations by New England players, approached cornerback Ellis Hobbs and called him "the sorriest corner in the league."
• When the Chargers were booed at home in Week 12 against the Baltimore Ravens, cameras caught Rivers gesturing to San Diego fans and saying "Shut up!" In the regular season finale, he got into it with Raiders fans in Oakland. He also jawed at Colts fans in the playoff game at the RCA Dome, telling them "I'll be back" while heading to the locker room after hurting his knee.
• He had several shouting matches with All-Pro halfback LaDainian Tomlinson on the sidelines, including an oft-replayed tiff during the Chargers' pivotal victory over the Titans in Nashville last December.
• Most notoriously, Rivers walked onto the field to taunt Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler after a Chargers defensive stand late in San Diego's 23-3 victory, an incident that undoubtedly helped shape Bly's unfavorable opinion.
All of which has Rivers, a married father of four who teammates describe as a clean-living homebody, wondering how so many outsiders can be so mistaken about him. Citing Brett Favre's celebrated on-field woofing with Warren Sapp – "Though obviously those guys have earned the right to say whatever they want," Rivers qualifies – he insists that everything he says is in the spirit of good, clean fun.
"You want to make a good impression with the public, and I agree that it's a fine line between playing with emotion and taking things too far," Rivers says. "But I'm not doing it to get attention or for any reason other than to have a good time. If we can't have fun playing the game, then I don't want to play. I really don't. If we have to tone down the emotions to the point where it's no fun, that's just silly."
To his credit, Rivers resists all efforts to play up his improbable effort in the AFC Championship game. This is yet another indication that Rivers, the son of an Alabama high school football coach, doesn't possess the prima donna tendencies expected of him by many of his critics.
"There were a couple of times when the knee buckled (against the Patriots) and I had to catch myself, but I didn't feel like there was any throw I made the whole game that was affected by the knee," he says. "I liked all the compliments I got from my teammates, and I know things like that help you gain respect. But we didn't win, which was the purpose of my playing in the first place.
"The bottom line is: It ain't gonna last forever. Two years from now, people aren't gonna say, 'Oh, he played with a torn ACL, let's give him a free pass.' "
Rivers had reconstructive surgery three days after the New England game, then watched as Eli Manning – the quarterback for whom he was traded on draft day – reinvented himself by leading the Giants to a shocking Super Bowl XLII upset of the Pats. Though it might sound like sacrilege in San Diego, where Manning is reviled for having told the Chargers he wouldn't play for them before the '04 draft, Rivers openly rooted for Peyton's oft-criticized kid brother to beat New England.
"I really was pulling for Eli," Rivers says. "We will always be linked, and I think (the trade) worked out for both of us. I was glad he won a championship, and that's something we can do, too. We're proud of what we accomplished last year, but now anything short of winning it all will be disappointing."
Though Rivers insists he won't curb his enthusiasm, he does plan to make one behavioral modification. "Looking back at the way some of the stuff went down, I may cut out talking to the fans," he says. "I agree that it doesn't look good, and I can probably better direct my energies elsewhere."
Whether Rivers can stick to that plan remains to be seen. Says Chambers: "He'll probably calm down from a little bit of that stuff, but when he gets emotional, I don't see him backing down anytime soon. Guys from all over the league are always telling me, 'I don't like your quarterback,' but personally I like a gutsy, fiery guy – he gets me going.
"He holds no punches, whether he's talking to our guys or guys on (the opposing) defense. It rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But we know him. We know what he's about inside. And that's the guy we want leading our team."
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
When Tim Donaghy gets to jail, he'll be praying that there are no Sacramento Kings fans in his cell block. … Spain, international soccer's biggest tease, will continue to look a lot better in Euro 2008 group play than it will once it reaches the elimination round. … The next time I'm asked to plan a bachelor party, I'll be hitting up Jerry Jones to see if he'd be willing to rent out the Cowboys' new stadium.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. I think Texas Rangers outfielder Milton Bradley is about as solid upstairs as a maple bat (unless, of course, he happens to be reading this in my immediate vicinity, in which case I think he's a perfectly well-adjusted young man who is a real asset to his team).
3. In an effort to reward his supporting cast for helping him reach the NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant purchased Mangroomers for Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Has any thoroughbred ever lived up to his name the way a certain Triple Crown candidate did last Saturday in the Belmont? I haven't written headlines since college, but my choice for this particular occasion might well have been, "Big Brown? Flush It Down." And yes, Rick Dutrow, that was for you. How obnoxious does a human have to be for people to start detesting his horse?
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
My father, Steve, who'll be joining me on our annual training camp tour this August; my father-in-law, Larry Goyette, who'll be helping me pitch a tent in July; and for all the other dads out there who'll be feeling some well-deserved love from their families Sunday. (And yes, obviously, you moms are even cooler. Duh.)
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
Peruvian president insults soccer
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
After the Los Angeles Lakers dropped the first two games of the NBA Finals in Boston, Phil Jackson was anything but Zen in his postgame news conference. Here, courtesy of our imaginary spies on the team bus to Logan Airport later that night, is the L.A. coach's private lament – to the tune of Bush's "Everything Zen." (After Thursday night, he's singing a rewritten version of Led Zeppelin's "In My Time Of Dying" … but I digress.)
There must be something we can eat
Maybe find some bottled water
Should I fly to Los Angeles
Find my owner's daughter
Leon Powe is now Leon' Pow'
Shooting free throws again
Paul Pierce's misses get whistled
They're tryin' to kill Kobe's game
Try to see it once my way
I don't think so
You make me long for Tim Donaghy
A 10th title at stake
They took care of us in that cow-town
Called Vlade's flops in the paint
There's no fixin' your finals
There's no fixin' your finals
But try to tilt it toward L.A.
I don't think so
I don't believe that Pierce is Willis
I don't believe that Pierce is Willis
I don't believe that Pierce is like Willis Reed
There's no fixin' your finals